I've always been puzzled by why more companies don't sponsor cycling teams. The audience is relatively engaged and affluent and the medium is far closer to content marketing -- providing helpful, useful, interesting content that draws people to you -- than advertising, which is at best ignored and at worst annoying.

For example, Coca-Cola is the "official soft drink" of the Washington Redskins. That gives Coke the exclusive soft drink rights within the stadium, place signage, and occupy a small square of real estate on the Redskins home page. In short, their sponsorship is purely an advertising play. The team isn't called the Coca-Cola Redskins. The Coke logo doesn't appear on jerseys.

Contrast that with cycling. For over a century cycling teams have been known by the name of their sponsor. Ask who reigning Tour de France champion Chris Froome rides for and cycling fans say, "Team Sky."

Sky, of course, being the British telecommunications giant.

The same is true for the Cannondale-Drapac Pro Cycling, the team founded and directed by Jonathan Vaughters, a former professional cyclist. (Cannondale is a bicycle manufacturer and Drapac Capital Partners is a property funds management business.) Cannondale-Drapac is owned by Slipstream Sports, but no one refers to the team that way: not television announcers, not reporters, not fans -- no one.

And that means, during the Tour de France alone, the 12 million people who attend the Tour, and the hundreds of millions of viewers in 190 countries, will all see and hear and, in the U.S. at least, root for "Cannondale-Drapac."

Of course you could counter that football is a more popular sport. And it is. But where marketing is concerned, targeting the right audience is everything.

Brand identification is huge in cycling. That's why some cycling teams are sponsored by bike and component manufacturers; if you're an Andrew Talansky or Taylor Phinney fan, you may ride a Cannondale bike. And you may wear a Cannondale-Drapac jersey when you go for a ride.

And then there's the audience. Go to any Gran Fondo or triathlon and it seems every other person you meet is a doctor, lawyer, or executive: 63 percent of U.S. recreational cyclists are professional managers, 90 percent have attended college, and 39 percent have post-grad degrees.

Cycling enthusiasts have money to spend. And they're really into cycling. And fitness. And nutrition. And gear. And personal performance. Most cyclists I know are Type-A to an almost irritating degree. (Hi, Phil!)

Still, sponsors are tough to come by -- even for a team like Cannondale-Drapac, the most successful U.S. based team of the last decade. Vaughters' team competes at a high level yet operates on a budget that is a fraction of the resources enjoyed by teams like Sky and BMC. (Think of Cannondale-Drapac as the Moneyball of professional cycling.)

And even though cycling sponsorships offer a unique opportunity.

"The content aspect of partnering with a cycling team is huge," Vaughters says. "Let's say you're a large-scale media company. If you sponsor a team, apart from the natural exposure, you also receive 365 days of unfettered, behind the scenes content: Stories of international athletes, competing in international events, in great places, doing cool stuff... content generation can be huge in our sport. The racing itself is incredibly interesting, but the behind the scenes stories are even more interesting to all the people who ride themselves. How you become a pro cyclist, how the sport works, how you train, what you eat... there's really no content capture that brings all that to light -- yet there's a built-in audience hungry for that kind of engagement."

The content piece, of course, is a separate layer from the brand exposure.

"For most sporting events -- or any other programming -- it's almost impossible to do product placement," Vaughters says. "The vast majority of placement just doesn't feel genuine. In cycling, with its long history of teams being named after sponsors, that's what fans expect. That makes their brand loyalty 100 percent to Cannondale, or Quick-Step, or Movistar... it's completely natural to cheer for a commercial brand."

Cycling sponsorships can also allow, say, a media company to commandeer other outlets' programming.

In 2014, Vaughters tried to land Netflix as the team's title sponsor. The timing seemed perfect: Netflix was launching its European branding campaign and millions of Europeans -- as well as millions more around the world -- would have been exposed to Netflix on a seemingly non-stop video and media loop.

Ultimately, Vaughters says, Netflix decided not to sign on because the company felt anyone watching the Tour de France would not, at that moment, be watching Netflix.

"My argument," Vaughters says, "was that you're basically hijacking another channel's programming. That channel paid for the media rights to the Tour de France. You didn't... and yet you become the story. You indirectly purchase the content of the event, something that can't be done in any other sport or, really, any other advertising format."

It make sense. If you are, say, Verizon, you may not have paid for the streaming rights for the Tour de France (or some other event)... but for three or four hours a day, people see and hear "Verizon" hundreds of times. And even if a Sprint ad plays during a commercial breaks -- who watches commercials? If you're engaged in the race, you're engaged in the content.

Other than during the Super Bowl, who is engaged by ads?

"The tendency is still to think about selling eyeballs," Vaughters says, "but it's not just about eyeballs. It's about whether the person watching the race or consuming content was actually engaged -- and when it's about a sport or an athlete, they're engaged."

That's especially true if a chunk of your customers are millennials; cycling is a sport that combines competitive, environmental, and social aspects -- and is not only participatory in nature, its growth continues to explode, both among enthusiasts and people seeking a greener and more convenient alternative to cars.

I'm biased since I love cycling... but if I ran a company that seeks to engage customers in a natural and unforced way and provide them with content that pulled, rather than pushing ads -- and potentially pushing customers away -- I would look hard at sponsoring a cycling team.

I feel sure Jonathan would take your call.

Published on: May 26, 2017
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