The Tour of Britain was dead and buried 17 years ago when a title sponsor withdrew its support, but the emergence of a new generation of British cycling heroes has helped it emerge from the ashes. Ben Cronin reports.
The popularity of cycling in Britain and of its premier event on the UCI calendar, the Tour of Britain, proves that success of a country’s riders in the top events is the biggest catalyst for growing public interest in the sport and developing new properties around it.
The relative prosperity of the Tour of Britain now is all the more impressive given that it didn’t really exist as a going business concern as recently as 12 years ago. When life insurance firm The Prudential pulled its sponsorship of the Tour in 1999, the country’s principal cycling event went into hibernation for five years before being brought back to life by the SweetSpot Group.
“We started the Tour of Britain in 2004, at which stage it was a five-day race and, to be frank, it was a niche event in a niche sport,” says Alastair Grant, the group’s commercial director. “Since 2004 many things have happened in British cycling which have transformed the sport and the event.
“We now have the best team in the world in terms of Team Sky, British Tour de France winners and people have taken up cycling in their millions in this country.”
This was reflected in the 250,000-strong crowd who lined the streets of London in the second week of September to watch some of the sport’s biggest names compete in the final stage of the race on the streets of the British capital.
“It will never be a Grand Tour,” says Grant. “There are three established Tours that have 100 years of heritage, but our vision for this race is just below those races in terms of its prestige.”
The Tour’s following on social media, which Grant claims is the fourth largest of the world’s major cycling events, bears testimony to its standing. This is also reflected in increased coverage of the event on free-to-air and pay TV. The event was shown live for the first time on ITV4 in 2012, the year after Bradley Wiggins became the first Briton to win the Tour de France.
There is room in the contract for a pay-TV broadcaster, a position which Eurosport took up from 2012-2015. In 2016 the Bike Channel won these rights in the UK, with Eurosport broadcasting across their pan-Asia/Pacific regions. SweetSpot is also working with IMG to maximise international broadcast of the event.
“These properties would be less attractive if there wasn’t any British rider challenging for the title,” says ITV Network controller of legal and business affairs, Sport & Drama, Tom Graham.
ITV4 now broadcasts three SweetSpot events in the shape of the men’s Tour Series and the Women’s Tour, the sister event to the Tour of Britain that has grown into the leading stage race in women’s cycling. These events sit alongside the Tour de France, the Vuelta a España and the Critérium du Dauphiné in the broadcaster’s burgeoning cycling portfolio.
Graham says increased audiences for its coverage and the cycling brand prove an attractive proposition.
“I think that because of the family appeal of cycling and also the fact that the profile of the typical sports fan is quite upmarket, sponsors and advertisers are looking to reach that audience,” he says. “The fact that those audiences have increased is an advantage to them and certainly if you go back 10 years, there is far more interest in cycling from sponsors than there was.”
Speaking at the event, Kieran Morris, sponsorship executive with the Slingshot Sponsorship agency, says the Tour of Britain allows sponsors to reach areas they wouldn’t normally reach.
“The race itself, geographically, covers a large area of Britain, but also areas that are untouched by sporting events of this scale, like a small village in Yorkshire,” he says. “This allows for unique opportunities to engage with an audience traditionally not reached by other sports. Commercially, this is a unique proposition.”
Morris is impressed with the way the event allows sponsors to activate, but thinks there is still the potential for further innovation.
“The event activates well with its current sponsors in terms of branding and tying the sponsor into a credible alignment, such as Yodel, the delivery service sponsoring the best sprinter, which alludes to a speedy service,” he says.
“However, there is room for growth with customer and client engagement. Cycling is a very accessible sport, unlike Formula 1 for example, so if individuals were able to become more involved in the races by becoming supporting or honorary team members, this would be an innovative way of driving engagement outside the traditional hospitality avenues.”
Grant stresses that the event already provides something along these lines by allowing sponsor customers to ride some of the stages before the professionals take part in the race, but, long-term, the sport is looking for a partner that will help it to grow fan engagement.
“We’re actively looking for a technology partner to work with us to connect this race with its fans in a really meaningful way,” he says. “Here we are in London and there will be a quarter of a million people lining the streets, but they haven’t bought a ticket. We have no direct access to them, which is quite unique for an event organiser.
“It’s free to attend, which is a massive plus for the event. It’s a massive plus for our sponsors, because it’s a community-delivered event, which inspires people to take up cycling. But we want to find a way with a tech partner of engaging much more closely with our fans.”