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Hammer time | Infront and Velon launch new cycling team event

  • Hammer Series designed with fans and media in mind
  • Organisers will operate a franchise system for events, with races being primarily licensed out
  • Infront handling both media and sponsorship sales on an international basis for the series

Cycling’s traditional emphasis on individual glory over team achievement is set to be reversed next month with the launch of a new event that seeks to drive fresh revenue into the sport.

Debuting in the Dutch province of Limburg on June 1-4, the Hammer Series will determine road cycling’s true champion team through a unique race format combining the sport’s three core disciplines. Developed as a joint concept by the Infront Sports & Media agency and the Velon collective body of pro cycling teams, the former’s director of summer sports, Mark Buttermann, says the Hammer Series will address what is currently lacking in cycling.

“We’ve tried to identify the weaknesses in how this great sport is being brought to the fans,” he tells SportBusiness International. “Whilst respecting the classics and the monuments of the sport, we wanted to address some of the issues in traditional cycling – long stages, a very weak narrative and a complex sport that isn’t being easily explained to both existing fans and new followers.

“We wanted to develop a series revolving around the fact this is a team sport. Whilst people tend to focus on the winner of a yellow jersey, they can forget it’s an entire team that delivers him to that position. We also want to develop a format of racing that is more fan and media friendly. We wanted a circuit that allows fans to see all the action, all the time, as opposed to standing on the side of a road where the peloton goes by once.”

The Hammer Series marks the latest development from a wide-ranging strategic partnership struck between Velon and Infront in February 2016 to enhance the financial standing of teams and boost the sport’s engagement with its fans.

Partner

Under the 10-year deal, Infront became Velon’s strategic partner across all new and existing business opportunities. The agency was also tasked with growing commercial revenues with Velon and working with key stakeholders including event organisers, their partners and the International Cycling Union (UCI), which has fully sanctioned the Hammer Series.

“The Hammer Series has been designed with excitement for fans and viewers as a paramount priority,” Velon chief executive Graham Bartlett tells SportBusiness International. “What persuaded everyone is not so much a gap in the market but more a desire to offer something new to cycling and the fans that works well in the modern era while also celebrating the key skills and strategy of a great sport.”

Each Hammer Series race will consist of three challenges across consecutive days – the Hammer Sprint, the Hammer Climb and the Hammer Chase.

The first two are points races featuring intermediate sprints or hill climbs where the teams with the most points at the finish, win. The Hammer Chase will provide a 50km team time trial with a twist. Teams will start in the same order as the leaderboard after the opening days of racing, with the leading team going off first.
Time gaps between teams will be based on fixed gaps per position from the standings after the Sprint and Climb events, along with bonus time gained during the opening two days, with the team that crosses the line first securing event victory and points towards the Hammer Series title.

Teams for Hammer Sportzone Limburg:

WorldTour:

Bahrain-Merida Pro Cycling Team (Bahrain)
BMC Racing Team (USA)
Cannondale-Drapac Professional Cycling Team (USA)
Quick-Step Floors Pro Cycling Team (Belgium)
Lotto Soudal (Belgium)
Movistar Team (Spain)
Orica-Scott (Australia)
Team Sky (UK)
Team Sunweb (Germany)
Trek-Segafredo (USA)
UAE Team Emirates (UAE)
Team Lotto NL Jumbo (Netherlands)

Professional Continental:

Aqua Blue Sport Pro Cycling Team (Ireland)
Team Caja Rural-Seguros RGA (Spain)
Team Nippo-Vini Fantini (Italy)
Team Roompot-Nederlandse Loterij (Netherlands)

Each Hammer Race will include up to 18 pro teams, about 12 or 13 from the elite WorldTour and five to six second-tier Professional Continental squads. Limburg’s maiden event is set to feature 16 teams in total, with Bartlett stating it was chosen to debut the Hammer Series in recognition of its status as a “heartland” of cycling.

“They’ve hosted the World Championships on more occasions than any other venue and know and love the traditions of the sport whilst embracing a future format,” he adds.

Festival

Velon and Infront are also keen to ensure that Hammer Series events will provide a festival of cycling. Alongside the professional team races, there are plans for family mass participation activities, men’s and women’s pro-am challenges, a fan village, cycling expo and wider entertainment.

“The pro events will be the pinnacle of each day of a long weekend,” Buttermann says. “The host city narrative will go in the direction of cycle tourism, sustainability, mobility and a family-orientated festival occasion for all types, whether you’re an avid cyclist or wanting to learn. We want a cycling and cultural platform for the cities. It has to work for the host cities because we want a long-term relationship with them.”

Buttermann says Limburg is expected to be the Hammer Series’ sole “pilot race” for 2017, but adds Infront is currently in final negotiations that could see another event added this year. The agency is ultimately targeting a 10-race calendar by 2020, with specific markets in mind.

“The idea is to have three to four next year, then four to seven and seven to 10 after that,” Buttermann says. “Geographically they will be spread across the continents. We’re looking at Cape Town, Australia, North America, Asia and Europe.

“Cities like Rio have also indicated interest. The challenge of course is the cycling calendar, which is very full. But it’s clear that Asia and Oceania races will be at the beginning and end of the year, with Europe and North America during the traditional season from March to September.”

In December, Infront’s parent company, the Wanda Sports division of Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda, struck a partnership with the UCI under which the Tour of Guangxi, a new WorldTour race, will launch in October.

“The Hammer Series will most definitely be in China in the next year or two,” Buttermann says. “If all the teams are coming out we’d have Asian races buttoning up on consecutive weekends. For a lot of the teams, China is already a target. Some of them are setting up development camps and facilities, partnering with Chinese organisations. Their future in some ways is going to be in China with Chinese brands supporting them.”

In terms of the business model for the series, Buttermann outlines that Infront and Velon will operate a franchise system for events, with races being primarily licensed out.

He says: “We’ll have a couple of races owned by Velon and Infront, which we’ll finance. The others will have the host paying a licence fee and taking on most of the commercial and organisational responsibility, as well as the majority of the commercial rights from TV and marketing. Infront-Velon will focus on providing the digital underlay with the live data and Velon Interactive platform.”

Technology

Infront is handling both media and sponsorship sales on an international basis for the entire series. Velon has made a sustained effort to drive technology in cycling, and Bartlett says the full weight of its interactive platform will be utilised to deliver the “ultimate fan experience.”

Velon Interactive live rider data, including power, cadence, heart rate and speed, will be available to fans through the Velon website, app and social channels. Velon’s ongoing relationship with GoPro will also be harnessed with the US camera manufacturer’s products used to deliver on-bike and behind-the-scenes footage. While Buttermann maintains that traditional broadcasters will still be a “key component” for many years to come, he says this coverage will be balanced with the rapidly developing social media space.

“For media, we’re looking at having a dynamic TV production,” Buttermann says. “We’ll be having live onboards and in-car team cameras so the whole production will be a step above what you normally see. The format of the series with the repeated circuits allows us to have extra camera positions as we’ll be going past the same place multiple times. For the licensed events, local organisers will be taking care of local media. We’ll be looking at pan-European platforms à la Eurosport, as well as some market to market, and also other platforms such as Twitter or Facebook Live.”

In terms of sponsorship, Buttermann says Infront is targeting a “fairly classical” structure with opportunities for series partners, individual event sponsors and an overarching Hammer Series presenting partner.

“There’s more opportunities we can offer to partners because of the Velon relationship, such as activities with teams and riders and behind the scenes access that a traditional bike race can’t offer its sponsors because they don’t have a relationship with the teams,” he says.

“We want partners to have ownership of certain aspects of the events rather than being divided into simply a group of sponsors sharing rights. It’s much more customisable.”

The formation of the Hammer Series has led to questions over whether Infront-Velon is seeking to muscle in on the event organiser space dominated by the likes of ASO and RCS Sport. Cycling is lodged in a perpetual push and pull over the future of the WorldTour through debate between its main stakeholders – the UCI, event organisers, riders, teams and sponsors.

Bartlett rejects claims of a grab for power, saying Velon already has partnerships with RCS, ASO and other race organisers, while Buttermann maintains the Hammer Series will ultimately benefit cycling as a whole.

“It’s a complement to the existing WorldTour,” he says. “The Grand Tours have the history in place and are the bedrocks of the sport, along with the monuments and the spring classics. We don’t want to get in the way of those races. However, there’s a lot of racing on the calendar that basically has no narrative to it, with a lot of organisers that are just hanging on. Our race format isn’t a copycat one. What it will do is provide a series that highlights the team component, forms a narrative and is very host city friendly on a long-term basis. I think our series will provide a big boost and support for other races through growing and educating a fan base to the beauty of cycling.”

Looking to the future, Bartlett says that while the immediate focus is establishing the Hammer Series, Velon would “love” to add a women’s event and hopes this is a “near possibility”. Reflecting on aspirations for the series five years down the road, Buttermann adds: “Overall I think we’ll see a much better economic model for the teams.”

EXTRA: Hammer Series commitments

Trek-Segafredo is one of Velon’s 10 member teams and has pledged its commitment to the Hammer Series.
The US-registered WorldTour outfit believes the series can provide a new revenue stream for teams who have long faced the challenges provided by lack of any real equity within the sport.
“With the cycling business as it is now, we know that teams are not part of the TV rights side of things,” Trek-Segafredo general manager Luca Guercilena tells SportBusiness International.
“The Hammer Series gives us the opportunity to be part of this, hopefully leading to a sustainable, long-term system instead of always depending on income from sponsors and so on.”
Guercilena believes his team had to be part of a new concept within the sport.
“The visibility provided through the series should be particularly good to attract young people by being easy to understand through the points classification,” he says. “For us, it’s key to be part of something fresh that can provide cycling with a new atmosphere and environment for the people that watch.”
Teams will field a squad of seven riders for each Hammer Series race, posing the question of balancing out their best sprinters, climbers, and time-trialists with any five riders competing on each day.
“In a normal race, you can decide whether you want to target the GC (general classification), just win stages, or go for the sprints,” Guercilena adds. “But with this you need to balance a team to be competitive overall in the three categories. It’ll be a nice strategic challenge.”

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