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Velon’s anti-trust case against UCI highlights shifting sands of rights-holder and governing body relations

  • Team-owned cycling body alleges that the UCI has acted to prevent its commercial growth
  • Discrimination complaint has been added to original anti-trust case lodged with European Commission
  • Case echoes previous examples of conflicts between athletes and governing bodies with Fina and the International Skating Union

When Velon, the team-owned marketing, media and technology company for pro-road cycling, announced that it had filed an anti-trust case with the European Commission against cycling’s global governing body, the International Cycling Union (UCI), in September, it exposed a fault line that had long been threatening to send shockwaves through the sport.

Velon is accusing the UCI of anti-competitive behaviour, claiming that it has enforced regulations, and introduced new rules, that are intended to stifle Velon’s commercial ambitions and protect the UCI’s own position. The European Commission has been asked to investigate several decisions taken by the UCI, particularly over the past 12 months, with Velon alleging that “the UCI today believes that it should not only be the regulator for the sport” but accused it of also taking business decisions out of the hands of its stakeholders.

Among Velon’s biggest objections are to the UCI’s ruling preventing it from using the word “series” in relation to its Hammer events; the lack of consultation between the UCI and its stakeholders, especially the teams, in creating new technical regulations; and the UCI’s attempts to claim ownership over live rider data produced by the teams.

In November, following the abrupt removal of the women’s Hammer event in Norway from the UCI calendar, a discrimination complaint was added, as Velon alleged that the UCI was acting against the interests of the development of women’s cycling. Velon has also expressed surprise with what it sees as a change of tack from the UCI across the course of 2018 and 2019 when, after several years of cordial cooperation, the governing body began pursuing tactics that obstructed Velon’s growth.

Graham Bartlett, chief executive of Velon

Cycling at a crossroads

Velon was established in 2014 by 11 UCI WorldTour teams – Belkin, BMC, Cannondale-Garmin, Lampre-Merida, Lotto-Belisol, Omega Pharma-QuickStep, Orica-GreenEdge, Giant-Shimano, Sky, Tinkoff-Saxo and Trek Factory Racing – with a straightforward tagline: “make cycling better”. Its intended method for doing that was to create a direct commercial platform for the teams, allowing them to negotiate with technology partners, find new ways to generate revenues from traditional races, and create a whole new series of events that would ultimately add up to a narrative over the course of a cycling season.

Though the UCI and Velon worked together in relative peace for the first few years of the latter’s existence, its creation nevertheless exposed a tension within the world of pro cycling, a sport which has remained closer to its amateur roots and ideals than most. Velon’s commercially aggressive strategy always seemed destined to clash with the natural conservatism of the UCI. As Graham Bartlett, chief executive of Velon, puts it: “You struggle with the idea that pro road cycling is a billion-dollar sport that is being governed largely by unpaid amateurs, people who’ve never been voted for by people within that business.”

It is yet another example of a battle that has played out across sport, one in which those who feel they are generating the interest and revenue –namely the athletes and the teams – have sought to redefine their positions in relation to traditional sporting federations. In the last two years, the International Skating Union and Fina, the world governing body for aquatic sports, have been hit with similar cases in both Europe and the US, from athletes who have accused the federations of deliberately limiting their commercial earning potential.

“Despite all the money that’s in this sport, the people generating all that revenue, putting in all that money, don’t get a say on who’s passing the rules,” says Bartlett. “Every time the sport at large disagrees with one of the decisions of those unmandated officials, there’s a clash, and it’s not sustainable to keep running a sport as big as cycling like this.”

He tells SportBusiness that Velon carefully considered its options before submitting a complaint to the European Commission, but ultimately felt that the UCI’s behaviour had given it little choice. “You don’t do something like this lightly,” he says. “You don’t just think, ‘I don’t agree with you so I’m going to report you to the commission.’ You have to see a long-standing, consistent pattern of behaviour, which is deliberately orchestrated to hinder, restrict, prevent and block your business before you go down that route.”

Back in 2014, some within pro cycling speculated that the establishment was the beginning of a breakaway, or a move towards complete independence for the teams. Jean-René Bernaudeau, director of Team Europcar (now Total Direct Énergie), one of the seven UCI WorldTour Teams which doesn’t own a stake in Velon, spoke out against cycling moving towards a “pro-style NBA league”, something that was immediately rejected by Velon itself.

Establishing independence from the UCI was never among Velon’s objectives, says Bartlett. “When Velon was originally created, a lot of people reported that it was going to be a breakaway, and that we were going to leave the UCI, and all the teams were going to up sticks and go,” he says. “That wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now. And we proved it isn’t true because, after five years, all the teams are still UCI licence holders. And Velon has never, ever said we’re going to take the teams out of the UCI’s governance.”

But under the watch of the UCI he feels the sport has stagnated, with an ageing demographic and a paucity of new events and formats to help it attract new audiences. That is why Velon was particularly aggrieved by being prevented from referring to the Hammer races as a “series”, a ruling Bartlett says the UCI has never properly explained. The concept of a genuine team racing event, with points counting across events and helping to generate a year-round narrative and interest, is crucial to Hammer’s offering and to cycling’s future, he says.

“There had never been a new format in this sport for 50 years, until Hammer,” he says. “A lot of the events are just homogeneously repeating what the others are doing, and people’s desire to watch is weakening. We believe that a sport should have different tiers of narrative, because you need to join it up and make it make sense. What’s your reason to watch? Last night I watched matchday five of the Champions League; next week I’ll watch matchday six, because I want to know if my team qualifies. There’s a story and a narrative, and sport needs that.”

By moving to prevent Velon creating that proposition, the UCI is not just hurting Velon’s commercial ambitions, argues Bartlett, but the sport as a whole. “The demographic for cycling is ageing, but for Hammer it is way younger than other races,” he says, pointing to audience data gathered from social media, where Hammer races are available to watch for free. “That’s huge for the sport. If you have an ageing demographic, that means you’ve got a declining audience. So we’re bucking those trends and showing that there is a demand for this type of product.”

Driving the sport

Bartlett himself has a wide-ranging experience in commercial roles across the sport industry, having worked for Liverpool FC, sportswear brand Nike and European football governing body Uefa before being appointed chief executive of Velon. Unlike these organisations, he believes that cycling has letinsularity get in the way of innovation. A sport steeped in tradition, trying to respect over a hundred years of history while drawing new audiences, has become too concerned with its own past, Bartlett feels.

“It would be for the UCI to comment on how they see this, but from my perspective, I think they’re worried about protecting what they’ve already got, when what they should be worried about is standing still,” he says. “If you’re going to repeat what everybody’s done in the past, you’re going to see the audience declining. But the UCI are more concerned with preventing the teams coming together to be a force for good within cycling. There’s no one driving the sport.

“Cycling is incredibly fragmented. The race organisers are individual. ASO own several races [including the Tour de France, the Vuelta and the Critérium du Dauphiné], RCS owns several races [most notably the Giro d’Italia], but nobody has a unified position. Whereas those teams that are in Velon have a unified position. And that’s how you move any sport forward. Look at any successful sport, it doesn’t matter what it is. Why is it successful? Because the actors, the people on the stage, came together and said, ‘right, we’re going to do this as a group all together’.”

He compares the potential impact of Hammer to that of Twenty20 in cricket, noting that, despite resistance from conservative voices within the sport, cricket has continually attempted to innovate in order to bring in new audiences. “I love cricket, but if you offer me a ticket for the T20, no thanks, it’s not for me” he says. “Test match? I’ll bite your hand off. But at the same time, I love the fact that T20 exists. Because T20 brings a different audience. It brings us different characteristic. It brings different players in, and things that have been learned in T20 now influence Test cricket.”

Conversely, he says, where cycling has tried to innovate – as Velon has through its introduction of on-bike cameras and its comprehensive data collection from riders – the UCI has made efforts to take ownership of that and stop the teams from profiting. “We brought new ideas, new technology, new revenue, new partnerships with the race organisers, things that were never in cycling and have now been brought to the forefront,” he says. “The data and the new technology belongs to the teams and the riders, and they create it in partnership with the race organisers. You put the two together and you get a product. It doesn’t belong to the UCI, that’s for sure. But the UCI are creating regulations that would mean they own the rights to it, which we don’t agree with.”

He also points to the formation of the Premier League, noting that football’s stakeholders largely agreed that the move was needed to take the sport forward, as well as agreeing that the Football Association still had a relevant role to play, even when the commercial management of the league was handled separately by the new body. “But when a governing body, in this case the UCI, comes and says ‘that business we like, that business we don’t like’ – where’s the expertise they’re bring to the table in that regard?” he says. “And where is the mandate over which you’re exercising that right? How are you doing it? And it can develop into a hugely problematic system and situation when a governing body starts acting outside of its own mandate, doesn’t act in accordance with its own rules and regulations, and effectively makes it up as it goes along.

“We’re working with stakeholders, with the teams and with ASO, with RCS, we’ve worked with Tour of Flanders, with London, with the UAE Tour, all so that hopefully, two and two eventually adds up to five, and then to ten, and we can start making this sport more than the sum of its parts, commercially speaking. And the UCI’s role, from our perspective, is to help that happen. But where they are now is trying to stop that happening. That, unfortunately, led them to them being reported to the European Commission. If the UCI wants to work in it in a constructive, fair and open manner, our door is open to do that; it always has been. And at the moment, it certainly is. But we’re not sitting around waiting for the call.”

After the publication of this article, the UCI provided SportBusiness with the following statement on the matter: 

“Following the filing of a court action by the private group Velon against the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) before the European Commission’s Competition Department, we are now providing the Commission with the latest information requested.

“Our Federation will continue to work in a cooperative manner but with the firm intention of proving that the complaints against it are unfounded.

“The UCI reiterates that as cycling’s governing organisation recognised by the sporting movement, it is legitimate to set down rules and create a framework within which cycling events are run. In the international governance of sport, this is achieved in consultation with stakeholders, in the best global interests and in respect of everyone’s rights.

“It is also worthy of reminder that the UCI acts as a regulatory body and not a player, as it is not the owner of events featuring on its international calendar, with the exception of the UCI World Championships.”

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