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Can Chinese viewership help the Tour de Langkawi to fiscal health?

Rider compete pass through Sultan Ismail Petra Mosque Kubah Kerian Kota Bharu during Stage 3 of the Le Tour de Langkawi 2018. (Photo by Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images)

  • The Tour de Langkawi has been kept alive for many years by Malaysian government funding
  • Last year, AC Media acquired the race’s Chinese media rights, opening up the giant market
  • China’s burgeoning interest in cycling could change the Tour’s fortunes

This year marks the 25th edition of Le Tour de Langkawi (LTdL), a major UCI-sanctioned men’s cycle race in Malaysia. The ten-day multi-stage bicycle race is a highlight on the global cycling calendar due to its status as a ProSeries race under the UCI’s three-tier structure, and as one of the biggest parts of the UCI Asia Tour.

The race was conceived by Mahathir bin Mohamad – who returned as Malaysian prime minister in 2018, after serving from 1981 to 2003 – as a way to woo tourists and boost a sport already popular in the country, which is blessed with a geography suited to long cycling trails.

However, financial stability has been a problem for the event for at least 15 years. According to Malaysian media reports, the government has stepped in on several occasions with funding packages ranging from RM10.7m (€2.4m/$2.6m) to RM28m. From 2007 to 2014, the Malaysian National Cycling Federation and the Malaysian Youth and Sports Ministry took direct control of the event.

The change in Malaysian government, with Mahathir returning to his role, has seen some positive change. Human Voyage, a mass participation events company founded by ex-national cyclist Datuk Malik Mydin, was re-appointed on a three-year contract in 2019 as event organisers, having initially been engaged in 2015 on a five-year deal.

The prime minister himself urged more private sector sponsorship for the LTdL during a prize presentation to the winners of the stage three LTdL 2020 this month. Human Voyage chief executive Datuk Ahmad Mustafa told local media that this year’s edition would cost no less than RM20m to run.

The rise of strong cycling events across Asia, such as the Tour of Hainan and the UAE Tour, has presented both a challenge and an opportunity to the LTdL. This rise has been driven by an increased public interest in cycling, particularly in China, offering a route to greater revenues for events such as the LTdL.

Green jersey winner Kim Daeyeon of KSPO Bianchi Asia Procycling Korea celebrates on the podium during Stage 3 of the Le Tour de Langkawi 2018. (Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images)

Chinese interest

AC Media, a Beijing-based company that specialises in distributing rights with Chinese regional TV broadcasters, acquired the LTdL rights late last year, with agreements to distribute live TV coverage and highlights on sport channels in Qinghai and Hainan provinces. They also have agreements to localize LTdL content for Migu, the digital content subsidiary for China Mobile.

It was the company’s first foray into cycling media rights, having previously acquired rights for tennis’ Australian Open via Lagardère Sports in 2018 and 2019, as well as other fringe sports such as equestrian events.

Yong Pan, the chief executive of AC Media, tells SportBusiness: “The broadcast channels that we are working with in Qinghai and Hainan are perfectly suited for an event like the LTdL. One of the channels used to be a travel-centric platform, which makes it perfect to promote the LTdL from a tourism perspective, while the other broadcasts the Tour of Qinghai Lake – an annual professional road bicycle racing stage race held in the Qinghai province of China since 2002 – and has a strong cycling following. Both channels are free-to-air and have several millions in combined viewership.”

At the time of writing, AC Media is in negotiations with Chinese multinational technology conglomerate Tencent over coverage on its QQLive streaming platform.

Pan believes that, with only ten major road races in China, there is unfulfilled demand from a cycling-hungry public. “Running has been big,” he says, “but the cycling scene has been evolving and growing rapidly – cycling clubs have sprung up in every city, the number of races is growing, and popular ones are now booked out quickly.”

Major international races like the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia already have large fanbases in China, and Pan believes there is room for lesser-known races like LTdL to carve out a niche.

Pan says: “Our research shows that there’s a potential in attracting sponsors such as automobile brands, as the demographic in China that would watch the LTdL average wages of $10,000 annually, close to the level that would classify as high-income by World Bank standards.”

Traditional music rebana ubi and ketuk perform during Stage 3 of the Le Tour de Langkawi 2018. (Photo by Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images)

Coronavirus

As with all international events looking to break into the Chinese market, drawing Chinese athletes is crucial – for example, the Giro d’Italia in 2013, when Ji Cheng became the first Chinese rider to participate. Ji followed that up by becoming the Tour de France’s first Chinese rider in 2014.

Unfortunately for LTdL, two Chinese teams had to withdraw from this year’s race due to concerns over the coronavirus outbreak and a third was only allowed to race by bringing in riders and staff who had been based outside China.

Pan says AC Media is willing to wait and invest to build up the LTdL brand in China, noting that  the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia “have gained recognition in China, but the LTdL is still new [here], so it will take some time. There’s definitely promise, and we will also look to open the Chinese market for Langkawi, and Malaysian companies to come on board for sponsorship and marketing opportunities for the next edition.”

Ultimately, Pan says, their aim will be to match the national strategy of building bridges and closer relations with the rest of Southeast Asia: “We are well-aware of our country’s Belt and Road policies and have also been in touch with Tourism Malaysia to see what the potential synergies are for future LTdLs.”

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