Success of Digital Swiss 5 points way toward cycling’s hybrid future

The Digital Swiss 5 virtual cycling series was broadcast to audiences worldwide in April (Photo by Cycling Unlimited)

  • Digital cycling series saw top teams compete through virtual Swiss countryside
  • Five nightly races allowed organisers of Tour de Suisse to recoup some broadcast and sponsorship revenues
  • Virtual reality here to stay beyond end of lockdown to broaden cycling’s year-round offering

A few months into the Covid-19 pandemic and sport is getting used to fast turnarounds, after the live events landscape was eviscerated by lockdowns and rights-holders scrambled to put together virtual replacements as they look to offer value to sponsors, fill broadcasting schedules, and continue to engage fanbases. 

Cycling is no exception and in April, the Digital Swiss 5 was shown by major broadcasters around the world just weeks after it was conceived, the result of a three-way collaboration between the team-owned media, marketing and technology company Velon, Tour de Suisse organiser Cycling Unlimited, and virtual cycling platform Rouvy.

What perhaps helped the Digital Swiss 5 to greater success than most is that cycling has long been investigating virtual and augmented reality experiences as a way to make iconic routes accessible to cyclists wherever they happen to be in the world. Rouvy’s technology employs a smart roller device on the back of a stationary bike, which adjusts the pedal resistance based on the topography of the race in question, with the road rendered in detailed virtual reality on a screen in front of the rider. Last year, the company partnered with Cycling Unlimited with the intention of allowing amateurs to test themselves against professionals on the course of this year’s Tour de Suisse, which Rouvy had recreated in painstaking detail inside its app. 

(Photo by Sam Buchli/Cycling Unimited)

When it became clear that the Tour de Suisse was unlikely to go ahead this year, Cycling Unlimited approached Velon, the media, marketing and technology company, about using the technology to put on professional races. Instead of waiting until June, when the Tour de Suisse was supposed to take place, Velon and Cycling Unlimited pushed to turn the idea around as quickly as possible, believing that cycling fans would be responsive to any kind of live action at a time when they were starved for sport. They also hoped to use the series as a test event to see if it could be replicated for a full virtual Tour de Suisse later in the year. 

Graham Bartlett, chief executive of Velon

“At first was just going to be exhibition races, a promotional concept really,” says Graham Bartlett, chief executive of Velon. “But with the Tour de Suisse looking unlikely to go ahead, and with Velon’s access to the teams and the riders, we thought, why not do this as proper, competitive racing?”

Velon’s access to the teams was key to the series’ success, Bartlett believes. The company is co-owned by 11 UCI WorldTour teams –BORA – Hansgrohe, CCC Pro Team, Deceuninck–Quick-Step, EF Education First, Team Ineos, Team Jumbo-Visma, Lotto Soudal, Mitchelton SCOTT GreenEDGE Cycling,Trek Segafredo, Team Sunweb, UAE Team Emirates. 

“We’ve obviously seen loads of events recently, digital versions of real sports, but how many of them have had almost a full complement of all the top teams and athletes in the world?” says Bartlett. “The Digital Swiss 5 involved nearly all the teams and riders that would have competed in the Tour de Suisse, so there was a real incentive for fans to tune in and watch something that’s actually pretty close to live cycling.”

Broadcasters were quickly convinced. Swiss public broadcaster SRG took on host broadcaster duties, while international rights were claimed by Eleven Sports in Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy, Poland, Portugal and Myanmar, The BBC in the UK and  L’Équipe TV in France, among other major deals. The series was streamed digitally via Velon’s website and the IOC’s Olympic Channel.

Early numbers suggest that fans did indeed tune in. SRG has already confirmed viewing figures on its traditional channels, with a market share of between 6 and 11 per cent per day – meaning a peak audience of 75,000 for the final race, reportedly the most-watched sports programming since the start of lockdown in the country. “Now that might not sound so impressive,” says Bartlett, “but there has still been a considerable amount of sports on telly, whether it’s virtual series, esports, reruns, etc. It at least shows us there is an appetite there and potential to improve it.”

NTT Pro Cycling’s Gino Mäder competes in the Digital Swiss 5 (Photo by Sam Buchli/Cycling Unlimited)

Olivier Senn, chief executive at Cycling Unlimited, told SportBusiness: “Getting the broadcast right was obviously the biggest challenge. The riders are at home in isolation, and they suddenly become the technician working on the installation for a live TV feed. We knew we were on to something when we got the first day figures back [from SRG] and they were a solid start, but most impressively and importantly, they grew every day. The final race on Friday had three times as many viewers as the Monday.” 

International and online viewing figures are still being established by Nielsen on behalf of Cycling Unlimited, but Bartlett says conversations he has held with broadcasters have been overwhelmingly positive. A source at L’Équipe has told SportBusiness that as many as a quarter of a million tuned in for the first race in France, cycling’s most important global market.

“We don’t know how many people outside Switzerland watched it, but the reception we’ve had has generally been, ‘when can we get some more?’,” he says. “That tells me the figures couldn’t have been anything other than good, because broadcasters are never shy of telling you when something didn’t work for them.”

Senn is encouraged by the numbers to believe that a full-scale virtual Tour de Suisse is feasible, particularly because the Digital Swiss 5 managed to provide strong visibility for Cycling Unlimited sponsors who otherwise would have gone without inventory. 

“We announced it quite early, before we really knew any details about it,” Senn explains. “Then we worked behind the scenes to make it happen. Because we wanted to be the first to market with something like this, so we said we would do it before we really knew how we were going to do it. A lot of things played into our hands, like the existing partnership with Rouvy, which meant that we were close to being ready to go with a product into an market where there was almost no live sports. We thought that if we can get it right, we can hopefully give some value back to our sponsors.”

The response from sponsors to the initial announcement, he says, was mixed. “It was the whole range of possible reactions. We had sponsors who said, ‘not for us, we’re only interested in reaching the one million people who are standing alongside the road at the live event,’ which is fine and that’s great for us too, we want those sponsors in the long term. But there were others who said ‘yes, this is fantastic for us’, because they’re trying to work with events that drive innovation and reach new audiences by digitising their communication.”

Insurance group Vaudoise, the presenting partner of the Tour de Suisse, came on board as the headline partner for the Digital Swiss 5, with its branding present throughout the digital courses designed by Rouvy. Senn confirms no additional sponsorship fees were paid for partnering with the Digital Swiss 5, “because we didn’t really know what this was going to look like or what it would give to our sponsors. We wanted it to give them a bit of value back on their deals, and also to hopefully show what we can achieve with the technology to attract more attention for future events. Hopefully the viewing figures and success of this one means there will be more interest in the future”.

Discussions are ongoing about whether a full-scale digital Tour de Suisse will take place. Senn is keen, but Bartlett says the current situation is too fluid to make a decision at this stage when it comes to the teams and the riders. “We don’t know where we’ll be by then,” he says. “We’ve shown that it makes sense and that if everything comes together, a digital Tour de Suisse could be a success, but we’ve got to take into account where the riders will be and other factors.” Talks are taking place in early May, and an announcement is likely to take place before the end of the month. 

Tour de Suisse headline sponsor Vaudoise returned as the main partner of the Digital Swiss 5 (Photo by Cycling Unlimited)

In the longer-term, all stakeholders involved say that they see virtual cycling becoming a permanent companion to live racing – something that the sport was already moving towards anyway and which has been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Petr Samek, chief executive of VirtualTraining, the company behind Rouvy, believes that cities and regions could be a major beneficiary of greater focus on digital racing. So accurately does Rouvy map the routes, recreating trials through the Swiss alps, he believes it can offer a significant value-add for event hosts. 

“In the same way that they bid to host the actual event, they will also be bidding to have Rouvy come and map the area and recreate it,” Samek suggests. “Cycling is always promotion for the country, on TV it shows off the beautiful countryside and makes it a tourist destination for fans. We can now recreate those destinations, so that when amateur cyclists are seeing the Swiss alps in the first person and it becomes an even more attractive destination.”

Senn adds: “We are not interested in doing one-offs here. We’ve invested a lot into the platform, not just us, but Velon and Rouvy have too. We’re trying together to create something sustainable, something that can offer professional, top-level cycling to fans over the next few months when there will be no live cycling. But beyond that, I can see this as a supplementary discipline, particularly through the winter months when it’s very hard to do any cycling in Europe, but it’s easy to imagine a high-profile virtual championship taking place in the off-season. It’s too early to say exactly what form that will take, but we will look at the feedback and the analysis from this and decide how we’re going to take it forward.”

Petr Samek, chief executive of Rouvy, believes the digital recreation of real landscapes could be value-add for event hosts (Photo by Cycling Unlimited)

Cycling, he adds, has always been a sport that embraces its amateur participants, with cyclosportives that follow part of the Tour de France route, for instance, proving very popular. The new technology “allows us to offer that on a much bigger scale, and means amateurs from all over the world can test themselves against the professionals in the same conditions. I think as interest in staying fit at home grows throughout the lockdown, this will become increasingly popular and present a new way to follow and get involved with cycling.” 

The Digital Swiss 5, Bartlett says, “has exceeded all expectations, there’s no doubt about that. But it can do that and still leave a huge number of learnings and questions. We learned a lot about the racing format, we are still learning about the business model. We can’t run this in a non-Covid world, so really we don’t know that much about how much of the success was to do with the lack of other live sport, and how much people actually took to the concept. There is a long-term future for virtual racing, but whether it involves professional cyclists, whether it’s something that runs through the winter, we just don’t know at this point. 

“For now, we need to take what we can from this and keep monitoring the wider situation. In the short-term, we don’t want to end up a situation where sport is out of sync with the public health crisis. If we feel we can put on events that help to fix the public mood and improve people’s circumstances, we’ll try and find ways to do that where appropriate and deliver what fans are looking for.”

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