BY JASON SUMNER
BOULDER, CO (BRAIN)—Jonathan Vaughters thought he’d finally landed the proverbial big fish. After months of pounding the pavement in search of a big dollar title sponsor to back his Slipstream-Chipotle cycling team, the former pro racer turned team director was having serious discussions with a potential corporate backer.
Invista, a former DuPont subsidiary that owns a rich portfolio of material brands including Lycra, Coolmax and Stainmaster, had a new fabric in the works and was considering Slipstream as a marketing vehicle. The title-sponsorship deal would have netted the team $10 million over two years.
“We were pretty far down the road,” recalled Vaughters. “Then it just went south because of all the doping controversies. They basically said, ‘Sorry, we really wanted to do this, but it’s too risky for us right now.’”
Invista declined to comment for this story, but it’s no secret that in these troubled times highlighted by a litany of doping scandals at this year’s Tour de France, potential corporate benefactors are casting a wary eye at professional cycling.
Vaughters has yet to find a title sponsor for his team despite the recently announced signings of star riders David Zabriskie, Christian Vande Velde and David Millar. That lack of a top sponsor doesn’t mean the end of Slipstream because of previously secured financing, but the sport’s spate of doping scandals has resulted in a tepid sponsorship environment that’s claimed its share of victims.
Tailwind Sports, owner of the Discovery Channel team, failed to find a replacement sponsor for the U.S. cable television company, and announced in August that the team will cease operations at the end of this year.
“If the former team of Lance Armstrong, with all its history plus the current Tour de France winner [Alberto Contador], can’t get a new sponsor, that tells you how tough the climate is right now,” said Theresa McDermitt, brand manager for Computer Sciences Corporation, title sponsor of the Danish-based CSC ProTour cycling team.
For now at least, CSC is an exception to likes of Invista and Discovery Channel. Despite a tumultuous year that included Ivan Basso’s expulsion from the 2006 Tour de France and team director Bjarne Riis’ admission to performance enhancing drug use en route to his overall win at the 1996 Tour, the Fortune 500 company has chosen to stand by the team it’s backed since 2001.
“Of course we don’t support doping and cheating, but we believe there is a real effort for change in the sport right now,” said McDermitt. “We feel that sponsors standing up and supporting things like our team’s new anti-doping program can have a really positive impact on the sport. Now is the time for sponsors to use their clout to force continuing change, not bail out.”
Of course there is a breaking point. CSC’s contract with Riis and his riders has a zero-tolerance clause if systematic doping is ever discovered, and bike maker BMC terminated its deal with Astana in the wake of Alexandre Vinokourov’s positive test for homologous blood doping at the Tour.
The notion of sponsors playing a role in the clean up of cycling’s mess is relatively new, but the potential loss of money—and the jobs it sustains—may be the only way to right cycling’s listing ship.
Scott Montgomery, general manager of Scott USA’s bike division, said his company never considered ending its sponsorship of the Saunier Duval-Prodir team despite the positive doping test returned by Spaniard Iban Mayo during this year’s Tour de France.
“The only thing that would pull us out completely would be the full cancellation of the Tour and the Giro d’Italia,” said Montgomery, whose company hands over more than $1 million in cash and product for its place in the ProTour peloton.
But the Sun Valley, Idaho-based bike maker’s general manager believes Scott and its fellow endemic sponsors must play a greater role in the doping war, and not pass out money and look the other way. “We can’t just act surprised and say, ‘Oh, we had no idea,’” Montgomery said. “We have to make sure they know that it’s really important that they play honestly or they are not going to have our support anymore.”
Part of that increased role is demanding a louder voice in critical team decisions, such as when Saunier Duval hired Millar in 2006 when he was coming off a two-year doping suspension. Montgomery was involved in the internal debate about the pluses and minuses of hiring the Brit.
“As long as we have that kind of dialogue, I don’t think the team will ever have any kind of mass [performance enhancing drug] usage problem,” Montgomery said. “Mayo’s positive was really disappointing, but it’s something you have to continue to work against, and pulling out is not the way to go.”
Part of this unyielding support is easily traced to the benefits of sponsoring a top-tier team. Montgomery said flatly, “You can’t be a major player in the road bike industry and not be involved at the ProTour level.”
The attitude is the same at Specialized, which was spared embarrassment at this year’s Tour but suffered a serious doping blow in 2004 when then-world cross-country champion Filip Meirhaeghe tested positive for EPO a month before the Athens Olympics.
The failed test cost Meirhaeghe his shot at a gold medal, and forced Specialized to rip up an entire marketing campaign that had been based around the Belgian mountain biker.
“We need to be in cycling. It’s what we do,” said Nic Sims, global marketing manager for Specialized, bike sponsor of the Quick Step-Innergetic and Gerolsteiner teams, and helmet supplier to several other ProTour squads. “We are constantly talking to the teams we sponsor, finding out what they are doing to stop or rectify the problem.”
None of the endemic sponsors Bicycle Retailer spoke to said sales have been negatively impacted by professional cycling’s ongoing doping problems, and until that happens don’t expect anyone to go running for the exit.
“Americans love the drama,” said Scott’s Montgomery. “Good, bad or ugly, in some ways all the problems are increasing [product] awareness.”