Radio National Transcripts:
The Sports
Factor
        23 July, 1999
 
Sport Sponsorship & The Tour de France

Francis Leach: Today, we're taking a ride in the world's most famous cycling event: the Tour de France.

... CYCLING COMMENTARY: Phil Liggett: It's all downhill to the finish now; they have to just go down to the line and Fernando has gone through the gears. What a wonderful feeling this must be, it's been worthwhile, in eight attempts this is his first stage victory in the Tour de France, and I think he'll find he's second overall as well....

Francis Leach: Hi, I'm Francis Leach. Welcome to The Sports Factor.

Well, for the Americans it's baseball, the Canadians hockey, and for the Kenyans it's middle distance running. But in France, the great national sporting obsession is cycling, and when it comes to pedal power, no race anywhere in the world can compare to the Tour de France.

Since it was first run in 1903 the Tour has been the biggest event on the French sporting calendar, running second only to football in terms of popularity. Each summer, hundreds of thousands of people flock to the side of the road all over the French countryside as the race snakes its way through the Alps and the Pyrenees and into Paris for its triumphant finale.

Over 20 stages, the riders travel 3,680 kilometres. It is, some say, the toughest race in the world, and to those who ride in it, it's also the greatest. But last year, the Tour had to come face to face with an ugly truth that threatened its very existence.

NEWS BROADCAST: Hamish Robertson: The Tour de France will never be quite the same again. The world's greatest bike race has already been tainted by a doping scandal that has seen an entire nine-member team of cyclists expelled....

FRENCH LANGUAGE

Neil Stevens: I've never taken anything, so yeah,I've got a clear conscience, so, yes.

Reporter: It must have been an incredibly tough experience for you at the Tour de France in fact.....

MUSIC: 'Tour de France'

Francis Leach: Drug scandals rocked the Tour; riders and teams were banned, other threatened to boycott, and the Tour de France suddenly became known as the 'Tour de Farce'. This year has been relatively trouble-free, with only a few riders being nicked for drug offences.

Henk Vogels is champion of Australia, and one of the local contingent in the case. He's with the Credit Agricole team along with fellow Aussie Stuart O'Grady. Now Henk rides as a domestique, riding a tactical race to get the team sprinter in the best position to make a charge. He said that on this year's Tour, the riders were determined to put the troubles of last year behind them.

Henk Vogels: I think a lot of the journalists came here looking to see another drug scandal, but I mean this year I think a lot of the riders have, well most of the riders, have made an effort not to take part in that sort of business, and I mean it's been a great tour, very fast, this year being one of the fastest stages in history of the Tour de France, so it's been a very fast, very hard, and a very hot Tour de France.

Francis Leach: And what about from the fans, from the audiences that flock to watch the tour? Have they been as enthusiastic as they've been in previous years?

Henk Vogels: I would say there would have been more people at the Tour this year than, say, the last couple of times that I've been here.

Francis Leach: What's been the vibe like in the riding group itself? I mean there was a number of non-starts from high profile riders at the start of the Tour. That hasn't taken any of the gloss of the contest at all? There's still a strong competitive edge in the bunch?

Henk Vogels: Oh, no way. I mean there was a few guys that didn't ride, sort of Marco Pantani and Laurant Jalabert two very strong riders, but I mean you've still got your classy time trialers, your classy sprinters like Cipollini I mean it's a really balanced outfield and it's definitely hasn't lost any of its gloss, it's one of the biggest Tours.

Francis Leach: Now how is it when you race in a team environment like that when you have to virtually sacrifice your own race to push the other riders forward? Is that hard to do? I mean when you're reaching that period when you're getting really tired and you're struggling for breath, where do you find the motivation to keep pushing?

Henk Vogels: I mean you've just got to push, sure. I mean you go through hell, you know, like ten times a day I wish I was dead, six foot under. But you know, you've just to put up with it. Actually the motivation comes down to riding down the Champs Elysee on the 26th July after doing 3700 kilometres at a record pace, seeing a million people watching there on that day with an estimated audience of, I don't know, 250-million people watching, being in the pinnacle of your sport.

Francis Leach: Now while the Tour has avoided a big doping bust-up, cycling's image isn't going to be repaired that easily, and according to the President of Cycling Australia, Ray Godkin the shockwaves are still being felt here from the events of 1998.

Ray Godkin: The events from last year's Tour de France was to have a devastating effect on the sport overall. There's absolutely no question about that, we've felt it all over the world. The sponsors that we had at the time are all still with us, they were quite loyal about it, but they were all uneasy. But what did affect us was going out, our marketing people going out trying to attract new sponsors. A lot of work has been done internationally and we've spent a lot of money, and I'm on the international board trying to make it better and make it cleaner and more transparent, and I think particularly what's happened with the Tour de France this year, we'll come out with a much better image.

Francis Leach: Do you think sponsorship in a way has become a snake that eats itself? And what I mean by that is that because the pressure to make money in these events becomes so great and the pressure to attract sponsorship is so great, that the attraction of using substances to enhance performance to achieve those ends also becomes greater?

Ray Godkin: There's absolutely no question about this. You know, I'll give you a bit of an example. We had one of our very elite riders, there's no need to name him, very elite rider, all the time just knocking on the door but not quite making it. I'm talking about internationally. Always finishing second, or third. And he was approached whilst he was away at one of the games, and he came and said, 'Look I've been told that I can do this and take this, and nobody will know, and it won't be detected.' Now what that does, if you did that, to go from a Bronze or a Silver Medal or Gold Medal, changes their whole life. It changes their incomes for many years, they're able to get contracts with the big trade team and things, and it's very tempting for a young guy. They're over there, and their bashing their head against a brick wall, and they're putting such big effort into it, and being beaten by somebody that they're confident is using a bit of the gear, so it's very, very difficult for young people. I've got to tell you that with some people, there's just no tomorrow, you know, they'll take the risk.

Francis Leach: Ray Godkin, from Cycling Australia.

Now it's not just the Tour de France that is causing headaches for Australian cycling, as it gets ready to ride into Sydney for the Year 2000 Olympics. According to tour veteran Steve Hodge, there are problems that Australian cycling needs to deal with on its own patch as well.

Steve Hodge: Well I think obviously you know, the very unfortunate recent exclusions of two Institute of Sport riders has had quite probably a significant effect, but we have a little bit of the history of I think some small mismanagement of our disputes within the sport. We've had some very unfortunate public fights between some of our selected athletes over the last two or three years, and it's really sad to say it, it is a fantastic sport, but it doesn't have the image that I really think it deserves.

Francis Leach: Let's talk about the Tour de France. You have ridden in it six times. A lot of people in Australia don't quite understand its history and why it means so much to those in France and Europe who flock to it each year to watch it. Can you give us a bit of background on the Tour?

Steve Hodge: It has a very long history. It started around the turn of the century, as did the other mechanised sports, you know, like car racing and bike racing was one of those. It came from a background of popular participation, it was a great opportunity for the masses to have their say, and as a professional sport, it provided the leg up into the world of stardom and fame and fortune that was not open to most people in society at the time. I think it's quite fair to say that as a professional sport, right from its very early beginnings, it did provide a way for the farm workers, or whoever, the general public, to find fame and fortune, and I think a couple of the other sports are similar in that respect: boxing certainly is one of them, and I think probably football to some extent as well.

Francis Leach: When did the sport begin to change? I mean when did it start to become such a highly money'd sport? Was it always driven by money the way it seems to be today?

Steve Hodge: I think so. There probably has been with the modern sports marketing machines, I think there probably has been a huge change in emphasis. I was talking to one of the early Tour de France riders. He, or his team, won the Tour de France and he was able to buy his family home from the proceeds of that one Tour de France which he still lives in today. So now if I was in the winning team of the Tour de France, I would have probably earned enough to buy a family home for myself as well. So it's always been like that for the cyclists who participate in it.

Francis Leach: Do you fear that the external forces that are pressuring cycling at the moment could threaten to kill the sport as a spectacle because of the demand for money overpowering the need to protect both cyclists and the integrity of the sport itself?

Steve Hodge: I think we certainly were asking those sorts of questions a lot more seriously after the Tour last year. I think this year I certainly can see a bit more light at the end of the tunnel. I think the sport itself by the mere characteristics of it is really truly one of the great sports in the world, one of the most difficult, the most arduous, one that places you at times in positions where you have to seriously question your deepest kind of pool of motivation if you like, to keep going, often. These are factors that will I think guarantee the sport a survival in some form or another. Now we hope obviously it remains a popular and widely watched sport, which it is currently in the world. It's second in Europe, it's second only to soccer, to football, and I think Australians don't really realise that. South America, now America of course, with Lance Armstrong leading the Tour, and certainly in Europe it's a huge sport.

Francis Leach: And what about here in Australia? Can you see cycling becoming a spectator sport or a passion, the way it has been in Europe? What do you think it is within the Australian psyche and culture that hasn't embraced it the way that others have?

Steve Hodge: Well you know, Neil Stevens, a friend of mine from Canberra, and of course more recently retired than myself, tells a story about how he was not feeling very good one day in Holland in his early years as a professional. It was sleeting outside, he was sitting inside in front of the warm fire, and he looked out and thought, 'Oh no, I'm not going outside today.' As he looked outside, he saw an old grandmother on one of those old Dutch cycles, head bent against the wind, slowly pushing against the gale and the sleet outside, riding past. He didn't think any more, he didn't question anything, he got on his bike and he went out training.

Australians don't ride bikes, don't use bikes as a form of transport like they do in Europe, and I think that probably sums up the most significant difference between our two cultures. The Europeans, it's a part of their life, cycling is part of their life. Now in Australia it was when we were young, but it ceases to be as soon as you get your first car. That probably is a major factor that we won't overcome. It is a very exciting sport and I think the following that the Commonwealth Bank Classic, the Sun Tour gets, and now this Tour Down Under, really is hopefully showing us the way forward you know.

Francis Leach: And just finally Steve, what about mountain biking, which is part of the cycling program at the Olympics next year? It's a new discipline and it seems that that's attracted a new generation of cyclists who like the extreme nature of downhill riding, and riding in rough terrain. Have cycling authorities been quick enough to embrace mountain biking and what it offers a new generation? Or is there a reluctance to get involved in what might be to them an alien pursuit?

Steve Hodge: (laughs) It certainly is an alien pursuit to many of the old guard and the administration and road riders. One thing that we haven't talked about Francis, is just how successful we are. I mean we've talked about controversy, we've talked about everything else. Mountain biking, a women's road cycling program, and our men currently in the Tour de France are extremely successful. Now I can't emphasise this enough: we're doing extremely well. Cadel Evans is No.1 in the World Cup current standings; he's a mountain biker, he's probably the big favourite for the Olympic Mountain Bike Race; Tracy Gaudry and Anna Wilson are both in the top five in the world in women's road cycling. On the track, the pursuit riders are maintaining, despite their problems currently, they're still maintaining an extremely competitive position in world track riding. I mean the men, Stuart O'Grady, he's up there, he risks winning a stage, just as Robbie McEwen in the world's greatest race, the Tour de France, we're a fantastically successful cycling nation. We've got everything we need, hopefully the mountain bikers will be treated as a very exciting new prospect in Australian cycling, which they deserve to be, they're great athletes, and we've got everything going for us.

Francis Leach: Former Tour de France rider, Steve Hodge.

...

Twentyfive years ago the Tour was a non-event in Australia. In a country where the car and not the 'deadly treadly' was king of the road, cycling simply didn't rate a mention. It wasn't until 1981 when a kid from Kew in Melbourne's eastern suburbs, made the front page when he earned the right to wear the famous yellow jersey, signifiying that he was leading the Tour. He was the first non-European to win the famous yellow top. His fellow riders called him Skippy, but he is Phil Anderson, and he remembers clearly how hard breaking into European cycling was.

Phil Anderson: It was a big change; I'd never lived out of home before, so that was a big difference, and then there's the length of the races; you know all of a sudden you're riding 200 kilometres a day instead of back here you'd be racing 80 or 100 kilometres a day; huge fields, you turn up at a race and you'd have 200 riders, 250 riders. Back in the club races here, up in Berwick or wherever we used to race, you know you'd have 20 or 30 guys. So there was some big elements to overcome. Cycling is part of the culture over there as well, everybody understands everything that goes on, and even though I was a racer from back here, I didn't know anything in comparison to what Joe Blow knew over there, and I was a racer, so it was a big learning experience for me and of course what made it harder was I didn't speak the language. It took quite a bit of time before I sort of got a bit of a grasp of what was going on.

Francis Leach: And there was enormous scepticism because you weren't European? I mean did you have to doubly prove yourself because you were Skippy, as they called you, in Australia?

Phil Anderson: It's difficult because I was on a French team, and I felt that the French riders got priority, and I had to go a bit deeper or had to be a little better than some of my colleagues on the team. But that hardened me, and put pressure on me, and I think became part of my make-up in the end.

Francis Leach: Tell us about 1981, because it was that year that you basically made cycling history by becoming the first non-European to grab the coveted yellow jersey, which sent shockwaves through the sport in Europe, and finally made the pages back here in Australia. It must have been a remarkable achievement for you, you must remember it fairly vividly.

Phil Anderson: Yes, I do. It happened in the Pyrenees. This was my first Tour de France. I didn't have aspirations of becoming the wearer of the yellow jersey or anything like that. I was given my instructions and I was supposed to look after a rider on my team, the team leader, a Frenchman, and I forgot my instructions and just sort of went in to survival mode over a number of mountain passes, just staying up with some of the top riders, and before I knew it, my team director came up beside me in his car and told me, 'Listen, what happened to your leader, the guy that you've been instructed to watch today?' you know. And to help if he has any troubles, or just pace him back if he's having some troubles. And I said, 'Oh gee, that's right. Where is he?' And he said, he's five or ten minutes back, in the next group.' I said, 'No worries I'll wait up for him.' He said, 'No, no, stay up here, you're doing OK, just stay out of trouble and try and hang on as long as possible.'

So hang on I did, and whistled down the next mountain and got to the last climb and I stayed up with Bernard Hinault; there was one rider, a Belgian rider, Lucien van Impe rode away, an excellent climber, he rode away and so we came in a couple of minutes later, but I had enough time from some good days previously, that I climbed into the yellow jersey, and I had no idea of what the sort of yellow jersey represented, because I mean there's so much history to it, and for me it was just like, 'Oh yes, great, I don't have to wash my old jersey tonight, you know, get a new one'. But really, you're sort of at the highest level of the sport.

Francis Leach: The sport's been in a bit of trouble in recent times, particularly with last year's Tour, and talk of drug scandals, and very public humiliation of riders who've been caught in the midst of this. Is it in danger of fracturing, and was this inevitable? I mean when you were riding, did it seem to you at times that the drugs and money and the desire to win above all else, was pulling the sport apart?

Phil Anderson: I don't think so. I think that basically started last year just with the exposure that there was a problem, and ever since then now the riders have grown used to the testing levels which they're doing now. As you say, it's always been a problem, but cycling is the highest tested of all sports for doping, and it's unfortunate that the perception that people have when they hear stories about last year's Tour de France, and everybody's ridden a bike at some stage, and they know how difficult it is to ride around town, or up in the hills around Melbourne or Sydney, or wherever, and they can't fathom how these people can ride around France, through the Alps and the Pyrenees and 3,000 or 4,000 kilometres in three weeks. Then they hear that there's drugs involved, and they say, 'Oh, of course, that's what it's been all the time.' You know, I think there's some unqualified people out there making some huge assumptions.

Francis Leach: Former Tour de France start, Phil Anderson.

Well with so much money now riding on the race, it's little wonder teams are taking massive risks to be top of the pile. Could the pursuit of sponsors and the big bucks they bring be the driving force behind teams being willing to break the rules in order to win?

Just what does a sponsor look for in a team, or an athlete? Here's John Forbes from sporting goods company, Puma.

John Forbes: I think you look for, a bit like a marriage Francis, you look for an ideal partner that's going to enhance the image of your brand and also someone that you can assist and help grow.

Francis Leach: But what are the pros and cons of that relationship? What do you actually weigh up?

John Forbes: Well we weigh up whether the person's going to be suitable for what we want to sell, because the reason people sponsor anybody is to enhance their product to the point where it affects the sales and you get the pull through, because the kids all love heroes and we want to try to manufacture, or not manufacture a hero, but we want to have a hero there for them to follow.

Francis Leach: In recent times, sport and sponsorship have had a difficult relationship, haven't they? It used to be that sponsoring a sports team or a sports person was seen as an obvious thing to do because it was promoting a healthy lifestyle and the pursuit of excellence. What's changed, do you think?

John Forbes: I think the market itself has changed because I know I started in this game 14 years ago, and I know then sponsorship was looked on as a donation rather than anything back the other way. But now, for every dollar spent, the dollars are hard-earned in any company, and for that dollar to be 'frivolously thrown away' without any return, is not looked at as good business, which it's not.

I think people now look for a return on their sponsorship money, and I think you've got to get money back and also credibility back, and it's an alternative to advertising. Well what's a front page in the paper worth, front page with your logo on? This is the sort of thing that you look for, and time on television.

Francis Leach: Describe the process you go through when you get involved with a sport or an individual. What sort of checks do you do on their character and on what potential they have to give your company the return you're looking for?

John Forbes: You always do your homework. You don't just go out and grab someone because they're in the paper, or they've suddenly kicked 10 goals in a match or get 150 runs. What you do is you go out and you investigate them. You don't do a private eye job on them, what you do, you go out there and you meet them personally, and just have a sit down and have a discussion with them, and you see whether they're going to suit what you want. It doesn't matter if they're a bit rough round the edges, that can be taught. We try and outline them what our company expects from a sports person. As a Puma sports person they've got obligations to our company, and we outline that very clearly. And if they're prepared to go along with that, well we then go the next step.

Francis Leach: And what sort of obligations are teams and sports people expected to meet when they get involved with you?

John Forbes: Well basically abide by their contract, because the contract stipulates pretty clearly what they're supposed to do. It's wear our product at all times, and also be a good ambassador for our brand.

Francis Leach: When you do get involved, what do you tell them are the absolute no-nos?

John Forbes: Drugs. No.1 and No.2 loyalty is a big thing with us. You've got to be loyal to the brand, but we've also got to be loyal to the sports person, because if we're not loyal to the sports person, we can't expect it back. And we tell them straight up that it's very, very important that they are able to communicate with us too. If they've got a problem, they've got to come to us and tell us all about it, because there's nothing worse than - I know I made a big mistake a few years ago, Phil Smythe, with the Australian Basketball Team, Phil was with us right through his playing days, and we had these prototypes of basketball boots, and Phil was testing them for us, and the basketball boot in reality was a pretty poor product, it was a real bad one. And when Phil retired, I said, 'Remember that basketball boot I got you to test a couple of years ago?' I said, 'Why did you tell me it was all right?' He said, 'I didn't want to upset you.' But as a result of that, Phil was trying to be nice to us, but as a result of that, our sales in basketball boots declined. It wasn't Phil's fault, he was just trying to do the right thing. But that's just the way things work, you know. You've got to get into a family situation with somebody, you've got to be able to talk to them, they've got to feel free to come to you and tell you if they've got a problem, and I think that's very important.

Francis Leach: What sort of negotiations do you go through with Managers and with teams or performers or athletes to negotiate expectations and rights? Is there a lot of give and take in what you talk about?

John Forbes: Oh yes there is. In the old days we just used to have a handshake a lot of the time. We'd give them X and Y. That's all changed now, it's really dotting the i's and crossing the t's to the letter of the law, because a lot of people are involved, always the contract used to be just a sheet of paper, now it's a volume. We get up there and we discuss what we believe a sports person's worth to us to have on the books. Of course the Manager always wants more, but you usually come to a good settlement. A good Manager will always strike a deal before he leaves. I think it's important that happens, because we've both got expectations, and you don't collect sports people like postage stamps either, that's the other thing. A lot of companies collect them like postage stamps, put them away, you never see them in their advertising, you never see them in any press they do, you never see them anywhere, and they're just languishing. But we try and encourage our people to get involved in our advertising programs.

Francis Leach: Do you educate the sports people and the teams as to what your expectations are about how they should present themselves, how they should conduct themselves?

John Forbes: Oh yes we do. We're pretty strong on it. We don't sit down and lecture them, I don't think that's the way to do it. I think what we do is just have a talk to them and say, 'Well, we'll help each other' because if we don't help each other, this thing's going to fall over. And it has happened a few times where we haven't helped each other and they did fall over. But people like Mark Taylor, the most loyal man you've ever found, ever. Mark took on the Puma cricket bat as a success story; he'd had another brand of bat when he was going through his slump. The Puma cricket bat came on the market, Mark went for it because he was already ensconced with our footwear. He got 100 of course in the first innings and then he went and broke the world record with it. But that's just the sort of thing that can happen. But it's all because people talk to each other.

Francis Leach: Sport sponsorship is becoming more and more part of sport itself. How much is it do you think, interfering in the conduct of sports now, where sports people and organisations are very concerned about keeping the sponsors happy, do you think that begins to affect performance on the field in the way that sports are conducted?

John Forbes: I hope it doesn't, but I'm afraid it is getting worse. I think it's so important that a sports person's allowed to perform at his optimum. I think it's most important, because if he can't perform, or the team can't perform without any restrictions, things are going to fall away, and this is what happens sometimes. If you can encourage a sport to carry on its business, and you can ride along on the coat-tails of that, fine. I think that's our role, I don't think we're there to dictate to them and tell them what we want.

Francis Leach: So increasingly though, sports sponsorship is starting to drive the way sports are conducted. Does that worry you?

John Forbes: It does a bit, I'll be honest about that, being a sports lover myself. I think it does really worry me. I think a lot of companies have got to learn to step back a yard, and don't interfere with the running of the sport if it's going along well. But then again, if a sport's going badly, don't be afraid to put the hand up and say, 'I think we can help you doing this and that and the other.'

Francis Leach: Your company is part of the sports business, you make sporting products. Why do you think a company that doesn't have anything to do with sport would want to sponsor sports people? It seems like at times it can be a difficult and strange relationship.

John Forbes: I think it would have to be handled very carefully, because it depends on the image you want to portray. I'm a bit amazed some companies do take on sports people, because the past has been littered with companies, non-sporting companies, that have taken up sporting people at whim, and tried to use them in programs and the thing's fallen through for a variety of reasons, mainly because people weren't really comfortable with it. But one I'd like to quote on the other side of it's Merv Hughes, he's got a sponsorship with a steel company, it works very well. Because he's the face of that steel company, the big moustache, he's got the image, and people love him.

Francis Leach: Is it also a case that those companies that don't have a great understanding of sport aren't aware of the pressures that sports people are under, and therefore have unrealistic expectations of them?

John Forbes: I think they do. I think a lot of them believe that it's going to turn their fortunes around because they've just got a test cricketer or someone up the front running for them. But providing it's done properly, the thing they've got to watch is you don't interfere with the playing or training of that athlete.

Francis Leach: Do you know of examples where companies have begun to interfere with training and preparation because they're not happy with their sponsorship?

John Forbes: Most definitely. I think one of the ones is, well, it is rumoured, that the World Cup Soccer Final last year was one, that someone had to be on the pitch or else, you know. And of course the side lost and there was a great problem there. But I don't think you ever get to the point where you interfere. I think you've got to stand back, you've got to encourage and stand back. You don't go in there and point the finger and say, 'You're running tonight', or 'You're playing tonight, because if you don't you're going to lose your sponsorship.' I don't think you do that, I think that's very bad tactics.

Francis Leach: But at what point do you back out? At what point do you decide that somebody's behaviour or a sports state of health is so bad that it's no longer worth the company being involved in?

John Forbes: Oh yes, I think the thing is that we have reviews every 12 months or how this sponsorship's travelling. No, we do that more than every 12 months, we do that every couple of months. We talk to the guy who's got a problem and we try and get it worked out, if he's got a long-term injury we work it out. But you've got to learn in our game, it's easy to jump off, you've got to learn to stay with the good people because they would stay with you through bad times. I think it's got to be reciprocated a bit.

Francis Leach: John Forbes, from Puma.

Well that's it from me. My name's Francis Leach. Amanda Smith will join you next week once again at this time for The Sports Factor.


The Sports Factor can be heard on Radio National, 8.30am Fridays (Repeated Friday evenings at 8.30pm).


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