Friday, 27 April 2007

Bets are off?

Aside from the ongoing fallout from Operacion Puerto, which is systematically claiming what is left of cycling’s already tarnished reputation, one of the most unseemly features of the 2007 season is the predicament of the Swedish Unibet cycling team.

The problems stretch back over two years, to the creation of the UCI Pro Tour. Meant to give the sport a facelift and greater popularity, the top races in the calendar were brought together into a series which attracted points for victories. Each race was guaranteed participation by the 18 Pro Tour teams, offering TV viewers and race goers the opportunity to see an increased level of competition on a more regular basis.

In return for the hefty three year investment required for a Pro Tour licence, sponsors committing to the sport thought they’d be guaranteed increased exposure. When the decision was taken at the end of last season by the UCI to expand the Pro Tour to twenty teams, Unibet and Astana were the two lucky winners in the scramble, or so they thought.

On the eve of the new European season, the classic curtain raiser of the Paris-Nice was almost cancelled. Why? Race organisers ASO, already disgruntled by increased UCI interference in their historical autonomy, resented the limitation it placed on their ability to award ‘wild card’ race entries to local French squads. The whole affair became symptomatic of the wider power struggle between race organisers and the sport’s governing body.

While it’s easy to sympathise with race organisers (what is the sport without their great races?), and whilst the Pro Tour idea is undoubtedly flawed (is the series winner really the world’s best rider?), the UCI undoubtedly has the best long-term interests of the sport at heart, realising that it can only grow with solid and long-term financial backing.

Unibet are now left with an expensive licence, a string of legal actions, and the sour taste of broken promises. Forbidden from riding in the major French races, mostly organised by ASO, they have been absent at Paris-Nice, Paris-Roubaix and are not on the start list for the Tour de France. Their sponsors were sold a dodgy package, and not surprisingly want compensation from the UCI.

Yesterday the courts came to Unibet’s aid, a Belgian judge ruling that their exclusion from races by ASO was contrary to European law. ASO had been using the spurious reason that French law forbids advertising by gambling and betting organisations. In the pre-season warm up races the team were made to race in team kit with all sponsor logos removed and replaced by question marks. ASO conveniently forget to remember that they had no problems with Mr, the team that morphed into Unibet last autumn. It seems that the Pro Tour is the real bone of contention, and the judge agreed that ASO’s stance contravenes European law.

Sadly, the ruling won’t be conclusive. On the fifth of March another judge ruled that the deal between the UCI and ASO, which agreed to the guaranteed entry for Pro Tour teams into races, was not legally binding, ASO can quite legitimately insist on the right to invite whoever they like to their races, leaving Unibet to sit watching on the sidelines. The team may now have a stronger case for compensation, rumoured to be 5 million Euros per day of racing, but this is no substitute for the top flight racing they crave.

At a time when sponsors are beginning to doubt whether or not cycling is a desirable outlet for the wholesome image of their brands, witness the departure of Phonak and soon Discovery, the Unibet affair does nobody any credit. Without the co-operation of both race organisers and the UCI in the battle against the far larger menace of doping, both parties could ultimately be left empty handed.

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