It has been reported today that the UCI are discussing proposals to have a two-tiered structure in professional cycling, with promotion and relegation between the first and second division. There would also be a third grouping of the Continental teams, for which it doesn’t sound like there are any plans to offer promotion to the professional circuit.
While this may seem like it is bringing cycling into line with other professional sports, is it necessary or feasible? The current system on the World Tour relies on second-ranked teams being offered wild card places to enter the big events, a system which would seem largely unchanged by this proposal, but the only way they can move up to the World Tour is by proving that they have the staff, resources and setup to compete at world level. Under the new proposals, they could compete full-time on the World Tour by finishing in a high placing in their division, while another World Tour team is relegated. I’m not sure that this is good for either the teams or cycling in general.
Team Sky recently posted a video on their YouTube page giving a behind-the-scenes look at their Service Course (the division that supplies and maintains their equipment for touring) and it is nothing short of staggering. Most cycling teams could not compete with that support network without major sponsorship. If the teams had that kind of networks and sponsorship already, they would also be competing on the World Tour. But what would happen to these teams if they were “relegated”?
Major sponsors, already scarce in cycling, would not be interested in a team condemned to compete only in minor events for the coming season. If they pulled out, it is unlikely the team would be able to get back to World Tour standards anytime soon. However, if they did, it could lead to considerable uncertainty and see-sawing as teams cyclically hire and fire staff according to which division they compete in for the coming season. Football can sustain this – the structure is more supportive – but I’m not sure cycling can.
I also wonder, would the UCI really drop one or more of the current World Tour teams from the top level of cycling just because of a poor season? Cycling depends on these high level teams for its fan interest and consequent funding. Would the UCI seriously kick Team Sky out if they finished bottom? It would be the end of the team, and a significant revenue stream for pro cycling.