Welcome to Marketing 101, where we’re going to have a little (one-sided) discussion about why cycling gained so much popularity over the past seven years. Think about this in your own head: Why did cycling suddenly make such big gains? I can see the wheels turning in your head already.
"Ethical appeal," you say, "Lance was promoting it, and he’s a very persuasive guy."
I don’t think Lance is even that cocky. It wasn’t ethical appeal in the traditional sense. Okay, we’ll go half points on that answer, because it sort of was, too.
But the real question is, Why did everybody latch on to Lance so much? And the answer to that is, they identified with him. See, it wasn’t Lance’s race results that caught everyone’s eye, it was his personality. He came out with a widely read book (yes, some people in North America still read) describing this childhood that most men in the United States can identify with (abandoned by his father, consumed by recklessness—does that resonate with anybody?), then he proceeded to win consistently. But it wasn’t his winning that caught everyone’s eye; it was his humanity, his personality. People started talking about him—this American white guy who was out winning a European sport, kicking everybody’s butt after he had cancer, someone who persevered despite having some daunting obstacles in his way, someone who could tap into the deepest realm of his physical abilities to make things happen at just the right times.
People related to the guy. Bottom line.
So how do you rescue cycling now? More exciting commentary? Shinier Dura-Ace components? Less modest podium girls?
Nope. The only way to do it is to help people connect with the riders. That’s tough to do when all of your riders are poking themselves with needles filled with erythropoeitin and testosterone during the night before a race. Nonetheless, even the dopers haven’t had too hard a time drawing an audience—as long as the spectators can relate to them. I’ve already written plenty about the phenomenon of undying support for Marco Pantani in Italy despite the fact that he almost undoubtedly doped.
Here’s my suggestion for the cycling industry folks: get the microphones in a little closer. Tell us a little more about the riders. We heard all of these things about Levi Leipheimer during this past Tour, but they were all the standard recycled facts—he’s from Montana, he’s lived in California and Utah, he worked hard on his TT position over the winter. None of that stuff reveals anything about Levi the person. Is he married? What has his greatest triumph been in cycling so far? How about his greatest disappointment? How did those things affect him as a person? What motivates him? What does he think about while he’s riding out there? Why did he take it so conservatively for the first 2/3 of the Tour?
Cycling, in my opinion, does a terrible job of telling us enough about the riders’ personalities.
Just suppose for a second that you’re having a conversation with someone about the Tour, that Michael Rasmussen is still leading, and that you want to peak your conversation-partner’s interest. Are you going to tell them:
A) Michael Rasmussen was a world champion mountain biker who won the polka-dot jersey for the best climber twice before this year’s Tour
B) Michael Rasmussen can climb a mountain above 1700 VAM (I don’t know if this is actually true), which is meaningful to people who read Cyclingnews.com all the time
C) Michael Rasmussen’s nickname is Chicken. While it was suspected that he gained that nickname for his scrawny white chicken legs, it was actually because his roommates were watching some Danish cartoon about a cow and a chicken back in the day when he walked into the room. They all looked at each other, said, "Chicken" at the same time, and busted up laughing because of how funny it was at the time.
D) Rasmussen crashed a half dozen times during the final time trial of the 2005 Tour de France, dropping from third place to about seventh (I think). Since then, he dedicated himself to conquering the world of the wind tunnel.
Which one do you find most interesting?
It doesn’t have to be that personality stuff. The difference could be made simply by getting the microphone in close enough to hear a rider gasping for breath as he cranks his way up a mountainside in the Tour de France. It could be just getting a close up of his face as he winces with pain, sweating rolling off the tip of his nose, before getting out of the saddle and charging for the summit. Whatever it is, it needs to help the spectator connect with the competitor, and I’ll admit that’s risky in a world where you don’t know if your rider is pumped full of human growth hormone or not.
Take a page from another sport for a moment:
Triathlon’s golden moment came in the early ’80s when Julie Moss finished second in the Ironman World Championship. Yes, you read that correctly, she finished second. Ask any triathlete what the name of the first-placed finisher was that year—they won’t be able to tell you. Here’s why:
Julie Moss was just a normal person, a student doing the Ironman as part of a fitness project. She’d been leading the women’s race for most of the race. It looked like she had a clear shot to victory as she came within sight of the finish. And that’s when her legs gave out. Like, as in, gave OUT. She hit the pavement, rested for a half second and then got back up and started running again. Only a few seconds later, she hit the pavement again—and this time she wasn’t getting back up. Instead, she started crawling to the finish line. And I don’t mean bear crawling; I mean hands-and-knees crawling. She was finished, but she refused to give in. In the last few meters before the finish line, another competitor finally caught and passed her.
It’s now known as one of the greatest moments in sports history.
So who do you introduce to the audience next? Whoever’s in front of the race. Take a risk, talk about your movers. If they turn out to be dopers, well, them’s the breaks. C’mon people, we have a sport to save.