All they need now is the guy in the furry suit...

Today the 'cat' was let out of the bag by Jakob Fuglsang.  The title sponsor for the Luxembourg cycling project?  The Luxembourg Leopards.  Name on the Jersey?  Team Leopard.  Possibly.  Frank Schleck is saying it will be Team Lëtzebuerg.  Team Manager Brian Nygaard is now saying it won't be Leopard as the name on the jersey.  We'll know for sure in January.  

Don't laugh.  The Leopard idea might be the future of professional cycling.  Even, dare I say, its salvation.

Professional sports franchises on the US team-sports model.   Built upon regional loyalty to a defined city-state, funded by a local business magnate, and...named after an animal.

The Boston Bruins.  The Chicago Bears.  The Atlanta Hawks.

The Luxembourg Leopards?

I think it's a pretty good model.   At least as far as harvesting natural fan loyalty to build long term value and lasting brand equity in pro cycling teams.

Pro cycling has suffered a bit over the years by a certain built-in instability due to year-to-year commercial sponsors, and the corresponding temporal alliances, structures, and problems that come along with that hand-to-mouth business model.

Things were simpler in 1952:  Jerseys, Bikes....and Loyalties.  
There are no strong 'franchises', and consequently little long term value or equity built in cycling 'teams'.  Fan loyalty tends to be built around individual champions rather than teams.  Even though the fans tend to root for their local heros anyway.

I think the Schlecks have it right, this might just be the future of cycling.

Sure, there are a few historical exceptions.  Flandria was the de-facto team of Flanders for about 20 years until  1979.  The Basque team Euskatel is also built on a regional loyalty program with it's membership subscriptions and Basque riders only recruiting policy.    But the majority of pro-teams, particularly those in France and Italy, are built around commercial concerns only.   And when the sponsorship stops, the personnel disperse, shuffle, and re-aggregate around a new sponsor, a new jersey.  Often starting from zero.  No equity exists in the team.  Just mercenaries seeking their next meal ticket.  Every man for himself.   Is that the best way to build long term value?

There's a reason the Tour de France was at its most popular in years of 'national teams,' for it's no secret that fans love to cheer for their homeboys, their local flag, their own ones.  Those Dutch on Alpe d'Huez aren't waving Rabobank flags, they're cheering for Dutchmen.  As it should be.  Rabobank?  It's the patron, the financier, and the beneficiary of a great promotional vehicle, but it's not the soul of the squad.  In reality, the team is Holland's de-facto national team, brought to you by a bank.  As Euskatel is for Pays Basque.   And Lotto and Quick Step are for Belgium.  As Garmin is for the Peoples Republic of Boulder, Colorado.  Katusha for Russia.  Sky for UK.  Saxo Bank for Denmark.  Etc, etc.    We're evolving back to 'regional teams" anyway, so why not just embrace it.
1968.  England (Hoban) vs. Holland (Janssen)
2010:  SKY (England) vs. Rabobank (Holland).  What's the difference? 

The book Jihad vs. McWorld talked about this phenomenon.   As the world accelerates toward a more technologically interconnected, single global society, people increasingly yearn for, and seem to more actively seek, means to express their own tribal identity.  Balkanization inside globalization.

For cycling, a model of consistent 'regional' professional teams with fixed management structures and rotating sponsors is a good concept.  It's more like soccer, where the shirt sponsors may come and go, but the teams and colors stay constant, and year after year, the masses still line the pitch to support Manchester United, Ajax or Real Madrid.

Pro sports of all types have always struggled to balance commercial requirements and interests, while maintaining the consistency of hometown fan support bases.   On one end of the spectrum is the NFL/NHL/MLB model.  City teams.  Big pocket owners.  No primary sponsor.  City - Animal team names.

On the other end is NASCAR and Cycling circa-1980.   Commercial interests primary.  Constant flux.

Here's hoping team Luxembourg can sustain the model beyond the too typical 3-4 season model that's unfortunately the norm for pro cycling team duration.   A sport built on so much tradition really should have more teams that represent that tradition.  Cycling's pros shouldn't have to scramble like beggars every time a commercial sponsor decides to make a different business decision.

So here's to the Leopards, may they roar long and loud.

If for no other reason than for the fact that now we'll get to see some drunk guys from Itzig in leopard suits, running up the Galibier in July, mixing it up with the Dutch.


  1. I don't think Pro Cycling is evolving towards regional teams; globalization is winning. Most of the strong teams become decidedly international with their rosters.

    The major difference between cycling and the other professional sports you mention are of venue & league. The others take place in stadiums (owned or leased by the teams) and have 1-on-1 games in a league setting (in other words most of the competitions are owned collectively), and in many instances, there are revenue sharing deals.

    Cycling has distinct entities that control various aspects; the teams, the events and the governing body, and putting pista and cross events aside, the competitions take place on public roads.

    The UCI Pro Tour is a weak attempt at a league; it is too diluted, and there is no true central control Jonathon Vaughters expressed some interesting ideas last week, in his CN blog, but they are not very realistic.

    I believe trade teams are here to stay for the foreseeable future. Teams funded by benefactors and being named after their management companies are most likely short term prospects.

    The Inner Ring had an interesting post on the "profitability" of teams a few days ago.

  2. Good counterpoints Touriste-Routier, thanks for weighing in.

    Trade teams indeed here to stay, no doubt there.

    There's definitely two types: Really Global (e.g. HTC, BMC, Radio Shack) and those that are more 'regional. I think it's interesting to compare Quick Step's primarily Belgian roster today with the days of the Mapei pan-European juggernaut. You're right about the 'better teams being international'. There's also no doubt that team Luxembourg is completely international in roster (although many of the Danes have made Luxembourg their 2nd home).

    Will have to check out the inner ring.
    Thanks again for reading and commenting.


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