So the race is run: Sky has confirmed that it will end its sponsorship of the eponymous cycling team at the end of the 2019 season.
It brings to an end more than a decade of success, during which time the team won six Tour de France titles, as well as the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana. Not to mention some of my most memorable cycling moments, such as Geraint Thomas’s remarkable comeback to hold off Alberto Contador and win Paris-Nice in 2016.
Both Sky and British cycling have benefited massively from the partnership. The Sky brand has been beamed into the homes of millions of TV viewers, often watching on other broadcasters such as Channel 4 and ITV and the BBC.
The Sky brand has also been associated with some of British sport’s greatest achievements, especially the first British Tour win by Bradley Wiggins.
Team Sky’s success has turned Britain into a nation of cyclists and cycle fans, with one commentator saying that at one point, Team Sky was more popular than the England football team. Participation has boomed and helped feed the emergence of the MAMIL (middle aged man in Lycra).
Despite all the success, I for one wasn’t surprised to hear the news that the partnership had come to an end. That’s because despite of all the success the Team Sky brand is tarnished.
Team Sky principal Sir Dave Brailsford said: “The vision for Team Sky began with the ambition to build a clean, winning team around a core of British riders and staff. The team’s success has been the result of the talent, dedication and hard work of a remarkable group of people who have constantly challenged themselves to scale new heights of performance. None of this would have been possible without Sky.”
Unfortunately, despite these high ambitions, the Team Sky brand has been damaged by allegations surrounding the infamous ‘jiffy bag’, and the damning findings of a parliamentary inquiry that concluded Team Sky had “crossed ethical lines” by obtaining therapeutic use exemptions that allowed Wiggins to take triamcinolone, a powerful corticosteroid which would usually be banned whilst riding the Tour.
In addition, despite being cleared of any wrong doing, the year’s months long question mark hanging over four times Tour Winner Chris Froome concerning irregular salbutamol use, would have been enough for many other sponsors to suspend their support.
Despite these episodes, Sky has remained loyal to Brailsford and the riders. But with Sky now being owned by Philadelphia-based Comcast, there appears to have been a dispassionate review of the sponsorship that has concluded it risks long-term damage to the Sky brand or is simply too expensive. This may also have been influenced by the American corporate experience of cycling success and sponsorship. Let’s just say that US Postal’s sponsorship of Lance Armstrong’s team didn’t end well. Who knows what other skeletons may emerge from the Team Sky bus?
What’s more the public’s attention has moved on. Whilst there has been a cycling boom, cycle sales in the UK are actually falling and key sector players such as retailer Evans Cycles and ultimate MAMIL brand Rapha are experiencing problems as a result.
Cleverly, Sky has moved-on and picked Ocean Plastics as it’s next cause celebre. This is intelligent marketing and chimes with the public’s concern to engage with more ethical and sustainable brands.
What this all means for the team is yet to be seen. But with Sky having spent £150 million on the sponsorship, there’s a big question mark over whether the team will find another sponsor with such deep pockets.
What’s more, the value of sponsoring the team is likely to fall as, uncertainty about future sponsorship could see many of the team’s talented riders attracted away to other teams with longer-term sponsors.
This may see an end to Sky’s dominance of the Grand Tours and usher in more exciting and varied racing, which should be welcomed by all true cycling fans.
Whilst the Sky sponsorship has been a huge success, it is another example of the potential for reputational damage brands risk when they get involved in sports sponsorship.
Only time will tell what the future holds for Sir Dave and the rest of the team, but it’s been a great ride for British cycling fans, myself included. Chapeau!