Thanks in no small part to the brave exploits of our American boys in lycra overseas, especially that Lance Armstrong guy everyone's so excited about, American cycling has been making steady gains in the past few years, and more Americans than ever before are tuning in for the daily acts of courage, grace and strength that are the elemental content of the sport of cycling. As American riders continue to make their mark in Europe, a sea change is coming here in the States as the sport's leading American promoter, Threshold Sports, makes a strategic alliance with ZelnickMedia, a partnership of experienced media executives, led by Strauss Zelnick, former CEO of BMG Entertainment and President/COO of 20th Century Fox, in an aggressive move to accelerate the growth of cycling in America.
Anyone who loves American cycling knows the sport is an untapped goldmine of thrilling athletic drama and compelling, unspoiled personalities, most of which goes unseen outside of a small, initiated subculture. As the riders take the start at the highest profile event of the year, Threshold's First Union series and USPRO Championship in Philadelphia, there are a few known faces and names, but the men's field alone features 200 riders, the least of whom has his own unique story of Herculean effort, commitment, sacrifice and dedication to reach the start line. As the race is contested over 156 arduous miles and one rider raises his arms in triumph, the assembled spectators and viewers of the live coverage of the race on local TV have seen feats of athletic prowess to rival any of the big money American sports; so why does American cycling continue to languish in obscurity?
David Chauner, President and CEO of Threshold Sports has been at the forefront of every one of American cycling's great domestic leaps starting 18 years ago with the advent of the USPRO Championship, and continuing through last year with the huge success of the inaugural San Francisco Grand Prix. In Chauner's mind, the obstacle to a higher profile for the sport has been "building enough credibility to really attract big sponsorship dollars." Under the terms of the agreement between ZelnickMedia and Chauner's Threshold Sports, ZelnickMedia will purchase a minority stake in Threshold Sports, LLC and Strauss Zelnick will join Threshold's Board of Directors, to actively assist Threshold in making the sponsorship and media relationships that will drive the sport's growth. "Sponsorship sales and media interest are still very much relationship driven," says Chauner, "the fact that Strauss Zelnick and his partners are very well respected and have outstanding, high-level contacts in many companies will enhance our credibility and help us get audiences at the highest decision-making level."
Strauss Zelnick's impressive résumé includes a BA from Wesleyan University, on whose board he now serves, and an MBA and J.D. from Harvard. He began his media career as an executive in the International Television Division at Columbia Pictures, followed by stints as President and Chief Operating Officer at Vestron, Inc., a leading independent motion picture producer, 20th Century Fox, and Crystal Dynamics, a producer and distributor of interactive entertainment software. He went on to the role of President and CEO of BMG Entertainment, where he managed one of the world's largest music and entertainment companies, overseeing over 200 record labels with operations in 54 countries, and leading the company to record revenues.
Zelnick is also a cyclist. "I have been in the media and entertainment business for over twenty years, and have been an avid cyclist for most of that time," says Zelnick. "I decided to try to combine my love of the sport with my company's media investment and management activities." Having made the decision to look for investment opportunities in cycling, ZelnickMedia did its homework, and kept running into one name: Threshold Sports. "Almost everyone we spoke to in the cycling world told us that Threshold Sports was the leading professional race organizer in the country. We met with Dave Chauner, and quickly realized that we shared a vision for how the sport could grow, and committed to working together long-term to make that vision a reality."
That shared vision centers on Threshold's Pro Cycling Tour. Chauner says that it is his company's "number one mission is to develop the Pro Cycling Tour into a really definitive series of American bike races," which Chauner hopes will become "recognized around the world as a legitimate, high quality series with outstanding new opportunities for pro cyclists. We want Americans to recognize and follow the top PCT contenders." One of the difficulties of the American cycling scene is that a packed schedule of top level European racing keeps the world's top riders (and with them, the highest prestige races) in Europe; relegating American pros to what is often seen as a less competitive field. Chauner believes that a strong PCT will "attract cyclists from all over the planet. If we do our jobs right," says Chauner, "all riders who want to be the best will aspire to winning the PCT and will dream of spending a season in the US. Our goal is to have as many US and foreign teams as possible race in every PCT event so we can build recognition for names and personalities." Chauner sees consistency as a key to success, and hopes the development of the series will attract the talent to make the racing compelling to the public. "It does little good to have different riders at each event. When we have ten well-known riders in contention at the PCT finals for overall victory, and a million dollar first overall bonus, we'll know we have arrived."
The Zelnick/Threshold relationship will focus on building the Pro Cycling Tour, consisting of the First Union Series in Philadelphia, The San Francisco Grand Prix, The Miami Cycling Classic, and this year, the first New York City Cycling Championship. In addition to these races, Threshold would like to add three or four more races in other cities within the next few years, and focus on building the series into a recognizable brand: cycling's equivalent of NASCAR or the PGA Tour, which will define the sport for participants, sponsors, media and the public. "We use the NASCAR analogy because we believe strongly that pro cycling can and should be as big a sport as professional auto racing," says Zelnick, "both sports have terrific spectator appeal and attract huge event crowds when properly managed. NASCAR has successfully created a series of team franchises, major races, TV audiences and significant sponsorship revenues. Our goal and intention is to build the PCT in much the same model." While there are parallels with the NASCAR model, Zelnick sees in cycling a unique opportunity to appeal to a strong and growing demographic. "Cycling is a much more wholesome, healthy and participatory sport than car racing. We will be uniquely appealing to family and health-oriented media partners and sponsors."
Both Chauner and Zelnick believe in the sport's potential to sell itself to the public. "Pro cycling is already an incredibly exciting sport to watch in person," says Zelnick. "Our major focus will be helping Threshold build media and sponsorship alliances which will accelerate the growth and coverage of the sport." To that end, ZelnickMedia "will be working closely with Threshold to help maximize the quality of the television coverage of their current events, and secure coverage for future new races. We are working together to create media alliances and to package sponsorships in a compelling manner for the benefit of both major marketers and fans of the sport."
In the short run, Chauner says "we will immediately see some new, quality sponsors enter the sport through our current PCT events." The New York City Cycling Championship will immediately benefit. Zelnick elaborates: "For the NYC race we will have a major watch manufacturer as the time-keeping sponsor for the first time. We have signed the Hearst Corporation and Dow Jones and Company [publisher of the Wall Street Journal] as the official business publisher of the race, which begins and ends at Wall Street. The event will be covered live on both ABC-TV and radio. We believe that the August 4th NYC race will be the best covered and best attended in the history of US pro cycling."
The Zelnick/Threshold alliance looks to the future as well. "Cycling is one of the few truly international sports not yet fully developed in the United States," says Zelnick. "The sport has the demographic base, broad public appeal and exciting spectator potential to become the sport of choice of health conscious Americans." Chauner agrees, and after a lifetime of commitment to the sport, hopes that by creating high profile events with strong media ties and solid sponsorship, Threshold can bring help cycling take its place in the American imagination. "In the best of all possible worlds, we will find a major player, perhaps an entertainment company, that sees the value in owning and developing a new sports league with worldwide impact. For less than the price of a major Olympic sponsorship, the right company could catapult cycling from relative obscurity to top of mind awareness in less than five years." Zelnick, too, sees huge potential in the sport as an "excellent and underutilized opportunity for companies to advertise to an important and growing demographic. The potential to franchise local teams and events is enormous and largely untapped."
In the States, cycling is truly a grassroots network, with riders and promoters struggling to participate out of passion for the sport, and barely breaking even financially. Speaking to the Daily Peloton last month, Dave Chauner said "You have to hand it to those guys, they are the backbone of the sport. They do it because they love it. It's one of my goals to see that improve for them; but our philosophy and view of how to promote cycling is really different from the prevailing club mentality, with it's 'let's do this in out of the way places and try not to disrupt people' approach. Our view has always been 'let's put it right in everybody's face, disrupt as much traffic as we can, get as much TV and media as we can, and jump up and down and sell it until everybody listens.'"
With this marriage of Threshold's passion for the sport, an ambitious and forward-thinking business plan, and the media savvy of ZelnickMedia, it looks like America may be listening soon.
The Daily Peloton welcomes your thoughts on this article and on the future of American Cycling.