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Toyota-United Owner Sean Tucker passionate about cycling
 
By Lyne Lamoureux
Date: 9/15/2007
Toyota-United Owner Sean Tucker passionate about cycling
 

Photo courtesy of Toyota-United Pro Cycling Team

Sean Tucker is a former independent professional cyclist and lifelong entrepreneur who first developed his passion for cycling at the age of 10. He went on to win the bronze medal at the U.S. National Criterium Championships in 1985 and subsequently qualified for and competed in the 1996 U.S. Olympic Trials.

A principal in several businesses, Tucker presently owns and operates the Toyota-United Pro Cycling Team which was launched in 2006 using a landmark joint fan membership and sponsorship business model similar to that of NASCAR and Formula 1.

I sat down with Sean Tucker in Greenville SC, the evening following the US Pro Time Trial. At that point, the Toyota-United Pro Cycling Team was second in the National Race Calendar (NRC) team standings with one last race to be contested in the NRC season.

In the first part of the interview, Tucker gives us his views on his team after two years of operation and on the state of cycling. He freely shared his thoughts on possible solutions to doping, and his ideas on a league to improve the business of cycling in the USA. Sean Tucker in his own words....

Lyne: You are coming to the end of your second year with your team Toyota-United, are you where you thought you would be after two years?

Sean: Yeah, I would say so. Last year was really successful for us in terms of winning a lot of races and this year the same, we've won a lot. Although we've had a lot of injuries this year so our win ratio is down but we still won a lot of races, I think 34 right now. Last year we won 55, so definitely less. But in terms of our membership base - I think we are at twenty thousand right now, I know we are over twenty, twenty or twenty-three, one of those two - so we're pretty happy with that. We didn't even start offering the memberships until Tour of California of 2006 so that's a year and a half. So in a year and a half, to have twenty plus thousand people say 'hey I want to hear about the team every month', they email us all the time, that's a pretty good vote of confidence I would say.

Lyne: Speaking of your memberships, is your fan base mostly US-based or is it worldwide?

Sean: It is mostly US but we have fans in Germany, France, Spain, Japan, China, they are all over the place. It's pretty cool.

Lyne: What was the original vision for your team?

Sean: The original (vision) was and still is to basically create a cycling franchise model, like you have in basketball, baseball, football, where the name of the team, which in this case is United Pro Cycling Team, would live on decade after decade if you will. And then Toyota came aboard and they just fell in love with the vision and the concept of establishing this household name and this brand and doing it right, having the fans involved, winning races, being involved in the community and doing charitable work which we do. They really liked that vision and that is still our vision and so that was the goal, just to do it different and try and do it in a more sustainable manner than other cycling teams.

Lyne: What have you learned in the past two years that maybe you would do differently or needs to be adjusted?

Sean: So far I would say I would do nothing differently. I would say for the most part we're doing things on the mark. The only exceptions that I realized, and I was explaining this to someone earlier today, is that in order to make more money in the sport of cycling I really think that you have to have a league. You have to have a league that is on TV where there's a series of twenty or thirty races, mostly likely criteriums or road races with circuits, where they're fan-friendly, spectator-friendly. And there is advertising revenues involved and corporate sponsors that help promote sort of this season-long series if you will.

I think that is really the only way to raise more funds and share it with the teams that participate in this season long series. I kind of had an idea of that before hand but now that I've sort of seeing so far how the business end is panning out as a team owner, I'm realizing there is more fundamental problems with the business of cycling in general, not just teams but actually from the top down, from the governing body down. And until we can get on TV and actually have ten-year corporate sponsors and advertising revenues that get split, a split goes to the teams. Until you have that, it's always going to be a small sport.

Lyne: So, are you going to start a league next year then?

Sean: Not next year, maybe in the future, but not next year.

Lyne: Are there any small steps that could be taken before the league is started?

Sean: No I think you have to go right to the league. I really do, I don't think... how long as cycling and teams bean around? a hundred year? Guess what, we're still a small time sport, I don't see why it's suddenly is going to change. We had Greg Lemond, Lance Armstrong, Miguel Indurain. If Greg Lemond and Lance Armstrong can't change the economics of the sport for all teams, then it's just not going to happen. Whatever you are doing is not working. You have to change the entire structure, it's the structure that is flawed basically.

Lyne: Do you think the other team owners would be receptive to doing something like that?

Sean: The riders and the teams go where the money is. That's it. You have good prize money, good exposure, good sponsors, they're going to come.

Lyne: How do you put a league together?

Sean: It's really easy. You do like I did to make the team, you pick up the phone and start dialing for dollars. You have to get a television partner that wants to ideally volunteer the TV time because they're going to have something to gain, that is unique content for them, original sports content. That's one partner you need.

Then you need to partner with an advertising sales agency that is used to selling TV ads, and I know about advertising ads sales because I sold on the internet for ten years and I know how that game works. So you partner with a television outfit for distribution, you partner with an ad sales company that can sell the advertising and then you go get corporate sponsors to really start initiating prize money, cover expenses to put together insurances and all these types of things.

I would most likely go and leverage working with existing races and promoters in order to enhance their events which gives them more opportunities to raise funds at the local level but the big money would come to the national level from the advertising. So, it's really not complicated at all, it's nothing I thought of myself, it's already happening in other businesses. So it's just doing what already exists.

Lyne: Given cycling's current reputation, how hard would it be to get sponsors now to do this league?

Sean: Now is not the time. Not unless it's all medical companies <laughs> This is my wife's idea. My wife said that the only way you could test positive is if your team is sponsored by medical company X, and another team is sponsored by medical company Y, and they test for taking the other person's products. That was her idea. That is the only way you'd test positive is if the teams are sponsored by medical companies and so you'd have to use their products. It was a joke we were having.

Right now is not the time. You can't raise any money for this. That's why you have to let things settle down and really map it out, exactly who you would go after. You could talk to television company. I wouldn't do it tomorrow, maybe in the next couple of years, when things sort themselves out.

Lyne: What about streaming of races over the internet? Do you think that is another interesting model to go after?

Sean: I do actually, I've been watching that. Definitely I think it's got some opportunities there for sure, but I'm a real big believer that, at least in America, unless a sport is on TV, its not a real sport. I mean honestly, we were talking about this at diner tonight, the best example I can think of is the ultimate fighting, the people fighting.

Think about it, that is the best example you could use. If you go back...I was watching those fights like ten or twelve years ago on pay-per-view when they had back then and that industry never took off. They did okay, they had people like me that really liked it and paid a lot of money to watch it, but we always wanted more. So this new group of guys came in, I think it was three or four years ago, they bought it for two million dollars. They bought the brand, ultimate fighting brand for two million dollars, and the first thing they did is exactly what I am telling you. They went to Spike TV, cut a distribution deal, said 'we want to have a reality show' and then used the reality show to get new fighters and then start showing on TV. Now they're on every week and now Versus and everybody else have got their own stuff.

So there's a perfect model, something that works. It was a small sport like we are, technically at that point we're a much bigger sport. Now the difference is, and it's huge difference in all fairness, you don't need to know much to watch a fight, somebody gets knocked out, and somebody wins. With cycling you have to explain it all.

So part of my thought process on this whole league idea is that it's got to be... to some extent you have to change the format of the racing, I really believe that. Certainly the fastest guy always wins and that you don't change. One of the ideas I have is that the guys get points, the first five people to cross the line of every lap of a criterium get points and the most points at the end of the race... the points win the races as an example.

Lyne: Like track racing?

Sean: Exactly, like track, and then you have this series-long where each team gets their points for thirty races and maybe there's even a playoff system when it gets towards the end of the series. The top five teams get into the playoff, and they do the last three or four races when it gets down to the last two and then it's just a flat out race or something like that.

But I think you have to change the format so it's easy for people to understand because all we know in America is points and scores, we don't understand the tactics. It's too hard to explain, the fact of the matter, it's too hard to explain. It seems easy to us, but after all these years, it's still not working, the format we are using...not being on TV consistently and the format is not working.


Sean Tucker
Photo Veronika Lenzi

Lyne: So what is your opinion of the status of the pro cycling business right now?

Sean: For sponsorship, it's terrible, it's absolutely terrible. You have all these idiots that are out there taking drugs and doing stuff they're not supposed to be doing, to thank for it. And quite frankly, as far as I'm concerned the governing bodies are not doing nearly enough. They need to, as I've said in interviews before, they absolutely and positively need to ... I really think you have to have a sliding scale for people that are offenders, and I'll tell you what I mean.

If you have a rider that took pseudofed because he had allergies and tested positive. That guy to me gets like a three to six month suspension, something not very difficult. A guy tests positive for EPO, throw the book at him. He's out of the sport for life, not just as a rider but as a soigneur, mechanic, anything, he's just out. And then everything in between. There has to be a sliding scale system based on, if it was just pseudofed or he took cough drops... 'come on' but if it's something serious...

And the other thing that I've said before and that I'll say again is that there needs to be major, major monetary penalties. And one of the ideas that I have is to have again a sliding scale. You take a very large percentage of a person's salary and you put it in an independent escrow account with a company, not the governing bodies, but an independent company and the thing earns interest. And they pay it back with interest to the rider but basically it's a rolling twelve or eighteen month window that basically if you've been a good kid and everything went fine, you get your money back. If you made a mistake, you get none of your money back.

And I think that if you're a guy like Valverde that makes five million a year, maybe you let him keep a half million dollars a year in his pocket and the other four and a half million goes into the escrow account. Now if you're a guy making fifty thousand dollars a year, maybe you get to keep thirty-five thousand dollars, you have to give enough for the guy to live on. And depending upon their previous earnings, because people generally spend up to what they make. So if a guy has had five years of earning a lot of money, well maybe that guy, you let him live off half a million but if it's a guy that is a new pro and he's only making forty thousand then you know, to him fifteen thousand may as well be four and a half a million in the bank account. See what I'm saying, you look at their salary history and have a sliding scale but the concept is that if they do the wrong things, they could lose all that money.

Lyne: That puts the onus on the riders, what about the team's responsibility?

Sean: That's an interesting question and I do think it should come from both sides. But I think that the biggest problem, that's the reason why I personally don't hold the teams nearly as accountable, is because they can't control the behavior of somebody. If somebody is going to do it, they're going to do it, they're just going to do it. Even if you have your own testing program, if someone really wants to do it, they're going to find a way to do it.

So to me you can't be... it's like the sponsors, the sponsors like to put in the contracts 'if someone from your team tests positive, we can cancel the contract', well that's not fair because we can't control everybody, we can't be with them twenty-four hours a day. So for me, most of the responsibility goes on the riders.

And I think if the governing bodies set up the right penalties which is 'you can be banned for life, all that money in the escrow account goes bye bye'. And it goes towards obviously, what I've said before is that those monies go to an independent agency that interviews these people and finds out why did they do it.

They go under psychological evaluation to find out why they did it so we can learn more about why people do it. Is it the money? Is it that these people are maybe clinically depressed? And is the emotion they get out of being strong and beating people up the hill and winning, that excites them and makes them not depressed? I mean you've got to find out what's at the root and over time you'll get a graph of what's the biggest pain.

I personally believe that there is something happening, I believe it's more emotional than monetary. I think something is happening emotionally that is driving these people to do it, whether they're depressed and cycling makes then feel good and winning makes them feel better. Or it could be something like they have low self-esteem and their family beat them down while growing up and when they win everybody says 'oh you're great', that's what drives people.

So I think there should be a lot of psychological evaluations from the monies that people lose. First off, you evaluate them and then you try and actually help these people to send them on a path to recovery whatever their reasoning is. So I believe that is the biggest part of it and I think the money is another part of it.

I think the team should play some role without question. I'm just throwing this off the cuff, I think again a sliding scale over the course over a two or three year period or even a one year period. If so many guys on your team test positive... once in five years it's one guy then they're probably not doing anything wrong, but if you are see a pattern...it's always a continuum, it's always a sliding scale. But the only problem I see with the teams is that if someone going to do something, they're just going to do it.

Lyne: You'd also have to fix the whole appeal system that takes years to resolve a case.

Sean: I think it needs to be set up like a legal, like a criminal justice system, because to me it is criminal what they are doing these people. It really is, I call it sporting fraud.

One example that I used with someone recently was, I don't know if you remember it, Michael Milken, Ivan Boesky. Milken was into the whole junk bonds in the seventies or eighties. What he did, he had a trading license, an FCC trading license, and people gave him a lot of money and he bought junk bonds and he did really well for awhile and eventually he stole everyone's money. But what did they do? They took away his trading license and so he could never be in this industry again which is what I'm saying about cycling, you're out of it forever in any capacity. They threw him in jail because it was a criminal offense, they fined him, big fines.

So they fined him, put him in jail and pulled his license, he was done with this career for ever. That was considered securities fraud, this is sporting fraud. You're producing fake results, you're not using your own natural talent and your hard work and so it's sporting fraud. You're duping sponsors and teams to pay you lots of money because you get these results because you're committing sporting fraud.

So to me, if I had my way, depending upon the level again, in the worst case you'd been thrown out of the sport for life, you'd be fined until you were probably out of all your money and possibly even thrown in jail. Because a lot of these people they're moving drugs from country to country, it's federal and international laws they're breaking.

So I think unless you have those two types of penalties, there's no incentives for these people...they'll just keep on doing it. Because think about it, you say to yourself 'if I stop doing this I'm going to get a job because I'm not good enough, so everyday that I do it and not get caught, I'm going to get another fifty grand in the bank from this week's pay' or whatever depending on how much the guy is making. So for them it's like either way I'm going to be out of a job, so might as well keep on doing it until I get caught and then I'll just stop. That's what they all do, when they get caught, say okay I'm done.

I'm just saying, you got to be like 'you're going to go to jail, we're going to bankrupt you', you got to jack these people up, really you got to jack them up pretty bad. And the ones that have these emotional problems or whatever, I feel bad for them and I want to learn more about it so as new pros come into the system you can educate them, you can try and find out maybe by personality tests if they have a problem before they get to that level or something, and I know it sounds kind of crazy and complex but the reality of it is ...

Lyne: So how soon before teams start hiring their own psychologist then, to monitor the riders and make sure they are okay?

Sean: Again, I think it all starts at the top, I really think it all starts at the UCI. Right now the UCI makes all the teams, including our team, put up bank guarantees, a percentage of all the riders and the staff's salaries. Why do they do that? Because some teams were doing unethical things and going out of business halfway through the season. They took charge and said this is how it's going to be teams now, and there are a lot of things like that, that they do.

They need to show the leadership to say this is what we're going to do, whether you like it or not these are the methods. In the process of hiring a rider, they have to go to a UCI certified psychologist in your country as an example and do a personality test to find out if they are depressed or whatever to make sure that ... it might ten years to develop a database but overtime you'll see patterns of the likelihood of people that were depressed when they interviewed for their first pro jobs, fifty percent of them do drugs. People that had a great home life and weren't depressed, none of them did drugs, as an example. But it will take time but I think you'd get to build a nice database.

Lyne: But isn't it that it's the people that are troubled that might be the winners, may be more determined to win?

Sean: It's true, generally, any athlete in any sport that is driven to win because there is something they are lacking in childhood, we all know that for sure. But the bottom line is that you've got to identify these people and try and get them help. We know you are genetically talented, we know that, you are willing to do the work because you train hard or whatever but you're missing this piece, so as part of coming into this sport of cycling as a professional you have to do this bare minimum.

They do this in the NBA, well not exactly. When you go into the NBA, they do education on drugs, alcohol, and some women that are going to try and meet on the road,... they do this certain level of education and we don't do that. It's all for the players, because a lot of them are coming out of high school, well not a lot, more out of college.

So I really think that there are a lot of models out there that we can leverage off of and in the end unfortunately it costs everybody more money. But in the long term, you get more money, now you're going to be able to get more sponsors as opposed to not get sponsors. I'd rather have a percentage of something than one hundred percent of nothing because right now the sponsors are not giving any money. But if you do this kind of thing, and each team needs to kick another hundred grand as part of this whole program but the end result we're going to be able to track patterns and educate people before they get to that decision point, etc, etc, I really think, to me it's really simple stuff. Other people are doing this stuff, it's all out there, the league, the doping, the training, it's all out there, just ideas I've seen in different things.

In the second part of our discussion, we conclude on the topic of doping with a comparison to other sports. We then came full circle to talk about his team, the highlights from the 2007 season and a look ahead at 2008.

 
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