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Interview: Karen Bliss
 
By Imelda March
Date: 1/12/2012
Interview: Karen Bliss
 
There is and still is a palpable lack of interest in women's racing reflected in the amount of promotion women cyclists receive, the number of quality races they can expect to compete in, and the level of salaries and prize purses women can earn.

Karen Bliss is a former U.S. professional cyclist who is currently the vice president of marketing for Advanced Sports International/Fuji Bicycles had an editorial published in Bicycle Retailer and Industry News about the state of women’s cycling. In this piece, she states that the issue is not simply one of inequality but also a missed business opportunity to grow the industry, issuing a specific challenge to Pat McQuaid, the current President of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI).

The Daily Peloton Cycling News reached out to Karen for a follow up conversation and below is what she had to say.

Daily Peloton: What are you/FUJI doing to break down the inequality barriers in women’s cycling?

Karen Bliss: As a bicycle manufacturer, Fuji is not in a position to break down inequality barriers – at the end of the day, we sell bikes and what we are after is helping to grow the overall cycling market. My personal belief is that this is best done through growing the women’s market.

Women make 80% of consumer purchases and we need more of a concerted effort to target this market.

That said, Fuji has and continues to support women in cycling through sponsorships and by creating women’s-specific products.

DP: Do you have any reason that interest in the Women's racing has been low from your racing time to now?

KB: They are many reasons for this but it comes down to money, as most things do. Who has it? Who should spend it? How should it be spent? There is a lot of finger-pointing about who is responsible to help women’s cycling grow.

My feeling is that we are all responsible – all the constituencies who gain something when the sport and the cycling industry grows. That would be the UCI, the sponsors, the event promoters, the media, and of course, the riders and teams.

We are all in this together and we cannot be blaming each other if none of us is contributing. And by contributing, I mean putting out a little extra to recruit women to the sport – whether that is in terms of increased sponsorships, adding women’s events, promoting women’s cycling and its athletes. There are countless ways to help grow the sport – it doesn’t need to be a major part of a business’ marketing plan but it should be a part of every business’ marketing plan.

DP: “I see the lack of attention to women's cycling - I now see more than inequality. I see a missed business opportunity for the whole bicycle industry.” How do you see the "lack of attention to women's cycling” manifested? Do you mean in the public, official organizations and/or promotion and marketing?

KB: Again, everyone plays a key part – even the racers themselves. They have a responsibility to be part of the solution. For example, if the racers want better attention from promoters then they need to pre-register so the promoters have an idea of what the volume of riders for their event. A race promoter can’t help create excitement for women’s cycling if he or she sees that only 10 women have signed up for a race. Instead of having an enthusiastic supporter, this poor promoter is now faced with the possibility of possibly cancelling the women’s race or not offering it next year.

DP: Do you see that all growth is driven from the top or is it as important that cycling grows from both the top and grass roots?

KB: Good question! What I would do and should be done is leadership from the top and that should come from the UCI. Women’s growth should be a priority because among all of the various cycling populations, women’s cycling has the most potential to grow.

Affecting change from the grassroots level is possible, though. For example, in the U.S., cyclocross has equal prize money for men and women and this is thanks to the grassroots efforts of a bunch of hard-working people coming together.

I think change can start at the grassroots level but in order to gain traction, broad-based implementation must come from the top.

“Getting women involved in the sport is a less contentious way to grow cycling. (in reference to limiting bike technology/weight - design) More participants mean more opportunity for everyone – athletes, race promoters, governing bodies, manufacturers, sponsors and media.”

DP: Considering there is no junior high or high schools programs in many parts of the country with the exception of California and Oregon where these programs have gained steam. Other sports such as track and field and swimming have clear paths to development but cycling not so much.

KB: That is a huge barrier. It is tough enough for a cyclist, man or woman, to get into the sport. But add to that the limited opportunities to stay in the sport – and here I’m referring to women – and it’s crushing. Why would a woman athlete choose cycling over say, basketball or triathlon which are more attentive to the women’s market?

DP: Consider Title IX, the UCI and pro cycling are not government programs and we can't expect then to operate in the same way. Do you expect non-governmental programs like the UCI follow Title IX requirements?

KB: I brought that up as an example of a mandated program that, while tough to implement, truly helped grow women’s participation in sport in the United States. It is there as an example to learn from.

Since I wrote that, I learned from speaking with Nicole Gruber-Gil, the commercial manager at the UCI, that they don’t have as much control of the events as I thought they had. They only own a few properties including the World Championships and Tour of Beijing outright. Even the World Cups, they work with the owners to help sell promotional rights. So, while a mandate for professional teams is possible, it will take more work to get these professional race promoters to agree to add women’s events since the UCI cannot dictate their race program.

It gets tricky and will require some cooperation on all sides.

DP: Shouldn't we expect that USA Cycling to have some role in helping with offering equal purses in their National Racing Calendar (NRC) and National Criterium Calendar (NCC) series?

KB: The total purse offered has been a real point of contention and there are arguments for both sides.

In my opinion, yes, USA Cycling should have an equal pay scale for their properties since they are the governing body and I feel it is their responsibility. If they don’t have the money then they need to find the money.

On that note, there is such an opportunity for governing bodies who embrace women’s cycling to open up ways to involve more contributors. For anyone who wants to get into the sport from a marketing perspective, the men’s pro field is fairly prohibitive – I know because Fuji sponsored a pro tour/pro continental men’s team for three years (ed. Geox-TMC, Footon-Servetto, Fuji-Servetto). It was a huge expense for us, by far the biggest marketing budget expense we had.

If governing bodies start recognizing the power of marketing their women’s programs, and outlining that value, there are a bunch of businesses waiting in the wings that would pounce on such an opportunity. And if that opportunity were offered at a lower cost, I can only imagine the number of new sponsors that would come in.

DP: Have you considered the effect on teams and races if the UCI or official organizations are forced the added costs of the mandates onto the teams and race organizers?

KB: Yes, of course. No one wants to 1) be told how to run their business and 2) be told they need to cut into their current budget to promote an unproven entity. That is why I believe governing bodies need to be brokers in this case – get the sponsors on board, and pass along these dollars as incentives to teams and races.

DP: Do you think that Women's teams should be registered as Div I, II and III with Div I and II requiring minimum wages as the men's teams do?

KB: Perhaps but I’m not sure following the men’s model is the best way to go. We don’t have the numbers in women’s cycling to support that many divisions. I can see having one professional category with a minimum salary because I believe women cyclists are getting short-changed and there needs to be some level of security for those women who devote their careers to the sport.

I think all of these things – more races, more teams, more money – will need to be put together in order for women’s cycling to be successful. Undoubtedly it is a monumental task but when you break it down and when you have the cooperation of all of the stakeholders’ involved, it is not insurmountable.

DP: Do you think the lack or quality of women's race coverage hurts the interest in the sport? Or maybe better said should most cycling sites and magazines do a better job of covering the sport and personalities in women's cycling?

KB: I think the lack of and quality of women’s race coverage doesn’t help.

What is it about sport, in general, that people love? They love drama - the passion, the hard-fought battles, triumphs, tragedies. They want stories that go deeper than race results. Those stories are out there but for the women’s field, the media needs to dig a little deeper, and do some harder work to get those stories.

Women’s teams don’t typically have press officers and women’s races are few and far between so it takes extra effort. But I really believe it is worth it.

DP: What is Fuji currently doing to support women’s cycling?

KB: We sponsor the Diadora-Pasta Zara-Manhattan women’s professional team that features World Road Champion Giorgia Bronzini. The team is managed by another World Champion, Diana Ziliute of Lithuania.

Also we are excited to have on board, Milay Galvez, in the newly created position of sponsorship manager. Milay travels with our sponsored teams to make sure they are happy with their bikes and that they are updating their blog posts – things like that. As a bike manufacturer we use our athletes’ input to improve our products. Milay helps us understand athlete performance needs.

KAREN BLISS’S CHALLENGE TO THE UCI

A. Mandate that World Tour teams have a professional women's team
B. World Tour Calendar races have women's events
C. Incentives for non-World Tour race promoters to offer women racing opportunities that rival those of the Giro d'Italia, the Tour of California and the Tour de France
D. Actively promote women's cycling. Make it an attractive choice for women athletes
E. Work with other NGOs to formulate strong programs that reach out to women who find entering the sport intimidating and offer a clear pathway to the pro level.

Editor: D and E are done by the Australian and British cycling authorities to identify and draft athletes to cycling.

DP: How can the US emulate steps D & E and have it be part of the women’s cycling growth program?

KB: Certainly, do a case study. If these things are already being done, NGOs should get together and share these best practices.

DP: We have seen some cycling talent coming from the U.S. colleges and universities, what role should they play in the growth of women’s cycling?

KB: That is where I got my start in bike racing – at Penn State University way back in the early 80’s. It is a great place to get into the sport. It’s a supportive, team atmosphere. And it has developed as a breeding ground for cyclists who want to get into the sport, especially women.

I think college is probably the best place to start, the low-hanging fruit of women’s development. The riders are old enough to organize themselves and it doesn’t require much investment to get racing.

High school programs are also great but I see them more for mountain biking or track racing development since riding on the roads is still a dangerous proposition and there are all sorts of liability issues that come up with young kids.

Toward the end of our conversation, we were curious of the sponsor’s social media usage as a brand and expectations of usage from the teams they support.

SOCIAL MEDIA

DP: In terms of social media, do you have any mandates to have your sponsored teams utilize it in order to further promote your brand?

KB: It is a real good time for use of this medium to give back to the sponsors. It is a real easy way to help with the effort.

In 2011, the Diadora and Geox-TMC teams contributed content to our blog and I don’t think anyone was unhappy to be part of the process since it was a win-win for all involved.

Currently, we use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blogging.

RELATED NEWS

Interview: UCI President Mr. Pat McQuaid


About the author: An experienced racer, Imelda March lives in Chicago and is a member of Team Kenda. She is a frequent contributor to The Daily Peloton Cycling News team, reporting on women’s cycling news and general peloton ramblings. She also holds an MBA, is a marketing strategy expert and a social media team member/contributor to the Chicago chapter of the American Marketing Association.

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