Cycling great Eddy Merckx believes that the French media behemoth running the sport's biggest races is too powerful.
The Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO), whose portfolio includes the Tour de France, Dakar Rally and L’Equipe newspaper, is not helping the finances of top teams, says the five-time Tour yellow jersey winner.
Broad interest in cycling peaks with the sport’s three Grand Tours during the summer – the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana. All three races are privately-owned. And two – those in France and Spain – are owned by the ASO, which also runs popular races such as Paris-Roubaix and Britain’s Tour de Yorkshire.
Lucrative broadcast rights are tightly controlled not by international cycling governing body, the UCI, but by the race owners.
Merckx, who is widely regarded as the cycling’s most successful rider, lamented the stranglehold of the ASO.
“Yes, too much [dominance]. But what will you do?” he said. “I think ASO will never give the television rights to the UCI.”
The Belgian, vice-chairman of the Quick Step team, supports the idea of forcing ASO to pass control of television revenue to the UCI. He said: “It will be good but very hard.”
He said: “It will be good but it will be very hard.”
Compared with the other sports, cycling’s professional outfits receive a small slice of TV money. With no stadiums within which to sell tickets, teams are hugely dependent on sponsorship deals. This was brought sharply into focus this summer when top squad Cannondale faced collapse after revealing a $7m (£5.2m) financing black hole when a major sponsor pulled out.
Merckx – speaking to City A.M. ahead of seeing his beloved Anderlecht play Celtic in the Champions League this week – said: “If you take football, the people that watch football they go to the stadium and they have to pay. In cycling, the people on the road, they do not have to pay. So cycling can only live with sponsors.
“At the moment the economy is really hard for everybody. The first thing big companies are cutting is publicity. So it is more difficult.”
Meanwhile, new UCI president David Lappartient has hinted at shaking up cycling by dramatically reducing the number of riders competing for each team in order to reduce crashes.
Plans are already in place to reduce team sizes from nine to eight next year in Grand Tours. But Lappartient has suggested six riders “would be better”.
Merckx does not think riders would be safer from the plans. He said: “I don’t think so. If there are less riders there will be more teams so the number of riders will always be the same.
“Six riders in the Tour de France is not enough.”