This Friday, Chris Froome embarks on his mission to win the Giro d’Italia and achieve his third successive Grand Tour victory with Team Sky, majority owned by Sky Plc.
Sky Plc, meanwhile, is in the middle of a bidding war between owner 21st Century Fox and Comcast with a takeover seemingly imminent for a reported £22bn.
However, in light of an ongoing anti-doping investigation Froome has a cloud of controversy hanging over him and Team Sky’s reputation in tatters. And given that a change in company ownership frequently provides the basis for a change in marketing strategy, could the end of Team Sky be on the horizon?
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Cycling is not a sport unfamiliar to a sponsorship crisis and its complicated history is tainted by scandal and reputational damage. Cycling, unlike the majority of global sports, does not receive income from ticket sales. As teams do not have a stadium providing a means of income, and television rights are owned by race organisers — without a revenue sharing model — the sport relies almost entirely on sponsorship as its sole income stream.
That makes brand reputation all the more important and partly explains why the sport has experienced a revolving door of teams in the past. The likes of Nissan and Rabobank were some of the most notable brands to walk away from the sport in the wake of the Lance Armstrong affair.
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The recent ball tampering scandal at Australian cricket serves as a reminder of the need for sponsors’ to uphold high ethical standards and be responsive to brand damage. Qantas were quick to rebuke Steve Smith for his actions whilst financial group Magellan terminated its agreement just one series in to a three year deal.
It is essential for brands to ensure that sponsorship deals tie in to the image they wish to portray.
Team Sky has often found popularity hard to come by – images of Chris Froome being covered in urine thrown by a roadside spectator at the Tour de France spring to mind. The team has increasingly created headlines for the wrong reasons. Bradley Wiggins’ therapeutic use exemption (TUE) granted for his Tour de France victory in 2012 has raised questions over the ethics of the team. Whilst the investigation surrounding Chris Froome’s use of salbutamol, an asthma drug, at his 2017 victory in the Vuelta a España is still ongoing, Team Sky’s refusal to suspend the rider in the meantime has been criticised. Even if the nightmare scenario for Team Sky — Chris Froome receiving a doping suspension — doesn’t come to pass, Team Sky’s image may have already been damaged beyond repair.
Principal Sir Dave Brailsford was infamously derided when he announced on the inception of Team Sky in 2009 that he intended to win the Tour de France with a clean British rider within five years. They went on to win two in that five year period and a further Tour de France title in all three subsequent years. In sporting terms their success is continuing, capped off by a famous Tour-Vuelta double last year.
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However, as attractive as it is for sponsors to be associated with a winning team, the perception that things are being done in the right way is equally essential. Despite their success, Team Sky’s reputation appears to have hit rock bottom following the recent parliamentary report on doping which condemned the team for crossing the “ethical line”. The publication was a hammer blow to the reputation of a team which in the past prided itself on its “no needle” policy.
Team Sky has achieved everything they set out to and more in cycling terms. However, their success has been overshadowed by these recent events, which have proved embarrassing for a team who had previously preached of a zero-tolerance policy to doping. Amidst the scandals it would hardly be surprising if the wheels finally come off if an anticipated change in ownership occurs.