COULD DATA AND FANDOM BE THE ANSWER TO CYCLING’S IMAGE PROBLEM?

By channeling vast amounts of live data to fans around the globe, the Tour de France is slowly, quietly, changing the way sport is consumed by fans. Could this change be the key to improving the image of a sport with a serious perception problem?

Now, if you’re not a regular follower of cycling you might not realise the fierce competition, tactical nuances and insane levels of fandom that exists within the sport, or the disdain with which some look upon it due to its history of doping.

 
les.jpeg
 

My father is a die hard cycling fan (I can still remember the heartbreak in his eyes when Lance Armstrong finally sat in front of Oprah Winfrey and publicly admitted to doping, it was as if someone had destroyed his prize push bike, or burned his collection of personally annotated OS Maps), so throughout the summers of my youth our TV schedule always revolved around the coverage of Europe’s Grand Tours. It was here that I received my education in the aforementioned intricacies of professional cycling.

I was always amazed that through the relative chaos and unpredictability of a professional road race, teams could communicate and strategise on the go: was it guess work - or was technology at work that we the fans just didn’t have access to?

It turned out that back then it was a bit of both but, as time progressed and companies like Garmin and Dimension Data become lead sponsors, I always thought more could be done to bring the spectator into the race and connect them to their team, their rider.

So you can imagine the excitement of my inner geek when in 2015, Le Tour trialled feeding their website with live data taken from GPS units underneath the saddle of each competitor. Now everyone could see who was on a good day, who was on a bad day, who was off the front, and who was just off.

Now, as the 2017 tour crashes through the French countryside, I have more access to Le Tour than ever before. From my smartphone, I can watch every metre unfold on a constantly updating data stream. I can see a real time race standings based on riders positions on the road. I can see distances, times, weather reports, video updates and a collation of team, commentator and official race Twitter feeds. The nerd in me is eagerly and happily consuming this data and will continue to do so right up to that final sprint down the Champs-Élysées, but the marketer in me is asking, ‘is it enough to solve the sport’s image problem’?

Yes, I feel closer, more informed and more involved than ever before but, in a sport marred by controversy and filled with cloak and dagger stories, will giving fans the opportunity to be some of the most informed and involved in the world be the proof of honesty and authenticity that quells the doubts and finally forces corruption and cheating from the sport? Can it rebuild the trust and respect of one of the greatest sporting events in the world, and help to repair an image that some say is irreparably damaged?

I suppose what I am really asking is - can data, creative thinking and content marketing revolutionise a sport from the top down? I don’t know the answer, and as the scandals continue, I don’t think anyone does. However, I’d love to hear your thoughts, cycling fan or not, could the open and honest sharing of data be the answer to Cycling’s image problem? Will it help to clean up the sport, and could it influence the wider world’s perception of its heroes? Or should I just go back to watching Star Trek and accept that the sport I grew up with will forever be tarnished by its own past?

Gareth Anderson