I was recently interviewed as part of a piece on the shrinking of domestic elite racing in the U.S. (You can read the article in the February print issue of Velonews.) I felt the tone of the article was a bit negative, and wanted to offer some additional constructive commentary on the topic. It is no secret that several long running teams closed shop at the end of last year, including a couple in our own backyard. In most cases, they were smaller programs competing above their weight for several seasons. This hits very close to home for me, and I have thought long and hard about how to avoid a similar fate.
Domestic elite teams like ours are essentially amateur programs with a National presence. Most have some dedicated staff, and cover rider equipment and travel expenses. (The bigger programs have paid staff and small stipends for some of their riders, but most don’t.) When done right, the only real difference between the cost to run a program like this and a small UCI Continental team should be the salary budget. This is where the problem lies, as crossing the chasm from strong regional program to proper national program is quite a substantial ask in terms of both resources and skill set. While I feel our team has bridged this gap on the sporting side, in order to make a sustainable leap there is more to do on the operating side of our program.
In response to this, here are some things I will be focusing on this coming season:
- Know what you want to be: Understand your goals and needs before planning and fundraising begins. If you aspire to run a Continental level program, then soliciting $2k local sponsors is an impractical way to get there. At the same time, if you just want to have a great local Cat1/2 team, pursuing National level brands is probably not going to pan out.
- Stay true to #1, but be realistic and flexible: While I would love to have a $1.5M budget and race Tour of California next year that might be too big of a jump from where our program is today. Instead I have set some minimum budget targets in our ‘ask’ with a path on how we can work with a sponsor to get to there from here (and prove our worth along the way).
- Get Help: This is likely the biggest lesson I have learned in the last couple years. Once the season starts, I will be mired in the day to day of running the team and helping our riders perform to their fullest. This leaves little time for forward thinking activities like new business development. We already have a great network of friends and fans that have helped me get to this point, and I will be working to formalize some of these relationships moving forward so we can keep building the momentum we have throughout the season.
- Be Prepared to Prove it: This is where I still have the most work to do if we want to move up to the “big leagues”. (As do most smaller teams.) I have spoken to this previously, but when you are soliciting bigger money (or product value) you need to be able to provide evidence of proper sponsor activation and ROI. While I think we have done this well for a program at our size, there is much for us to learn as we start to be compared to larger programs. The GM from a larger U.S. professional program recently gave this same advice to me with an added emphasis on the discipline to budget this effort as a major item in our team’s operating budget.
Our 2014 program was the top ranked amateur team in the U.S. and the 8th best team overall against all pro teams. While this is a great accomplishment for a small program, the experience also proved to me that we still have much to learn. In 2015, we will be looking to affirm not only our sporting value, but also that our program has the operational and marketing horsepower to deserve a shot to move up to the next level. It should be a fun ride!