Coming Out Fighting, Unibet Hits Back

The Unibet saga 2006 - The Unibet.com buys new riders, makes changes to the management and increases...

News feature, March 10, 2007

With talk of being sold out by the IPCT, weakness on the part of the UCI, legal action, a cartel rivalling the ProTour and a monetary interest by Grand Tour organisers in preserving the wildcard system, Unibet's Koen Terryn was taking no prisoners when he talked to Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes on Wednesday. Unhappy with the way his squad have been treated, he, the team and their lawyers are now fighting for their place in ProTour events and their very future in the sport.

However, in spite of all that effort, the team have yet to see any return for their investment. The first race in the ProTour will begin on Sunday, but Unibet's fast-track court action ended in failure, and the Swedish-registered squad will miss the start. They have also been left off the start list for Tirreno-Adriatico and the Giro d'Italia, although it remains to be seen whether that could change as a result of the recent UCI – Grand Tour organisers agreement.

Officially, a big reason why the team could lose out on that Paris-Nice ride is due to a French law restricting gambling and lotteries. While Française des Jeux and PMU are legally protected in France, ancient legislation seeks to limit others from benefiting from the market in that country. However, as the team pointed out at a press conference on Wednesday, this law had no effect in the past when Unibet.com and its predecessor MrBookmaker.com competed on French soil.

Furthermore, despite statements this week by ASO that they had to follow this legislation, the Unibet team have bypassed the problem this season by wearing a non-branded jersey while racing in France. Jeremy Hunt won the GP d'Ouverture La Marseillaise wearing a distinctive maillot with a large question mark on the chest. Baden Cooke then did the same two days later on the second stage of the Etoile de Bessèges.

The team said on Wednesday it has been assured by French authorities that this measure eliminates problems, and this is something which general manager Koen Terryn also underlined when speaking to Cyclingnews. "ASO are always telling the press that we are illegal," he stated that same day. "Firstly, we have already informed ASO that they need to make a distinction between Unibet as a sponsor and the Unibet cycling team [when making such statements].

"Secondly, the team is willing to ride in France using a jersey without the name of Unibet.com. ASO knows this very clearly. We sent them an email, fax, we telephoned them but they are still persisting in saying that we are illegal in France. This isn't the case. If we are willing to ride with a neutral jersey, they can't use this reason anymore to attack us. But they still keep doing it.

"Of course, this is all because ASO don't like the ProTour. They like other teams to ask them if we can please take part in their races. That is the heart of the dispute between the UCI and ASO."

When asked if the team would be willing to ride without Unibet.com on their clothing in the Tour de France, Terryn is straight up. "Of course, of course. And don't forget, that apart from Unibet, the team needs to defend Canyon, for example, which is our bike sponsor, and Bioracer, the clothes sponsor. We have other sponsors as well, rather than just Unibet. So of course we would like to ride with a shirt with Canyon, with Bioracer, and as long as Unibet don't have a license in France, we won't mention Unibet.com on the shirt. That is not an issue."

What is the issue, though, says Terryn, is the UCI's long-running dispute with the Grand Tour organisers over the ProTour. The governing body brought in the series in 2005 but ASO, RCS Sport and Unipublic have never really got on board. Indeed relations between the two sides have become progressively worse, things reaching a particular low point earlier this year.

"I don't know the exact term in English, but it is a special case where the judge needs to make an announcement in the first 36 hours or so. As we are a ProTour team, if we are not allowed to enter the ProTour races then the competition is not valid and we will be damaged. If we can't start a certain races, we can't get points."

He also confirmed that they are taking a court action against the UCI. "We are attacking the UCI in the courts but that will take us one to three years. The reason for that is because the sum of money that we will ask from the UCI will be very big in damages.

"We are very frustrated by what has happened," he continued. "This is not the way of doing business, telling somebody you have a license, then we go and attract riders, cars, the bus and a lot of other stuff. Then once we give all the riders contracts etc then they say, ‘sorry, but you don't have your license anymore'.

"It is not the way of doing business, so we are going to court to attack the UCI and, at least, get a lot of money back."

Sold out by the IPCT and the UCI?

Although the group hasn't taken on the UCI or the three Grand Tour organisers before, the IPCT flexed its muscles in calling for a meeting. Both sides agreed, with ASO - RCS Sport – Unipublic knowing that a global team boycott of their races would be considerable leverage, and the UCI being aware that a collective decision by teams to ride Paris-Nice would make disciplinary action very difficult.

In the aftermath, it was initially difficult to work out what exactly had been decided. A vague phrase in the release saying that the three organisers would "examine in a positive spirit the granting of wild cards to the teams Astana and Unibet" could have meant that, unofficially, the two teams were going to get a green light to their races. Equally, it could mean that ASO, RCS Sport and Unipublic would consider it but not necessarily follow through.

All Indications since then are that the latter is more likely than the former, with Clerc's statements on Tuesday continuing to cast doubt on the team's participation in the Tour de France.

Given the potential power of the IPCT, it is possible to see that they could have given the organisers an ultimatum; invite all of us, including Unibet, or you will have none of us. That appears not to have happened, and Terryn feels that no real solidarity was shown.

"The IPCT was very, very weak," he states. "Normally they should be one of the most powerful organisations but they sold us out. I don't have very good words for Patrick Lefevere [IPCT chairman, who represented it at the meeting]. He has the power to do something to ASO, to say that you are [acting] too big now, but he didn't use this chance.

"Basically, ASO is creating a cartel, they are going together with the Vuelta and the Giro and they are even in contact with the Tour of Flanders organisation and with the Amstel Gold organisation. Maybe in their dreams they see already the Amstel Gold and the Tour of Flanders also as one of their organisations, and then they can have their own ProTour.

"What is going to happen then? Everybody from the IPCT says at the moment that it is very expensive with the UCI [to get a ProTour licence], paying €100,000 for four years. But maybe when ASO is powerful enough to have their own ProTour, we will need to pay €200,000 or €300,000. That is what I think is going to happen."

At the time of writing, the UCI had yet to comment on what happened on Monday. But initial impressions are that the organisers and the IPCT emerged from the meeting with much more than it did. Terryn underlines this. "When the UCI arrived at the table on Monday, they were already 1 mile behind [the Grand Tour organisers]. And they came out of the meeting 5 miles behind. What did they get, the UCI? Nothing.

"They must protect us, or they must say that the ProTour is finished. But you can't say to an organisation you have a license, you must pay for the license, you must pay about €1,200,000 as a guarantee, and then turn around and say, essentially, ‘no, you don't have a license anymore,' without any reason.

"They should have defended our rights because, essentially, they sold us an empty box."

He feels that all the hands were stacked against the governing body, and that this could have long term consequences for the sport. "I think that Lefevere is very much closer to ASO than to the UCI. The only one that had the power to do something was him.

"But don't forget, next year there will only be 16 ProTour teams [going by the Grand Tour organiser's stipulation of December http://www.cyclingnews.com/news.php?id=news/2006/dec06/dec13news ] so another two ProTour teams will have some problems. For the moment, though, each team is thinking only for himself.

He does however envisage a scenario by which it will be increasingly difficult to fill those slots. "There is another portion [of teams] saying, ‘ah, we won't have any problems,' as too many sponsors are going away. It could even be that with 16 [slots] next year, we will have too much because it seems that Cofidis and Francaise des Jeux will stop and it seems as well that Discovery will stop. Then we will only have 15 teams."

As Discovery Channel have found while looking for new sponsors, the doping scandals of 2006 have made it tougher to attract major investors. Terryn warns that the treatment his team has experienced could also put them off.

"It will be very hard to attract another big sponsor when they see what they did with a backer like Unibet, which was willing to invest €40 million in cycling. A lot of other sponsors will say no, we won't take this risk, because of that. So, apart from Unibet, the big loser here is the cycling world."

‘ASO Has Too Much Power':

Terryn argues that there is a major imbalance in the cycling world due to the dominance of ASO. One feature of the ProTour model is that there is a more objective criteria for selection to Grand Tours and other races; teams are vetted when getting a licence, meeting sporting, financial and ethical obligations. If that system is functioning correctly, the teams know long before the Tour that they will get to ride.

However, with ASO and the other Grand Tour organisers pushing for a return to more wildcard slots, Terryn warns that this is open to abuse. Indeed, he suggests that they have a financial interest at heart;

"It is not good that an organisation is so big that other teams need to be on their knees to ask, ‘please may we come to ride.' It is not a good sign. And, of course, ASO likes to give wildcards because the name of the wildcards have changed… they are cash cards.

"They are [officially] wildcards but everybody knows that they sell it. The more wildcards they have, the more money they have. That is the danger for the future, they are too powerful. They are very good organisers, but they are too powerful."

Returning to the legal issue, Terryn says that there are clear inconsistencies. Especially as the Giro organisers are denying them a ride yet, applying the French standard of gambling legality, other teams are actually the ones who are invalid. What is the logic in that, he asks?

"In France there is a monopoly [being used as a reason], but in Italy there is no monopoly any more since last year. In Italy, our sponsor Unibet has a license. As it stands now, we can't participate in the Tirreno-Adriatico or the Milan-San Remo yet Francaise des Jeux and the Belgian lottery, who both don't have a licence in Italy, can start.

"Also, Francaise des Jeux don't have an English license. So can they start in the Tour de France [in London]? Unibet has a license in England, that is not a problem, so we can start. But Francaise des Jeux normally shouldn't be able to."

With regards to the numbers of teams the UCI and the Grand Tour organisers wanted, there was a clear solution which could have given both sides what they wanted vis-à-vis ProTour teams and wildcard teams. The mechanism? Have eight man teams for the remainder of the season, thus allowing 25 teams start in a 200 rider peloton. The UCI would have had their 20 teams, while ASO, RCS Sport and Unipublic would have had a full five choices.

Terryn feels that this would have been the way to go, and would have made for a better spectacle to boot. "Why do you need to have nine riders on a team? If you look at a race that is very dominated by a certain team, it is not a pleasure to watch. But if there are only eight or even seven riders on the teams, there were be far more fighting during the race."

Even though the Grand Tour organisers and the UCI both proposed this at different times during their dispute, there has been no mention of that since Monday's meeting. The only conclusion is that this solution was not adopted. So what can Unibet do now?

"The only thing we can do is do our best [in the fight]," he says. "It will be a shame for cycling to give up €40 million. At the moment I am not sure if the sponsor could pull out, but at the end of the day, if this problem keeps going, it won't be illogical that after a certain date they will stop."

Terryn hopes it won't come to that. The team is currently pursuing legal actions against ASO and the UCI while, on the sponsor issue, the European Commission is also considering legal action against France and other countries who impose restrictions of trade against gambling companies such as Unibet.com. Indeed such an action was successful in Italy earlier this week. http://www.cyclingnews.com/news.php?id=news/2007/mar07/mar08news

In the short term, he is convinced that the team is fully legal once it uses non-branded jerseys. And, if the EC ruling succeeds in overturning the monopoly situation, Unibet.com will then be able to give their main sponsor full value for its investment. In the meantime, the team wants to be treated fairly and no longer used in the battle between the Grand Tour organisers and the ProTour.


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