The search for a new sponsor at Team Sky has been described in some quarters as Dave Brailsford's biggest challenge yet, and while that sentiment holds water, it's also based on the assumption that Brailsford has the desire to continue within cycling. Brailsford may have said as much in the immediate aftermath of Sky's announcement to withdrawal from cycling, but one could conceivably argue that the news of Sky's decision offers Brailsford the perfect exit strategy, and one that he can shape the narrative of as the season plays out.
It will come as no surprise that after a decade at the top of the WorldTour, Brailsford was already considering his options post-cycling, even before Wednesday's bombshell announcement, and the consensus within his close circle was that Sky were always considering stepping down at the end of their 2020 vision. The fact remains, however, that Brailsford is Team Sky, and vice-versa, and the bond between the two will ensure that the team can only survive if the man at the top carries on.
The recent news merely moves Brailsford's timescale forward. And after all, what's left for Brailsford to achieve in the sport considering Team Sky's domination of Grand Tours in recent years? He once had a goal of winning the Tour with a French rider but those dreams look somewhat impossible given certain factors, among them the disdain Team Sky garnered from the French public during this year's Tour. Despite the bad publicity that Team Sky, Brailsford and British Cycling have attracted, the man at the top of the pyramid is still held in high esteem by many within the sporting fraternity.
One cycling manager told Cyclingnews: "If I were Dave, I'd go now," and it wouldn't be too difficult to envisage him walking across the road from the Manchester velodrome and taking up a position at Manchester City.
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The challenges within the sponsorship market
The difficulties within the sponsorship and economic markets will be just as crucial as Brailsford's enthusiasm when it comes to Team Sky's future. With just a few months to find financial backing to the tune of around £35 million, time is a considerable factor.
Having spoken to other WorldTour team bosses in the last 24 hours, they have told Cyclingnews that it will be complicated to find a backer through traditional avenues. They also noted that Brailsford only has until May when the company must finalise its budgets for 2020. The health of the market is also crucial.
It took rugby's Six Nations competition significantly longer than expected to find a commercial backer before Guinness stumped up enough cash, but a much lower price than the competition had initially been tendered. Some other sporting properties are still unsold from a sporting point of view, such as West Ham's ground. They may be different models to Sky, but they're still primarily based around naming rights.
HSBC is a brand that has been mentioned as a possible title replacement for Team Sky, and consensus within several sports marketing experts we've talked to have suggested that the financial district might be Brailsford's best hope. HSBC already have an association with British Cycling, but once again, the price tag might be an issue.
And the question stemming from any such scenario still centres around Brailsford: Would he continue working if the budget shrunk to around £17-25 million, which is a level where most other teams operate.
A direct like-for-like replacement for Sky, regarding a broadcasting partner, seems remote. One potential could be the broadcasters DAZN, who like Sky have installations throughout Europe, such as in Germany, Italy, and Portugal, and have the broadcast rights for Serie A in Italy. However, they may lack the financial strength to solidify a budget of around £35 million. That's not to say that a sponsor couldn't or wouldn't just fall into Brailsford's lap. Rakuten, the Japanese electronics company, was a brand few sports fans had heard of a few years ago, but now they're a recognisable brand because they're on Messi's chest. The far east might be another area for Brailsford and his team to explore, but one wonders if, given the luxury of Sky's yearly wealth, they are set up to start chasing funds at such a late stage.
However, one leading sponsorship insider told Cyclingnews today, "there's always someone who will pay a lot of money just for that level of recognition, but it's really hard to put a business case together that supports the price that Sky was paying. They were doing it for lots of reasons and one of them being a marketing return. The way in which sponsorship in modeled it's hard to justify, unless you're Sky and you're doing it for broader, corporate reasons as well. One of which was James Murdoch's interest."
The transfer market
Another dimension to consider will be how this alters the transfer market for the next six months. The longer Brailsford goes without positive news, the more nervous his riders – especially the ones without a contract for 2020 – will become. Agents and team managers are already talking about strategies and transfer targets, and one WorldTour boss told us last night he already considered Team Sky's roster akin to a shopping list.
"This will completely influence the market," one manager told us.
"Dave says he's confident that he'll find a sponsor but if in two weeks there's no news and there's still nothing by the end of January then nothing will happen. The team will be over."
There will undoubtedly be a level of good faith shown by most of the Team Sky riders towards Brailsford. It's a successful team that has provided stability and high salaries since their inception but once again time is critical. A WorldTour boss with a budget half that of Team Sky gave Brailsford until June before he envisioned that pre-contractual agreements would happen with the likes of Thomas and co.
If Team Sky riders do flood the market, it's only bad news for the likes of Vincenzo Nibali and Nairo Quintana – two of the leading Grand Tour contenders out of contract at the end of 2019. If Froome, Thomas and Bernal are locked into Team Sky, then a rider of Nibali's value remains intact, but if the Sky riders are available for hire, then the Italian's position is only weakened by a flurry of similar riders on the market.
Of course, there's the question over who could afford Thomas and Froome, but spread across 17 other WorldTour teams – and not to mention the desperate scramble for WorldTour points by the Pro Continental teams looking to move up – there should be no shortage of suitors.
There are also several WorldTour teams with the financial clout to take chunks out of Team Sky's roster. If the UAE Team Emirates squad lose patience in Fabio Aru, for example, then they certainly have the resources to pick up Froome, Bernal and two strong domestiques at roughly €1 million a piece for the latter. Bahrain-Merida too might end up counting their lucky stars that Nibali hasn't yet signed a contract extension given that they may wish to sign up a younger model from Team Sky.
"The prices for most Team Sky riders will stay the same because everyone will want one," one agent told Cyclingnews.
"Everyone from the organisation will find employment, from the mechanics to the bus driver and the cook. The one rider who might find his value drop is Thomas, who signed a significantly improved deal after winning the Tour de France, with Team Sky willing to pay the Welshman handsomely. Would he find the same value 12 months on, and on a non-British team? I'm not so sure."
Results-wise, this is the best team ever in modern cycling, so in one aspect the search for a sponsorship is now the ultimate test facing not just Brailsford but professional cycling. If a company out there wants the best possible guarantee of winning the world's biggest bike race, then the solution is to buy Team Sky. If there's no interest in that, then cycling is in trouble.
It was telling, however, that within Brailsford's vast network and Murdoch's stratosphere, that not one brand could take the reins immediately at Team Sky.
The bigger picture is that, once again, one of cycling's marquee teams finds itself under pressure to secure its stability and future. Highroad, Tinkoff, and BMC racing; the sport has been here before, and virtually every chapter ended the same. BMC were only rescued through a late merger, and can only be seen as a case of late-survival rather than a genuinely positive outcome. And Team Sky are not BMC – they are the team. If Brailsford walks away, if the team fail to land a sponsor then the questions over cycling's economic model will only grow louder.