UnitedHealthcare Professional Cycling men's and women's teams run the risk of folding if management company, Momentum Sports Group, does not find a replacement title sponsor. The team's owner Thierry Attias told Cyclingnews that the health insurance provider, which is the team's primary financial backer, informed him over a year ago that it would not renew its sponsorship at the end of 2018.
Attias is actively searching for a new title sponsor, and is in discussion with several companies, but he has set a timeline of July 31st as a goal date to secure additional sponsorship funding. If he does not secure a sponsor by that date, he will inform the athletes and staff so that they can look for employment elsewhere, while he continues his sponsorship search.
UnitedHealthcare, which has sponsored the team for nine seasons, is a health benefits and services company held under the parent company UnitedHealth Group, which has its headquarters in Minnesota. UnitedHealth Group also encompasses health services such as Optum and Rally Health, and all have been title sponsors of teams in professional cycling over the years.
Rally Health is a tool that UnitedHealthcare offers to its clients in the form of a website and mobile app that provides health and well-being information and support as part of their health plans. Rally is the current title sponsor of Rally Cycling, a men's Professional Continental and UCI women's team, also based in Minnesota. Rally took over the title sponsorship of Optum Pro Cycling two years ago and offered a multi-year deal. The team upgraded to Professional Continental licence this year and has expressed their interest in continuing to grow.
Attias said that UnitedHealthcare has gone through management changes and had decided that it was redundant to sponsor two cycling teams, and it chose to continue funding the latter as Rally Cycling's active-lifestyle message fit better with that brand.
"I was told that the consensus was that they already have two teams and they wanted to focus on the one that made more sense to the division of UnitedHealth Group that they [Rally Cycling] fit in with and because of their proximity to the company," said Attias, who could not confirm whether UnitedHealthcare will cease to sponsor a team or move some funding into the Rally Cycling program.
UnitedHealthcare became the chief financial backer of the men's program in 2010, and the women's team formed in 2014. Attias told Cyclingnews that it costs roughly $3.5 to $4 million annually to run a Professional Continental men's team, but he did not divulge the amount that UnitedHealthcare brought to the total budget.
"The new management thought that we had done a great job, they loved what we did with our team and what we accomplished, we hit all our marks and had a fantastic relationship," Attias said.
"It was just that the company decided to focus on one team instead of two. They felt that [Rally Cycling] was a little more in line with health and wellness and they are based two miles from their headquarters in Minnesota.
"In terms of performance and our relationship with UnitedHealthcare, it is all very positive because they have been a super partner, progressive thinking, and I have nothing but positives to say about our relationship. They sponsored us for nine years, when the average length for a title sponsor is five years, and so we are very happy overall.
"It is time to change it up, and they gave us plenty of notice. We've been pitching and putting the word out, taking meetings, generating proposals. For almost 10-12 months already, we've been aware of this, and we've been working to find a replacement."
Momentum Sports Group has set a deadline of July 31 with which to notify its staff and athletes of the status of the sponsorship search. This deadline is to allow them time to find contracts with other teams for the upcoming season.
"We have communicated with our athletes and staff, and told them that we will give a very firm, 'this is where we are' and 'we will likely have a sponsor' or 'we are uncertain' by July 31." Attias said.
"We are a couple of weeks out now from notifying the riders and staff. It's only fair that we let the riders and staff know, and our other sponsors that allocate a huge amount of resources to the team. We will need to be able to tell them that we are either close to solidifying a sponsor relationship or we that are not.
"If we are not there yet, I think it's fair that we let everyone know so that they can start to explore their opportunities, and I am sure they have already started to explore."
Cyclingnews understands that several riders and staff from the men's and women's teams have already begun looking for positions with other programs.
"We have super talented athletes, both male and female, that we very much want to continue with," Attias said. "We completely understand that they need to go out and make sure they stay employed.
"I would have liked to have a sponsor confirmed months ago to alleviate everyone's concerns. But sometimes it is not possible."
Attias said that he is currently in discussions with three potential sponsors, but none of them has offered a firm commitment yet. He said that after the July 31 deadline, he will continue to search for a replacement sponsor.
Registration deadline processes begin for UCI Professional Continental teams on August 15. And then rest of the deadline process for continue in October, when teams must submit an official bank guarantee, names and addresses of partners, management, staff and riders. Contracts must be audited by October 20 and approved no later than December 1.
UCI Continental and UCI Women's Team deadlines fall later, with USA Cycling requiring final paperwork to submit to the UCI by November 12, 2018, according to the the UCI.
"I will still continue to look for a new sponsor after July 31, I will still be open to finding a new sponsor, but due to the UCI deadlines and other things that need to be put in place, that changes what is possible.
"With enough money everything is possible, for example, you can pay fines and register late, while you get things queued up. I will need to register the team, put bank guarantees in place, rider contracts and staff contracts.
"I'm focused on being transparent with the riders and staff about where we are in our sponsorship search, while also on trying to keep my core infrastructure intact."
Momentum Sports Group started the men's program under the title sponsor HealthNet in 2003 and during six years became one of the top teams in North America. Ouch took over as title sponsor for one year before UnitedHealthcare sign on to financially back the team in 2010, and the women's team launched four years later.
Attias said that he hopes to keep both teams intact, and even grow as initially planned, to a WorldTour outfit in future, but in his struggle to search for sponsorship, he said that he is open to downsizing.
"Most of our presentations made to current companies are in terms of growing what we have already established, but of course we will explore all options," Attias said. "Our preference is to keep exactly what we have and grow from there."
During their 16-year history, the men's team has secured 450 victories. They won the National Racing Calendar (NRC) title four times (2004-2006 and in 2008), and individual titles in 2005 with Scott Moninger, and 2007 and 2008 with Rory Sutherland. They also won the National Criterium Calendar four times (2012-15).
The men won the Pro Road Tour (PRT) twice (2016 and 2017), and the individual championship in 2016 with Ty Magner and 2017 with Gavin Mannion. They were two-time UCI Americas Tour team champions (2005 and 2013) on won the individual title with Sutherland in 2012.
Since its inception four years ago, the women's program has secured over 100 victories, won the PRT championship and individual classification with Ruth Winder in 2017. This year, they have secured overall titles in every major US stage race; Joe Martin Stage Race, Redlands Bicycle Classic, Tour of the Gila and at the Women's WorldTour's Amgen Women's Tour - all while riding in support of Katie Hall.
The teams have brought in world champions, Olympians and national champions.
Attias said that he is open to continuing with one of the two programs, but choosing which one would depend on a potential sponsors' marketing goals.
He noted that having a Professional Continental licence has allowed the team to have a more significant global vision and that they were able to reach an international market, but the downside was that they weren't able to guarantee start spots at many of the WorldTour events. He is not opposed to downsizing to a Continental team, which he said would cost three times less if it fits a sponsor that has a smaller geographical target.
In comparison, he said the UCI women's team could be put together at a fraction of the cost of a Professional Continental team, and likely cost about the same as a Continental team, but that it would keep a global presence because they are guaranteed to compete on the Women's WorldTour and other lower UCI-ranked races in the US and overseas. He also said that the women's program was better at reaching grassroots cycling through social media.
"We are looking at all options right now," Attias said. "We are willing to grow, start small and get bigger, and looking at either the men's program or the women's program.
"A lot of this revolves around our client discussions and what their short-term and long-term goals are. It depends on the dollar amount and the goals of the sponsor.
"There are various opportunities for both teams, so instead of striving to say 'this is what we want to do' we have to listen to the client's objectives, and we need to build a program around the sponsor's needs."