By Brecht Decaluwé
In the cyclo-cross hotbed of Belgium, and more particular the Flanders region, television ratings are telling a strange story. Football used to be the Belgian national sport, but cyclo-cross has now surpassed it as the top rated sport on television in Flanders, an area of six million people living in the small region North of Brussels. Just across the border in the Netherlands, however, the story is vastly different.
Even though top dogs Sven Nys and Bart Wellens crashed out of contention last January, more than 1.25 million viewers tuned in to watch the finish of the 2007 World Championships. With the race being held in Flanders, a record 60,000 spectators packed themselves inside the Hooglede-Gits parcours and saw Erwin Vervecken take his third title.
Even the lesser races draw a sizeable audience in Belgium; the U23 men's world championship race was watched by 300,000 viewers, while the World Cup and Superprestige races, televised on Sporza, and the Gazet van Antwerpen series, televised by VT4, drew upwards of twice that number. Audiences are increasingly in the 15-44 age bracket (32%) and nearly one-third female, which makes the 'cross viewers highly desirable to advertisers.
While the popularity of the sport is increasing in Flanders, television stations across the border in the Netherlands are virtually ignoring it. Former World Champion Richard Groenendaal explains that the lack of televised coverage is hurting races in terms of spectators. "There were 2,500 people in Sint-Michielsgestel ['06 Superprestige round in the Netherlands] and 17,000 on the Koppenberg [Superprestige round in Flanders], that's because of the TV. The Netherlands stay behind and that's really sad," Groenendaal said.
Rather than televise the exploits of the young Dutch 'cross champion Lars Boom, the public channel NOS shows mainly ice skating on winter weekends, which is not Groenendaal's cup of tea. "They hyper-inflate the ice skating scene. Every fart is on TV, even events which are completely uninteresting. It's on TV all weekend long, and still people keep tuning in," Groenendaal complained bitterly.
Back in Belgium, cyclo-cross has become a big money maker for race promoters, with thousands withstanding the unpleasant winter weather to attend races in person, not minding the 10 euro entrance fee. Those 60,000 who came to Hooglede-Gits far eclipsed the previous year's attendance in Zeddam, The Netherlands, where 28,000 people were on hand. Still, the disparity in television coverage far outpaces the difference in spectators, and despite the fact that he rides for the Dutch Rabobank team, one has to wonder what the case would be if Sven Nys were Dutch and not Belgian.
Across the Atlantic, the Americans are beginning to discover the value of 'cross, with the new event 'Cross Vegas (albeit with a captive audience) drawing more than 5,000 spectators and in 'Flanders West', Portland, Oregon, the half-serious Singlespeed 'world championships' nearly equalling that number, the next horizons for 'cross viewership may be far west of the heart of 'cross, Flanders.
World championship Hooglede-Gits 2007: 60,000 on site, 1.25 million viewers (Sporza)
World championship Zeddam 2006: 28,000 / 798,000 (Sporza)
World Cup Hofstade: 20,000 / 505,971 (Sporza)
GvA Koppenbergcross Oudenaarde: 17,500 / 491,000 (Sporza)
SuperPrestige Diegem: 15,000 / 546,457 (VT4)
GvA Loenhout: 13,000 / 442,000 (Sporza)
GvA Baal: 9000 – 760380 (Sporza)
Singlespeed Oregon & Cross Vegas (USA): 5,000
SP Eerde-Veghel (Netherlands): 5,000 / 433,894 (VT4)
Sint-Michielsgestel (Netherlands): 2,500