By Mark Zalewski, North American Editor
The cycling world was changed Friday as the management company for the Discovery Channel team, Tailwind Sports, announced it would not be continuing its search for a new title sponsor for the 2008 season. Speculation ran wild as to the reasons behind the decision - doping, money, both? Later in the day the management assembled the key players behind the decision for an ad hoc press conference call to give the rationale behind the decision - including Tailwind principles Bill Stapleton and Bart Knaggs, as well as Discovery boss Johan Bruyneel and a rare appearance by Lance Armstrong, who is part owner of the team.
The obvious first questions were why, and why now, having just won the Tour de France for the eighth time in nine years? Bill Stapleton led the responses for the group in this area, placing the blame on other teams and the general environment within cycling, not with the company. "We made a determination in our own minds," he said. "We can control what goes on in our own team but we can't control what goes on in the sport and with other teams. We couldn't in good conscious make a recommendation to a company to spend the sort of money that would be required to sponsor the team, in the current environment."
"There are all kinds of issues in the sport, doping and others," said Stapleton. "It's not an environment conducive to a lot of investment."
An obvious follow-up to that statement was the recent announcement by T-Mobile saying they are continuing with their sponsorship, in light of the recent controversies. "We are not trying to send any message to other sponsors - we wish everyone the best," said Stapleton. "We had to make an individual decision and we reached a different conclusion than other people. Maybe those other people are European-based or have different reasons for being in the sport."
Armstrong also commented on this. "It's not a statement," he said. "We are not trying to slap T-Mobile for their additions to programmes and plans, or anybody else."
Stapleton went on to say that doping was not the only problem that came up when talking to potential sponsors. "Obviously the doping scandals plague, there has been an issue this year with the teams. We have experiences the rise and fall of AIGCP, and there is not a cohesive ownership and leadership group right now."
We are walking away
Stapleton and Armstrong both commented that this decision was not for a lack of a sponsor, but that it was a stand alone decision in the best interests of a sponsor. "End of the day, it is a great marketing investment, when you look at the metrics and hospitality, you can present to a sponsor," said Stapleton. "We went in to the market at a time when almost every day there was new news regarding doping and admissions or disputes within the sport, and those became an issue in the talks."
"I think we had a firm commitment for three years," said Armstrong. "Based on my impression I think we were 90% there. We are walking away from that today. We are not comfortable managing and running a team right now. Johan is retiring on top of that, and I am going to go and focus on my foundation, so we are not your guys right now."
"I would add the moment it crystalized was when we were at the Tour," said Armstrong, focusing on his well known disagreements with the organiser of the Tour de France. "Taking aside from all the politics and polyemics, the disagreements between ASO and UCI, with the ASO talking about perhaps taking it back to national teams. If something like that were to happen... . If you get a company to invest and then all of a sudden the ASO decides that it should go back to national teams, their investment goes to zero. Issues like that up in the air it is too risky to ask people for that kind of money."
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