Whatever happened to cycling? Powerbrokers play politics as the sport suffers

Bored with cycling politics? Don't be. It's serious. If cycling's doping scandals were not enough,...

Bored with cycling politics? Don't be. It's serious. If cycling's doping scandals were not enough, the UCI vs. Grand Tour organisers spat has the potential to do irreparable damage. While some fans may turn away because of doping, to think of major events like Paris-Nice and even le Tour itself without the best riders in the world seems unimaginable. But it nearly happened this month. Although the UCI backed down and there is now a 'cease-fire', the war is far from over. So how did it get this bad? Cyclingnews' staffers Laura Weislo, Hedwig Kröner and Shane Stokes find out that it's all about the Benjamins.

Recently, you will have read - or maybe skipped over - all this reporting on Unibet and the Grand Tours and obscure European legislation about advertising gambling. It may seem irrelevant, but it's not really, because it reveals serious management issues in the sport that will affect the fans' enjoyment, and the riders' career prospects. So, who is to blame? Review the following issues and decide for yourself, but the last time we looked, media companies tended to guard their revenue streams like the crown jewels.

Unibet.com vs. the lotteries

With an estimated €500 million in European bets taking place over the internet in 2006, the Internet gaming industry is huge, and stands to grow even larger. Industry experts estimate that in the next five years, this figure could be ten times that amount. That's why Unibet.com, an online gambling website that allows any Internet user across Europe to place bets on sports, casino games and other types of gambling, is throwing its weight behind a cycling team.

However, the Unibet business model is facing stiff opposition from several European countries, with France being one of the hot battle grounds. It's the fact that online gambling allows users to bet across country borders that is at issue.

In France, betting and gambling is illegal except for the national lottery (managed by the semi-public company La Française des Jeux), horse races managed by PMU and casinos. With €9.5 billion in sales in 2006 by La Française Des Jeux alone, these industries do not welcome the competition from Unibet and other online gambling institutions, and the issue has recently swung toward the side of the Internet gaming industry.

None of this would matter to the world of cycling, except that Unibet.com decided to throw large amounts of money into sponsoring a team, and fought tooth and nail to become a ProTour squad. They committed millions in sponsorship of cycling despite the fact that in September of 2006 the company was already facing legal action from La Française Des Jeux, with the Belgian national Lottery, Lotto, also threatening to follow - which it now has.

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