News feature, April 8, 2008

Symmetrics feeling financial pinch

An article last week in the British Columbia newspaper The Province reported that the Canadian continental Symmetrics team is currently undergoing financial woes due to sponsors pulling out, affecting the team's plans for this season that could result in the team dissolving after its fifth year of existence. The paper reported that Coast Capital, B.C. Hydro PowerSmart and FarmPure have all ended their sponsorships. Members of the team told Cyclingnews that the current budget would only last until mid-June, when the Canadian Cycling Association will choose the Beijing Olympic team, unless a new sponsor is secured.

Team co-owner Mark Cunningham, who owns the team with his brother Kevin, told Cyclingnews that the all-Canadian rider team supported by Canadian companies is hurting from the weak U.S. dollar. "What has happened is the Canadian dollar has gotten really strong so it affected Canadian business and their sponsorship," he said. The Cunningham family owns one of the supporting sponsors that makes plywood, and the bursting bubble of the U.S. housing market has taken its toll. As a result the team has significantly reduced its budget from $1 million to $650,000 for 2008, despite remaining sponsors increasing their commitments.

Subsequently the team has curtailed many plans for the season, including a major trip to Europe to compete in four UCI races. The invitation came after the team rode strong at the Vuelta a Chihuahua In Mexico last October. The Spanish promoter offered to cover all of the racing expenses for the team – but with a slashed budget, the team could not afford the airfare.

"The Vuelta a Chihuahua organizers invited us to four races – Christian Meier placed high there and so they invited us to all these races," said Mark Cunningham. "It would have been great racing and a chance for UCI points for our riders – there were three 2.1 and a 1.1. We were going to be there for 22 days and racing for 14 days. But we would have to pay for air fare and the days in between, plus staff over there. Any other year we would have gone."

The sponsorship woes could not come at a worse time for the team, with the main goal of qualifying riders for the 2008 Olympics – with the Canadian Cycling Association using UCI points as the metric. "Racing wise the team is doing remarkable," said Mark Cunningham. We had a phenomenal 2007 and we just won San Dimas. Obviously, we love going to big races but it is important for our riders to get points for [the] Olympic selection, and that closes on June 15.

"The CCA is taking 2007 results plus 2008 results up until June 15," Mark Cunningham continued. "Zach Bell qualified in the points race, and we are hopeful for a Madison team – but then it is getting riders into the road race. So going to races with UCI points is really important for guys like Svein Tuft. The CCA is really screwed up in how they pick the national team – it's four guys picking the team with little to no criteria other than points."

Sticking together

Svein Tuft, last season's UCI America Tour winner, is one of the potentially affected riders. "We found out Symmetrics was not going to sponsor us in late November and it was a shocker for us because we had such a great year," Tuft told Cyclingnews. It was the last thing we all would have thought that they would pour out on us like that. But the economy in Canada is such that the bigger companies want to sponsor the winter Olympic sports instead. It's also hard for companies to focus on cycling with all the bad press right now too."

"It took a lot of work to get where we are now," said Tuft. "That is sad because we are at a place right now that we can race at the top level anywhere and be competitive. We want the guys to stay together and the greatest thing about our program is that we have all been stuck together since 2003 with the same core guys."

"They all want to stay, because of the success they have had," said Mark Cunningham. "Svein is the most adamant about keeping the team together. He always said what we have done for Canadian cycling as a team is more than any other team has done. They are all optimistic we are going to be around 2009."

The Province article reported that all of the riders were offered leaves of their contracts, including Tuft, but all have decided to stay. "[The riders] are a little bit worried but hopeful that things will continue," said Kevin Cunningham. "No one wants to leave, including Svein. They are trying to keep things together, race their bikes with the team, sticking loyal to each other and the program and what we've built in the last five years. But we are honest with the riders in telling in them that they can go look for new contracts if we don't find something. Right now, they are focused on Georgia and two months of racing together and no one wants to separate."

"All our guys are committed to racing for the team and it shows," said Tuft. "We are fully committed to one another and train hard together and believe in each other and what we have been doing with the team in the last four years. For now we have put our contract worries aside and we are trying to make the best with what we have coming up. I think we will have a great race in Georgia and straight through for as long as our budget will last. We are focused for the next part of our season. None of us want to switch and jump to another team."

The selection of the team for the Tour de Georgia will go a long way in replacing the lost potential UCI points from the cancelled Spain trip. "Personally I'm pretty psyched for Georgia as are the rest of the guys," said Tuft. "Georgia looks like it will be a controlled race based on the teams there and the course layout, without an ITT. I think teams will control the race and realistically we will shoot for stage wins."

Oh Canada

The point of this team is to promote Canadian cycling and athletes, but not necessarily Canadian companies. And especially with the currently economic situation, the Cunninghams are certainly interested in hearing from international companies looking at the Canadian market.

"It could be a U.S. sponsor that is trying to get into the Canadian market," said Mark Cunningham. "One thing we are very committed to is to stay an all Canadian athlete team. We race as a group of Canadians, but it could be an international sponsor – one that likes that we are a bunch of clean Canadian boys. We've had some interest in companies from overseas and we have people in Canada following our team – it's huge. That is where I think we differentiate ourselves from other team."

"A lot of our riders have been on the team for five years with a stable place to develop as riders," said Kevin Cunningham. "This is the first hiccup they have had in five years. We've been growing year after year and we want to find that key sponsor our story resonates with. We know that cycling can give a new sponsor exposure. We don't want to put a price on what we need we want to fins a company that fits well."

But being in a stable environment has not prepared the riders for the task of securing a contract for next season – or possibly in finding something this season if the team does go under. "I think its one of those things that we need to make sure we have some where to go next year, so that worries the riders," said Tuft. This could make for some aggressive racing from the Symmetrics riders, who are now literally racing for their jobs. And Cameron Evans' win at San Dimas last month could be an indicator of that.

Kirsten Robbins contributed to this report

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