One of professional cycling’s biggest draws is that anyone can turn up at the side of the road and watch the world’s best race for free. However, with budgets getting tighter and the economic future of the sport uncertain, half of Belgium’s major race organisers believe that charging spectators is an inevitability.
Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad surveyed 22 organisers, including those that put on the Tour of Flanders, E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem. What once seemed unthinkable, several of the organisers believe may become a normal way of funding races.
Fortunately for fans, the organisers of the aforementioned events, Flanders Classics and KWC Hand in Hand vzw, were among the half that did not think the move was necessary. According to Het Nieuwsblad, it is the organisers of the smaller events that are feeling the financial pinch. With no money coming from general spectators, most of them are heavily reliant on sponsorship, VIPs and some subsidies from hosting towns. Television rights also help with funds, but it is the bigger races that benefit most from those.
At present, only the one-day Nokere Koerse makes any spectators pay. The charge five euros for anyone watching in the final 30 or so kilometres, in what is known as the 'zone of truth' (zone van de waarheid).
The report states that as many as six organisers have really felt the pressure of funding. Outside of Belgium, we’ve seen races folding due to sponsorship and funding issues, including the Tour of Qatar, La Méditerranéenne and the Philadelphia Classic in the USA. Other races have shortened their events for the same reason.
Organisers accept that making people pay will require a change in mentality for fans, and it is likely to face plenty of resistance.
"A major change of mentality will be needed," Rob Discart, of Golazo Sports – who organises the Baloise Belgium Tour and Eneco Tour among others - told Het Nieuwsblad. "People are so used to the course being free."