The Tour de France may be coming to Netflix in a series that could raise the profile of professional cycling in a way never seen before, but true to form for the sport, some of the top teams are not convinced of the merits of the project. EF Education-EasyPost manager Jonathan Vaughters, however, is fully on board.
Vaughters, the former president of the International Association of Professional Cycling Teams, was once one of the most outspoken critics of the business model of the sport and on the reluctance of Tour de France organisers ASO to share the wealth generated by broadcast rights. But contrary to QuickStep-AlphaVinyl manager Patrick Lefevere's view, Vaughters now feels that ASO are offering a good deal.
"It almost pains me to say this but I think ASO is actually helping the sport in general with this project and I'm on board with that," Vaughters tells Cyclingnews.
"Their media rights contracts around the world are based on viewer numbers. So if cycling as a sport becomes more popular, the Tour de France will become more popular, and therefore their viewer numbers will go up, and therefore their media rights contracts will go up. So of course, they'll benefit."
Teams also stand to benefit from higher profiles and a share of the fee that Netflix is offering. Cyclingnews understands that the eight teams which will be featured in the series stand to gain over €50,000 each for their participation.
Lefevere wrote in his Het Nieuwsblad column on Friday that he agreed to have his team participate in the series with "moderate enthusiasm and reservations", saying the fee offered to teams "is peanuts". "ASO get first pass at the cash register and then, as usual, there is little left," he wrote, adding that if the fee does not go up in the future, participation will not be worth it.
Vaughters disagrees, saying "they are not taking all of the cash from the media rights sales off the table, they are distributing it. And in my opinion, they're distributing it fairly. If this becomes a hit, and you get to season two, season three, season four, you know, will that need to be renegotiated? Well, potentially, but as from my perspective, the deal for season one is quite fair."
Other teams, such as the UAE Team Emirates squad of two-time Tour winner Tadej Pogačar, have opted not to take part, leaving the series without one of the major stars. However, the Drive to Survive Formula 1 series that the Tour show is modelled upon, also started its first season without the biggest teams.
The series benefitted Formula 1 greatly, with viewership of the races climbing by over 50 per cent due to the interest generated by the docu-drama. Cycling has struggled to portray its personalities and interpersonal dramas in the same way, mainly due to the sponsorship model stifling free expression.
Vaughters says that for teams "that do not have an oil-producing nation as their financial backer" or are not like Quickstep, who have strong regional sponsorship support, the series could be a big boost.
"For those of us that are living in the actual world that most people live in, where commercial interests do matter and audience size does matter, [the Netflix series] is a great thing. This could raise the profile of bike racing across the board.
"I know I have been vehemently sort of anti-ASO in many interviews, but I gotta say, the deal is pretty good ... and we're going to be a part of it."
Vaughters' only reservation is that there are only eight teams invited to be a part of the filming and the other 14 teams in the Tour de France may suffer.
"I genuinely do worry about some of the smaller teams getting a little bit of the oxygen pulled out of them with a project like this," Vaughters says, but adds that Lefevere's arguments "fall flat" because of the regional nature of his team's partners.
"If he's good in Belgium and in that area of the world, with his sponsors, with his commercial interests, he's fine. So he can afford to say, 'Oh, I'll just do my own series'. And he'll get a great Belgian audience if he does that.
"But if you're managing a team with a global perspective of a company that is education, language, and travel-oriented that has interests in 50-some countries around the world, we need to take the perspective that this is good to raise the profile of cycling."
EF Education-EasyPost is fully embracing the concept, with riders like Rigoberto Uran a natural in front of the cameras.
"Rigo obviously, he's magnetic with a camera. He's a media machine, but he's clearly probably in the last year or two of his career," Vaughters says before referencing the Russian invasion of Ukraine that has plunged the world into sudden uncertainty. "I have a huge belief in Mark Padun actually producing an incredible Tour de France. A Ukrainian rider doing great at the Tour de France? That's probably not a bad story."
The personal and sporting stories of Formula 1 drivers drew great interest to the sport, but Vaughters qualifies that with the fact it started airing during the COVID-19 lockdowns when Netflix viewership was at an all-time high.
"Will the audience be as big? Hopefully, it'll be bigger, but it's a high bar because you're dealing with content that was introduced in the depths of lockdown," Vaughters says. "This is going to be introduced as we're coming out of lockdown. So a trickier equation.
"Cycling is going to prove more challenging for the directors and producers of the film because it's a very subtle sport, the tactics and strategy and cycling are very subtle. It is a nuanced sport in a way that Formula 1 maybe isn't... I think somebody coming in for the first time from a filmmaking perspective is going to struggle to see the critical moments inside a team, so it'll be more challenging for the people making the films for sure.
"But I hope that they're able to pick on pick up on those little details and actually make something great."
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