The thought of a shoe company headlining a Pro Tour team might be closer than you think.
Even if Lance Armstrong doesn’t win the Tour de France this year you can be assured he will be riding and racing in 2010. The major change we can expect that he won’t be riding for Team Astana. Instead, the seven-time Tour champion and manager Johan Bruyneel will be writing a new chapter with another new team, specifically one called Team Nike.
After all the shoe-maker has enjoyed the power of Lance’s name even though Armstrong hasn’t participated in the Tour de France for a few years. Nike and Lance first teamed up to create the trendy yellow LIVESTRONG wristbands which have raised well over $75 million for Lance’s cancer foundation.
And now as Bloomberg news reports, Lance Armstrong’s recent mid-race rivalry with Alberto Contador may accelerate the seven-time champion’s efforts to raise money for his own team next year.
Armstrong currently rides for Team Astana, but started exploring possible development of his own team in May after the nation of Kazakhstan failed to pay some sponsorship money and fell behind with salary payments.
Armstrong and teammates Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer went as far as to race in New Mexico’s Tour of the Gila in Mellow Johnny’s team kits supporting Armstrong’s local bike shop in Austin, Texas.
“Armstrong ‘possibly’ will leave Astana and Bruyneel may go with him,” Alexander Antyshev, executive director of the Kazakhstan Cycling Federation, supervising Team Astana said in a telephone interview. Johan Bruyneel directed each of Armstrong’s comeback victories with the U.S. Postal Service and Discovery Channel teams. “There will be discussions with Bruyneel in the next few days about whether he will stay with the team,” Antyshev confirmed.
But the writing is on the wall. The stars are aligning for an Armstrong team with U.S. sponsors including Nike Inc. and Armstrong bike-partner Trek Bicycle Corp. as secure investors. Each of these huge corporations are solid candidates capable of headlining a Pro Tour team.
A partnership with Nike makes sense. Nike’s global branding has deep pockets reaching out to many languages. Armstrong has already been riding in his own LIVESTRONG kit for most of the season, standing out in the peloton like a billboard in his black helmet, shoes and gillet – a wheel any sponsor would want to take a pull from.
Scott Harris, president and founder of Mustang Marketing in Thousand Oaks, California said, “Armstrong’s comeback this year will help him get more backing for a team than if he hadn’t taken a break. Even people who aren’t fans of the Tour de France or fans of bicycling, they love this story about this guy coming back.”
“There will be a lot of people who will want to jump on that bandwagon. Assuming he finishes in the top three, and if he’s very fortunate… wins… he’ll be writing his own ticket.” This could be true even while the sport of cycling is turbulent amidst a troubled economy as reported by the Bicycle Retailer and Industry News.
Contador has a contract with Astana through 2010 and would probably love to get away from Armstrong and his American teammates. Especially after his controversial antics at the end of Stage 7 when the Spaniard went off-book dashing away from Armstrong in the last kilometers of a mountaintop finish. That lack of confidence did not win Contador any more fans on his team (or sponsor opportunities.)
Astana has more than $21.1 million dollars (15 million Euros) of this year from Kazakhstan companies including state-owned railway operator AO Kazakhstan Temir Zholy National Co. Contador endorses cycling equipment including Sidi shoes, but can’t quite compete with Armstrong’s marketing power. Contador’s face is known only to cyclists, not the general English-speaking public like Armstrong. Contador struggles to lure endorsement contracts because he doesn’t speak English and is linked to the Spanish doping controversy: Operation Puerto. Armstrong’s comeback from cancer story is also hard to compete against in the world of sports endorsement.
After winning the 2005 Tour, Armstrong launched a tirade against “cynics and skeptics” who suspected him of doping. Now in a change to lure sponsors, he’s presenting a “softer, warmer, more gentle approach” again according to Chadwick. He makes light of the quantity of doping tests he undergoes (once 3 times in 24 hours) and posts to 1.4 million followers of his Twitter feed. And during his appearance in the Tour of California last February Armstrong was given a hero’s welcome by hordes of fans crowding around his team bus excited by his return.
“He is probably the only personality in cycling,” Chadwick said. “He’s giving people a reason to watch the Tour de France again.” This is apparent as Armstrong’s comeback ride has given the North American broadcast network, Versus, a serious lift in its Tour de France ratings. After the first ten stages, Nielsen monitoring reported an increase of 78 percent – an average of 479,809 viewers in the morning telecasts.
Major Tour de France and Pro Tour team sponsors pay between $6 million and $15 million, and according to French newspaper L’Equipe, Armstrong was on the verge of presenting a new team for this year’s Tour before one of the partners pulled out. Was it Nike Shoes? Probably not, but the Armstrong marketing phenomenon is far from over. As they say, just wait ’til next year.