Nationalize It?

In the first week of February the French Cycling Federation (FFC) put forth a proposal that would see the Tour de France contested by national teams rather than by trade teams, as it is today. The last time national teams competed in the world's greatest bicycle race was 1968. I was certainly not aware of the Tour de France in 1968. As a result, and excluding such events as the Olympic Games and the World Championships my experience, like the experience of most aficionados today, revolves around the yearly battles between ever-changing trade teams. 

I don't think I am alone in admitting to being intrigued by the idea. Like most Americans I grew up supporting various local sports franchises - the Los Angeles these or thats. Through flush and lean years I was a loyal supporter, believing that the localized part of the team name (Los Angeles) provided some kind of intrinsic connection between me as fan, and them as athlete. That is until one (yes, the Rams) picked up and left town for greener pastures in another city, and I realized that the loyalty was one directional only. The typical American sports fan, builds a bond with one or more local sports teams, beginning at an early age; and these are just local ones. The connection to national teams are even more pronounced and more widespread, attracting even marginal sport fans. In capitalist, corporate America, it is one thing to name the arena or stadium in which games take place for a corporate entity, but to extend that to a team would break a, thus far, inviolable barrier. Thus the American sports scene is dominated by local, state, or regional organizations.

In other words, Americans, and I suspect many sports fans around the world, will more easily "bond" to a sports team with which they share some emotional attachment, however tenuous that may be. In many, maybe most cases, that emotional attachment is going to be based on a shared location, rather than a corporate logo. The national connection is a strategy for growth, of attracting a wider audience, a broader following and takes the idea of the emotive connection to an even deeper level. This was a part of the rationale for the development of the National Cycle League (NCL), which was formed in 1989 around teams "representing" various cities in the United States and Europe. I believe the League lasted only until 1995, but from all I have read its demise was not due to lack of support, but some vaguely hinted at poor financial decisions. In fact the League's most successful season was arguably the penultimate one (1994) during which races were covered via ESPN2 and the season championship was held in Monte Carlo.

The idea of national teams competing at the Tour is not without problems which would first need to be resolved. From my perspective I see two primary ones. First, competition based around national teams would mean some nations would have a clear advantage over others. Traditional cycling powerhouse nations of Europe could field multiple teams, while smaller, less cycling-oriented nations would be hard-pressed to form a single team able to realistically compete over the course of a three week race such as the Tour de France. Potentially, some of the best racers in the world would necessarily be left out (not that they often aren't as things stand today). The second problem concerns sponsorship; would non-cycling oriented businesses, today's corporate sponsors, be willing to invest if their exposure shrinks? I suspect both these potential problems could be resolved with a little restructuring.

Of course, all this is irrelevant at this point in time. The FFC proposal was immediately rejected by both the International Cyclists Union (UCI), as well as ASO, the owners of the Tour de France, as being unworkable. This is not the first time over the past forty plus years that a return to national teams has been proposed; the fact that an organization with as much potential clout as the FFC has raised the idea suggests that it has simply lain dormant  and may yet become reality. What is more, it would seem to be a popular idea among the sporting public. On their website, Peloton magazine reported that a survey of 4000 readers of the French sports publication, L'Equipe, support a return to national teams over trade teams by a margin of 69 to 31 percent - a not insignificant number.