The final kilometers of the men’s and women’s 2020 UCI World Road Championships in Isola, Italy were thrilling. The helicopter shots of Alaphilippe and van der Breggen and the chasers racing full-throttle along the ridge highlighted an exciting race that took part in almost lockdown conditions.
It reminded me of experiencing the 2015 Worlds in Richmond, Virginia. Excellent racing, huge crowds; a great experience. What was also remarkable was how the Worlds appeared, at close range, to be an incredible marketing vehicle for cycling, for bike racing, for Richmond.
United States cycling should work on bringing the UCI World Championships back to the US. As soon as possible.
While sports stadiums are typically boondoggles, and cycling team sponsorships are seen as being of dubious value, bringing the Worlds to US soil has been good business. While I’m all for the other things that the Worlds might be able to provide—marketing boost for cycling in general and bike racing in particular, marketing a specific place, boosting civic pride, among other things—bike racing rarely appears to be a good investment when looking at dollars spent versus those brought in. So it’s all the more reason to call out the success of bringing the World to the US.
When the road worlds came to Richmond, VA in 2015, it cost organizers $23.2 million dollars starting in 2012 and running through the Worlds in 2015. The economic impact of that spending went almost entirely into the pockets of people and businesses in the city and metro area.
When the Worlds showed up, some 5,000 credentialed people directly attached to the event came to Richmond, and another 645,000 attended as spectator-days (one person who attended five days is counted as five spectator-days). The people hailed from 34 states and 29 countries—57% were from Richmond and the area, 31% from the other 33 states, and 12% from the other 28 countries.
The result was $74.6 million spent in the Richmond area and another $75.7 million in the rest of Virginia, with the state gaining $4.9 million in tax revenue, and area municipalities gaining $3 million. It’s all detailed in what appears to be a thorough post-mortem.
That seems like a huge return on investment.
While the UCI Cyclocross World Championships are a much smaller event, it was also a financial success for Louisville, Kentucky in 2013. The local public investment was $450,000 and private sources added another $400,000. After the worlds, the Louisville Sports Commission estimates that the event brought around $6,000,000 to the area.
The head of the Louisville Sports Condition saw the event as an unqualified success, one that Louisville might even be interested in hosting again. “The event was fabulous for Louisville on several fronts. Despite all the challenges, the day itself was magical. We had amazing racing and a full house of national and international visitors that had a great time. Generating international exposure for Louisville in areas beyond our normal avenues was a huge boost to community branding. Cross Worlds provided an opportunity to promote active lifestyles and present the city as a cool place to visit. The fact that the event was successful from the standpoint of competitors and fans added to our reputation as a mid size city that can successfully host major sporting events such as the Kentucky Derby, Breeders’ Cup, Ryder Cup, PGA Championships, etc.”
Further back, the UCI Road Worlds came to Hamilton, Ontario in 2003. The post-event economic impact statement also shows some good numbers, even if the report seems a bit thin. Economic activity was pegged at $34.5 million US dollars when adjusting for inflation. And it seems like they spent about $18.7 million USD when adjusted for inflation. 23,000 spectators came from outside of Hamilton, so they’re not measuring the same way the Richmond Worlds people did.
Still almost two dollars back for every dollar invested.
There was one other UCI Road worlds in the US. 1986 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Looking at the video, it seems like there were fewer spectators there than attended than this year’s event in Italy. Don’t want to write it was a failure, but the turnout looked pretty anemic, even accounting for the popularity of cycling at the time—Greg LeMond was leading the American team after winning the Tour for the first time, and many of the racers had competed in the Colorado-based Coors Classic, which immediately preceded the Worlds.
My interest is in the road worlds, as they seem like both the biggest investment, takes the greatest involvement, and the biggest potential payoff. That written, other UCI events have come to the US on numerous occasions. The other events can largely take place in fairly small venues and typically draw fairly small crowds, save mountain biking, and that can easily be hosted at an alpine ski area in the summer—which doesn’t seem like a difficult sell as the venue is almost certainly under-utilized in the warmer months and accommodations are likewise underutilized in the warmer months.
The UCI Track worlds came to the US in: 1893 (Chicago, IL), 1912 (Newark, NJ), 2005 (Los Angeles, CA), 1986 (Colorado Springs). Mountain Bike Worlds 1990 (Durango, CO), 1994 (Vail, CO), and 2001 (Vail). BMX: 2001 (Louisville), 2017 (Rock Hill, SC), Supposed to be 2020 (Houston, TX) and 2024 (Rock Hill). No UCI Worlds in Indoor Cycling has been held in the US yet. Para Cycling Road Worlds came to Greenville, SC in 2014. Para Cycling Track worlds came to the US in 1998 (Colorado Springs), 2012 (Carson, CA), and 2017 (Los Angeles).
After Richmond, it’s easy to see how smaller cities could potentially be great hosts for a World Championship. Enough infrastructure—roads, hotel rooms, easy access to both passenger trains and airports—means that nothing needs to be built, there’s plenty of short-term housing available, and it’s easy for spectators to get there. Further, there’s a decent-sized local population that could easily turn out. After all, more than half of the spectators in Richmond were locals.
Richmond had another thing going for it; close proximity to the most densely populated area in the country. It’s only a little past the southern end of a corridor that runs from Boston, Massachusetts to Washington, DC; it’s sometimes known as The Northeast Corridor or the Acela Corridor or Boswash, but is listed in Wikipedia as Northeast Megalopolis, and is home to 52 million people
It should be easy to gather a huge crowd if the road worlds are hosted anywhere near that corridor. Think Baltimore, Wilmington Allentown, Reading, Harrisburg, Trenton, Newark, New Haven, Hartford, Providence, Springfield, Worcester, Albany, Poughkeepsie, maybe even Yonkers. Possibly going west as far as Pittsburgh.
If anyone is looking to bring the Worlds to the US, that is.
Rob DeMartini, the CEO of USA Cycling, is bullish on bringing big events to the US. Yes, it’s part of his job, but there are numbers behind his beliefs. He starts by pointing out that the US is “The largest cycling market in the world.” He’s right, the US accounts for more than a quarter of sales for the worldwide bike market, and it represents almost $8 billion annually (probably much more in 2020). He moves on to a more surprising fact, “by all external measures, Tour of California was the second largest-grossing race in the world from the sponsorship standpoint.” That’s behind the tour, and might not be such a good thing, as it is expensive to put on. In terms of what kind of place would be good for a big cycling event, he has some ideas, and what’s happening in Arkansas is one such example, “I think the combination of a small market that is looking to define itself, a huge private investment and a government that is super-friendly. They want to be the cycling center of this country and I wouldn’t bet against it.”
He’s referring to the Cyclocross Worlds, which are slated for Fayetteville, Arkansas in early 2022.
There, the Walton Family Foundation, which also has ties to RZC Investments, gave $2.3 million to the Fayetteville Advertising and Promotion Commission to produce two big cyclocross events and the 2022 Worlds. In addition, the foundation gave another $1.9 million to finish building out Centennial Park to be used for the CX worlds.
Molly Rawn, CEO of Experience Fayetteville, how the advertising and promotion commission is known, sees it as a wise investment. “There will be an economic return on this. We look through the lens of tourism, but it’s one part of economic development. It’s a benefit for our region. We don’t see it as a one-and-done. It is a worthy endeavor, even if it is a one-time thing. We expect to reap the rewards for years to come. Just the beginning of high-end championships of this caliber. We’re already talking with a cross-country mountain bike race organizer. It will pay off in terms of future events for years to come.” For the CX Worlds, they were forecasting 15,000 spectators pre-Covid. As a point of reference, local news estimated 10,000 spectators on hand for the final day of CX Worlds in Louisville. Their work on Centennial Park is seen as having other uses, like a World Cup mountain bike event, but would also be of value as a local, regional, and/or national venue for both cyclocross and mountain biking.
It’s undeniable that Fayetteville is becoming a cycling destination, with the ambition of becoming even more so. It’s got the Arkansaw High Country Race, Tour of Fayetteville, Joe Martin Stage Race, Fayetteville has a government-hosted mountain bike trails site, among other things. Outerbike was there in 2018, IMBA had a summit there in 2016, and more. Data is suggesting that these efforts are working. A report found that in 2017, just as the area was starting to achieve national recognition for mountain biking, cycling brought $137 million in economic benefits, including $51 million in direct business benefits.
And there’s a group working to bring the UCI Road Worlds to Portland, Oregon either in 2026, 2027, or 2029 or beyond. It is both out in the open and currently flying under the radar, which is interesting for a group that has been working on this for three years. There were a few mentions in the media, but the bid is active, has a website up, and seems to be in regular communication with USA Cycling and the UCI. Interestingly, USA Cycling has been pretty mum about it—I asked for comment and got no reply. It seems that the UCI prefers that.
I spoke with the head of the group, Kevin Hyland, and it seems that the effort is moving along. After 30 years in the sporting-goods industry, this is a sort-of retirement project for him. A 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation has been formed, with any profits going to Oregon-based cycling programs. They are estimating that the event will cost $25-30 million to produce. The single biggest chunk of money is expected to go into repaving roads, which they see as an indirect cost because it will be for roads that regular Portlanders will benefit from on a daily basis. Hyland is “projecting over 225,000 spectators for the Elite Men’s & Women’s road races, with over 30,000 of those spectators being out of state visitors. Many of those visitors will come for the racing, but stay to ride and explore the state.” He’s expecting to draw from what he sees as a population of over twelve million avid cyclists who live within 1,300 miles of Portland—Which means his map includes cyclists who not only live in Oregon, Washington, and Vancouver, but live as far away as Denver and San Diego, and Bismarck, ND.
Hyland believes the bid has to come together in the next year or it’s not happening. A potentially big part of that is winning a grant from Visit Oregon, which could account for half of the money he needs, and that 50% goal is important in terms of convincing the UCI that the event is viable, as the UCI won’t accept a bid unless the 50% is secure. To procure the grant, the group is pushing the event as something that “will bring the community together, re-energize the bike-movement, provide an economic boost, and showcase the region to millions of people around the world, which will contribute to tourism, business development and future athletic events.” The economic impact statement has not been completed as of this writing, so the group is pushing how visible the Worlds will make Portland and Oregon.
They are hoping these factoids will help convince people:
* “The UCI Road World Championships are the biggest annual single-city sporting event in the world!” (an impressive hook)
* “The 2018 WC in Yorkshire were watched by more than 300M people in more than 120 countries.” (international tourism)
* “5 of the top 7 markets for TV viewership of the 2015 Tour de France are in the Western US. “ (domestic tourism)
* “In their heyday, the Tours of California, Utah and Alberta, along with the US Pro Challenge/Colorado Classic drew 3M spectators.” (immediate boost to the economy)
* “There are 17,000 bike racers registered with USA Cycling/OBRA in the Western US.” (Lots of locals will support this)
The biggest challenge, as of this moment, is getting the Portland City Council on board. The mayor, Ted Wheeler, hasn’t spoken with them yet—he’s up for re-election, and the group is waiting until a new City Council is seated in February, 2021, as this is an election year. The mayor’s challenger, Sarah Iannarone, has endorsed the project and she appears to be leading in the polls. Regardless, the project’s supporters’ page appears to have a deep well of support from local business, the local cycling industry, local trade groups and unions, as well as several local and state officials.
The second-biggest challenge is that the UCI has a newfound interest in a “unified” world championships that would encompass several disciplines in one host area. Such a UCI Worlds is currently slated to happen for the first time in 2023 in Glasgow, Scotland. The idea is an Olympic-style convocation every four years on the year preceding an Olympic year. The Portland group isn’t interested in this for 2027 and doesn’t want to host immediately following the Los Angeles Olympics in 2028, so it could be as late as 2029. As the road worlds are the big show, they often take the longest to prepare and the bids are announced long in advance. The venues through 2024 are already known (2021 is Flanders, 2022 Wollongong, 2024 Zurich), and the UCI has announced that 2025 will be awarded to an African nation, so the first opening is 2026.
I’m looking forward.