Meet the NCL
To many American bike racers, it seems like a natural fit. A criterium bike racing series based in cities. Crits are short, fast, entertaining, and over quickly; good for the short attention spans of American sports fans. There have been various city-based criterium series in the US over the years, as recently as the 2021 USA Crits series, and dating back to at least the Wheat Thins Mayor’s Cup series in 1986. City-based teams are easy to identify as most people have heard of big cities, easy to pronounce, and can stir up local pride—a potential built-in fan base.
While the Into The Lion’s Den race tried it once this past Saturday, the National Cycle League did it for at least five years, starting in the late 1980s.
I remember the NCL coming on the scene. And disappearing. At the time, it looked like a sideshow with interesting possibilities, as the NCL seasons were pretty short, and most of the racers involved were temporarily released from their trade team obligations to race. And it wasn’t helped by the fact that the races, when they were covered in the media, largely seemed sparsely attended, often in parking lots. Often, it seemed that news reports treated the NCL races as a novelty, more human interest than sports. But I could have been a victim of media bias.
Herewith, I’ll try to give a sense of what the NCL was about. I wanted to write a short history, with some original documents and some interviews of those involved on the ground at the time. And I wanted it up by Monday, November 1, 2021, but complications arose. The biggest difficulty is that it seems very little information about the NCL has survived on the internet, a consequence of being lightly covered in the pre-world wide web era. I don’t remember the cycling media devoting much ink to it, and mainstream media didn’t do that much either. What I have found seems to be largely what larger newspaper outlets digitized a good while after the league disappeared.
As one interested in the business and history of the sport, I wanted to learn more about what the NCL did right and wrong. I’ve reached out to the creator/commissioner of the league as well as former team owners, managers, and racers. No one in management has responded. None seem to mention their experience with the league on their LinkedIn profile pages.
So, with that in mind, here’s what I can tell you.
A guy named Pete O’Neil started talking up the idea in 1988. Some reports suggest that was the league’s first year was 1988, but others suggest 1989 was the first year. It seems that he pitched the NCL as bike racing, but with a format that the average sports fan could make sense of; stick-and-ball sports framework with bike racing as the game. City-based teams with evocative names, not business names. A format that could have two halves and be completed within an hour. Regular sprints for points that would be tallied, so that fans could easily interpret what team is winning and by how much. A points race, just on a criterium circuit. The teams would be treated as franchises in a professional sports league—owners bought in, had to meet certain obligations, but, in return, the league set up competition, managed the competition, negotiated with both league-wide sponsors and television outlets, and created their own licensed products. A World Championship event as well. To keep with the American pro sport vibe, he even wanted draft selections and trades.
O’Neil was a one-time administrative assistant for the Los Angeles Raiders, according to his LinkedIn profile, who somehow seemed to be able to talk with some relatively deep-pocketed money people and actually get their ear. He talked a big game; I think I remember seeing him described as a marketing executive, though I haven’t found anything to confirm that. He’s quoted in an article in The Los Angeles Times in 1991 stating, “People told me to stop because of Donald,” he said. “He was sold with the old European format. Well, now Trump’s event is gone . . .” People like the word “brash,” which I guess he was. From my remove, I felt he was over-selling, and it was hard to tell if he was delivering. Teams came and went; owners came and went; the league soldiered on.
O’Neil came across in interviews a huckster. It strikes me this was both a strength and weakness. He created something out of nothing, which is impressive. I don’t know what he said or did to get the league off the ground, but that he did was praise-worthy, especially since he was coming from outside cycling. It’s hard to imagine any non-cyclist waking up and thinking ‘I know what I’ll do, I’ll create a pro cycling league.’ But that’s what happened. At the same time, it’s hard to believe there was really much money behind the league at any time. It feels like O’Neil was a ‘fake it till you make it’ type, but he managed to ride it for years.
The first year buy-in price was said to have been $7500 ($16591 in 2021 dollars). There was a contract, allegedly modeled on NFL contracts, that stipulated riders would be paid $50-1500 per race ($111-$3318).
It seems that the United States Cycling Federation (USCF), the precursor to USA Cycling, was opposed to the league and there may have been suspension threats if top racers got involved. The earliest articles show that possibly strong, but definitely part-time racers were on team rosters in California, and they were getting paid maybe $50 a race at the beginning, but by 1993, the average may have been closer to $500 ($949).
An Inflection Point
It seems that O’Neil’s big score was getting Franco Harris, the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers hall of fame fullback, on board as an owner in 1990. Harris owned the Pittsburgh Power, and might have been a heavy investor in the NCL. Some suggested that a relative of Harris’ was the nominal first owner of the Gotham (later New York) Ghosts. And Harris was a partner on NCL licensing properties, which was announced in 1994. I assume he helped bring in other owners and sponsors.
In 1991, the San Diego Zoom’s payroll per race was $2300 ($4,632) for the racers, possibly five per race, which might have been low for the league by then. Former World Championship silver medalist Shaun Wallace claims he was paid $1000 ($1,898) a race plus travel, hotel, and entry covered, and in 1993, Graeme Miller and some other pros might well have been getting that much. By 1994, it was said that the buy-in to start a team was alleged to be $50,000-250,000 ($92,547-$370,189). What the range represents, I don’t know.
From 1989 through at least 1994, teams came and went, but it appears they included: the Boston Banshees, Gotham (later New York) Ghosts, Miami Wave, Houston Outlaws, Los Angeles Wings, Pittsburgh Power, Portland Thunder, San Diego Zoom, San Francisco Shakers, Seattle Cyclones (later Tulsa Cyclones).
The league first encompassed East and West divisions and the winner of the championship was crowned National Cycle League World Champion (did you take a look at Steve Tilford’s World Championship ring above).
In 1993, the league went international, adding the Amsterdam Tigers, Milan Forza, London Lancers, and Toronto Pride added to the fold. In 1994, the NCL World Championships were slated to take place in Monaco.
The format was influenced by popular ball sports. Two short halves, with 4-6 sprint laps per half, a sprint every three laps, with a short halftime. Points going four deep. All done in an hour. Cheerleaders, it seems, too, at least some places. While the format was tweaked over the years, it seems that it was three or four teams of five or six competing against each other at a time. Some years, allegedly, substitutions via hand slings could be made after sprint laps.
A Rare Feature
Here’s a description from a feature in Winning Magazine in January 1994:
“NCL races are like criteriums with a twist; many races within a big race, with a changing score—like in a basketball game—displayed at all times so that the crowd can follow the action. Three six-man teams circle half- to three-quarter mile laps on city streets 15 times per half. Each third lap is a Sprint Lap, with the first five riders scoring points for their teams: 10 for first, eight for second, through two for fifth. The final lap of the second half is worth double points, i.e. 20 points for first, 15 for second.”
The article goes on to state “…with halftime and after-race interviews included, fit neatly into an hour of packaged programming. A 1994 TV deal wasn’t finalized as of mid-November but all of the NCL’s 21 regular season matches are tentatively set for ESPN 2, a new MTV-type leading-edge sports programming network. Plans also call for the playoff and final to appear on parent network EPSN.
The article goes on to mention that the league had Volkswagen on board as a “five-year, six figure sponsor.” And O’Neil is cited as claiming the NCL was expecting $1.6 million in revenues.
A quote from Franco Harris closed the piece. “Everyone wants instant success, (but) we’re committed for the long run…I keep in mind that Steelers owner Art Rooney suffered through many lean years before it got good. All the sports leagued had it tough in the beginning. The most important thing is to stick together.”
It’s possible that they did end up getting their ESPN2 deal. There’s a video of a 1994 NCL race in Toronto on YouTube.
I’ve seen some footage of the 1994 New York City race. It went through the West Village and appeared to have television cameras covering the race. A friend says he has video of the race; I’m waiting to see it.
High and Low
The league did manage their world championships in Monte Carlo. But it seems to have ended there. Race announcer Jamie Smith commented on the YouTube video, “the NCL still owes all of us a shit load of money They disappeared into the darkness immediately after the final show in Monte Carlo. But I write it all off as a 15-week road trip to some pretty cool cities with a bunch of fun and interesting people.”
I don’t know what happened. But in early 1995, O’Neil was back with the Professional Bicycle League, which was going to be a single-owner thing. Here’s how an article in the Florida Sun Sentinel from February 8, 1995 reads, “South Florida is getting another shot at a pro cycling franchise. The new Professional Bicycle League’s 11-race series, July through September, is to be on downtown criterium courses in Miami, New York, Dallas, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco and London, Amsterdam and Mexico City.” And a business by that name filed papers in New York City in December 1994, and then in other American cities in early 1995.
The image used at the top of this story is captioned 1995, so it’s likely that was the final season of the NCL, and it was under different management than O’Neil.
O’Neil and the PBL also make an appearance in the Sports Business Journal in 2000, as O’Neil was seeking to raise $100,000. The PBL was described as “combines indoor, full-contact mountain-bike racing with musical concerts.” I never saw anything quite like that, but in the late 1990s, most likely 1997, I did attend a PBL race in New York City’s East River Park, where pretty fast road amateurs, mostly category 1 racers, were racing on a really small circuit on mountain bikes and full pads—despite the “full contact” tease, no one wanted to crash and nobody did. Almost no one attended; a few bike racers who came out to see their friends. But I heard the racers got paid.
The Racer View
One of the few people I was able to talk with about the NCL was the above-mentioned Shaun Wallace. He was on the Gotham/New York Ghosts for a few years. He thought it was good for the sport and rather liked the experience, something a few other racers told me as well, but was disappointed by the treatment it received from both the governing body and the media.
“The media saw it as a novelty act. It wasn’t given the respect it deserved. There was an article about it rather than following along, with standings and such. We never got that respect. Riders did give it more respect. It was a better deal in general and model than USA Cycling type races.
“The key thing that was different was the flow of funds. USA Cycling is living off the riders. The NCL was the other way. They got the sponsors and organizers and owners, and the money flowed from the top down to the riders. This was just a better model. It was one of the fundamental differences between NCL and just about all racing.
“It’s a shame the cycling media didn’t get behind it. It’s a shame USAC saw it as competition. They should have seen it as more money coming into the sport.
“In it fledging years, I remember reading about it, I was thinking it wouldn’t’ go far. It went for three or four seasons. It was just getting going. Pete did an amazing job getting the backers. He rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, but he brought a lot of money in, and he got a lot of bike rides put on. Maybe cycling needed something different. They were legitimately different races. They were exciting to watch, the best teams won. It should have been encouraged more.”
Wallace also pointed out that the USCF relaxed prohibitions against racing in the NCL at a time when there was a general downturn, in his experience, in racing opportunities for full-time racers. The NCL effectively became a way for racers who weren’t racing enough or whose trade teams folded or cut budgets, to make ends meet. With much smaller fields and no outlay in terms of entry fees and travel, as well as short races, there was very little downside for racers.
We’re also at a time when there’s been a general downturn in bike racing. It does seem like a time when creativity can go a long way. There is no shortage of good bike racers. The question that probably sunk the NCL and has been killing racing is how to bring the money in. Here’s hoping someone figures that out.
Author’s note: If you’ve got info on the NCL you’d like to share, I’d love to hear/read/see it. Contact me directly or add to the comments below.
Reading up on the NCL
2000- PBL hopes to raise $100K