News Feature, January 9, 2008
Rock Racing on slippery slope with sponsors
By Mark Zalewski, North American Editor
The word 'controversial' is becoming synonymous with the fledgling US domestic team, Rock Racing, and its outspoken owner, Michael Ball, the flamboyant, Lamborghini-driving executive behind the fashion label Rock & Republic, the team's principal financial sponsor. Registered as a 'Continental' team with the UCI - the lowest level pro team ranking - it had announced plans to enter major ProTour events in Europe, even though UCI rules prevent teams at this level from competing. It also announced the signing of riders such as Tyler Hamilton and Oscar Sevilla, who both have alleged links to the Operación Puerto investigation, it named currently suspended rider Floyd Landis as involved with the team, and parted ways with director sportif Frankie Andreu.
The team's ongoing evolution has resulted in considerable media coverage and the latest headlines surround its rocky relationships with leading players in the cycling industry. In short, the team's relations with equipment sponsors have been as much of a roller coaster ride as with its roster.
Several companies told Cyclingnews that they experienced inconsistent treatment from Michael Ball and Rock Racing. Indeed, the musical chairs it has played with bike sponsors in the past six months is the most salient example. For the 2007 season, Rock Racing was riding Scott bicycles. According to Adrian Montgomery of Scott USA, the team was slated to ride Scott bikes again in 2008. "We had an agreement, but not a contract, for the 2007 and 2008 season," said Montgomery. "I couldn't get a good contract ... he (Ball) has to be able to opt out of anything."
Montgomery indicated that Ball had "good lawyers" and as such, he found the legal process difficult. He said his experience was "the same thing he is doing with his athletes".
Still, Montgomery was planning on being with Rock Racing in 2008, as a USA domestic addition to their principal sponsorship of the ProTour-level Saunier Duval team, now known as Saunier Duval-Scott. "I had it all set, including the dates that they would be built," he said of the Rock Racing agreement. "I had all new 'Addicts' (Scott's high-end model) with chrome Rock Racing decals - a really sick design. I gave him a great deal for 2008, but it didn't include all his other 'teams'." The teams Montgomery referred to were supposed plans for a younger development team and women's squad, along with the main squad.
Montgomery told Rock Racing that he could not supply the amount of bicycles requested. "Saying things like we don't have enough inventory probably made Michael think we are small-time, but that is the nature of the business - we can't have all that inventory in stock just lying around," he added. "And it's very unlikely that we would even have the right sizing!"
Look what's here, and gone
When Rock Racing showed up to the 2007 Interbike show, it had a new bike hanging in its booth - from the French manufacturer, Look. This was a surprise to Montgomery and Scott, but in the end he said it was for the best. "That was both a relief and a shame," said Montgomery.
"After all the work for 2007 season, it would have been nice to show our bikes at the (Interbike) show. But that didn't even get leveraged very well with Look. I didn't really want a domestic team - I wanted to focus on Saunier Duval and us stepping up this year. And now it's Saunier Duval-Scott, so that opportunity alone gives us better presence in the ProTour."
Regarding the Scott sponsorship, Ball said he was disappointed in how it turned out. "I thought we were going to be with Scott for a long time, but they just didn't treat the team with respect and it was time to move on," Ball said. "They just weren't serious enough and I'm sure there are some in their camp that are kicking themselves at this point."
While Montgomery described the deal with Rock Racing dissolving as a blessing, he sees the latest revelations with the team as a real negative for the sport in general. "I tried to educate them on how sponsor relations should work, and I did it because I thought they were such a great sponsor and he had such resources - they were the best prospect for the future," he said. "The shame is that he's spent tons of money and not one positive thing is happening in the bicycle business. All that has happened is he is in the media a lot and only in a negative way."
As for Look, its time with Rock Racing was even shorter. Ming Tan from Look USA confirmed with Cyclingnews that it was going to be a sponsor in 2008, but that the deal was no longer in place. "We are no longer the frame sponsor," he said. "But we sold them pedals - not as a sponsorship deal."
Tan declined to discuss the company's interactions with Rock Racing other than to say, "Apart from [selling them pedals] there is no real desire to be a part of the program."
Ball confirmed with Cyclingnews that Trialtir USA, importers of De Rosa bicycles, would be supplying the team with De Rosa frames as well as LAS helmets. "In the 11th hour [Trialtir] came in with an amazing package and they will be true partners," said Ball. "And that is what I am always looking out for, people not just looking out for themselves but that have a true interest in expanding the sport and supporting my view on what needs to be done and with my perspective. We could not deny the strength that Trialtir brings to the table." Trialtir USA itself did not respond to inquiries for comment.
In addition to bicycles, wheels have also been a source of controversy in recent reports, specifically with HED Cycling, the US manufacturer of high-end wheelsets and other aerodynamic products. Company principal Steve Hed told Cyclingnews of his surprise about a report that he and his company cited the signing of Tyler Hamilton as the reason not to sponsor Rock Racing with wheels.
"I got caught off guard with this whole thing," he said. "We didn't have a contract with them, and you can imagine how many teams want wheels from us ... for us they were just another team interested in getting wheels. We were under the impression that the roster was a little different than it ended up being. We were more interested in the first roster - then they only signed Tyler. His (Ball) ranting and raving makes me come across as anti-Tyler, which isn't it. As a sponsor, we are just looking for specific types of riders."
Hed said that a rider like Hamilton was not enough to support a sponsorship commitment, when the company already supports teams of what he sees as generating similar exposure levels. "We are a company that likes to support teams - we are already involved with Tibco and Kelly Benefits, which to me are teams that gives you the same amount of exposure as Rock does with Tyler," said Hed. "If their roster involved someone as more of a stand-out than Tyler, we would be more interested. And we were under the impression that the roster would be different than it is. So it is true when they signed Tyler, for me to give all the equipment it takes to support a team, that was not enough. Especially when we already have teams at that level."
In response to this, Michael Ball replied, "What, Oscar Sevilla isn't enough? Freddie Rodriguez isn't enough? I've got an amazing team, and that is just BS - and I've got emails to the contrary saying that it was because Tyler was on the team. It's unfortunate that it happened - he's another individual who has been manipulated and caught up by the system basing things on the past and not looking at the individual today."
Hed's comments echoe those of others. "It is just kind of a relief," he said. "Because the liabilities you have as a manufacturer on something that can implode on you ... I feel bad for anyone, even my competitors, that have had that happen to them, because we are all in this together."
Adrian Montgomery said that all indications are pointing towards an inevitable outcome for the team. "It became very evident after dealing with them that they just were not getting it," he said. "And nothing I could do was going to help. It's more fun to watch it now in the media."
"No other bike sponsor is ending up with anything positive," Montgomery added. "And then the next step is for him to go make it all himself."
To this end, Ball defiantly agrees. As the founder of the Rock & Republic clothing label, Ball does have access to capital, though it is unclear exactly how much he does have at his disposal, given the team is only a domestic US team at the lowest pro level in the sport.
"I can buy my all equipment - I am the sponsor!" he said. "I'll just go out and make my own stuff.
"Ya know what, challenge me! Please, challenge me to go out and just in spite of you bailing, I'll make a better wheel, a cooler wheel, a more dynamic wheel, a lighter and faster wheel - thanks very much for inspiring me!" he said. "I'll send [Steve Hed] a thank you note!"