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An exclusive with Michael Ball, January 13, 2009
Ball still in play
Since December mumurings about the future of the Rock Racing team have been plentiful and increased in volume. Riders coming and going, the team retracting its Pro Continental UCI licence and talk of the team for sale, folding or merely downsizing have all aided in this. Ball spoke exclusively with Cyclingnews' North American Editor Mark Zalewski about these and other rumours.
Cyclingnews recently interviewed Aussie Baden Cooke, who had previously been linked with the team for 2009. However, in the interview he claimed that team owner Michael Ball made false promises about his contract; from a two-year deal with ample European racing down to a six-month contract of mostly American races, and was planning to sue.
"These rumours that have been around, the demise of the team, they are untrue... that is absolutely false," began Ball. However, in response to Cooke's claim in which Ball is now funding the team for only six months out of his own pocket while he looks for additional funding sources, he said, "That is certainly true. I am looking for a co-sponsor."
"We are in some good talks with some strong brands that are interested. Their budgets don't open for a few months and that is fine, as I said I am committed to the sport and will underwrite the team. But there is only so much that I am able to do, that I can do."
The obvious reason for Ball's changes is the worldwide economic downturn that is hitting all companies. Understandably, jeans that retail for hundreds of dollars are some of the first budget cuts for consumers. "I keep speaking of this economic tsunami that has hit the world in general, and specifically the fashion industry," said Ball.
"It has been tough to speak to my board and say that bike racing is a good investment! It just wasn't possible. I have to respect them with their decisions and advice, and we have to move on, unfortunately. From a business perspective we had to make cuts."
Ball said that he was upfront with his riders, including Baden Cooke, about the economic realities that his company is facing. "Each and every one of them has taken a pay cut. And they are more than willing to take the pay cut because they believe in what we are doing. I am the guy who will stand behind them and support them. At the end of the day I think that makes them feel a lot more secure about a pay check – whether or not they will get it."
Explaining business to the riders
"When I went to the riders I explained to them, completely, that this was an unforeseen tsunami that hit us economically. They all got it – it is a special group of guys. Riders like Baden, however, they took a different path and had to do based on their ideas of how they were going to get paid.
"I don't want to put too much into it," Ball said about Cooke, citing the possible litigation. "I don't know him personally. I've had one conversation with him on the phone expressing what we are as a team. We didn't have a contract. A contract takes two people to sign – I didn't agree to it and there was nothing there yet."
The defense for Ball is that he never signed the original contract that was offered to Cooke, though Cooke did sign it.
"At the end of the day I scratched my head because he could have [still] had a [bigger] contract and took a [lesser] contract and is going to sue me for the remainder," Ball said. "He will continue to do what he needs to do and I wish him luck. If we end up in court we end up in court. I'd rather focus on things more positive for this sport than have to bicker about something that is irrelevant at this point, since there was never a contract."
Ball cited Ivan Dominguez' departure as the correct way to do business. "Here is an example, Dominguez. He had an opportunity to go to another team and he came to me and said he was doing what is best for him. I said to him there is still a future for us, if not the next year then the year after. That is the right thing. I don't know how much he is getting paid, it doesn't matter, he needed that and he got it."
Confusion about the race calendar for riders
Another story that surfaced in December was a side effect of a late decision to not upgrade to Pro Continental status with the UCI and to stay a Continental team. But with heaps of new signings based on the Pro Continental model, including some big name talents, questions began to arise as to how the team would fit everyone on roster limited by UCI and USA Cycling regulations.
The response from the team was that there would be a UCI and a separate 'amateur' team, racing NRC calendar races in the US. However, some of the big names ended up on the amateur team, including the current US criterium champion Rahsaan Bahati, who would technically not be able to defend his 'professional' title.
Ball admitted that this was not planned well. "It was a bit of confusion, certainly within the team. But frankly it's the same as we did last year, moving guys around depending on which race. Last year the UCI and USA Cycling didn't have a problem.
"The only person that had some issues with it was Bahati. But we sat down and I explained the situation. None of the races that are important to him are until the second part of the year. So he will continue to train and race the NRC races to condition towards defending the jersey. He'll do the CSC race, Twilight... he understands it. He's a strategic businessman himself."
Finally, rumors surrounding sponsors has accompanied the other talk. The team has not announced a bike sponsor yet, though Ball said the team has bikes, but not with the two companies the team was in talks with at the end of last season. "There is a lot of talk about bike sponsor. We do have bikes. They are going to be cool, you know that!"
As well the team's vehicle sponsor, Cadillac, is lessening its support by only providing vehicles – again likely attributable to that economic tsunami that has ravaged the American automobile industry. "Cadillac is going to come back with some vehicles this year, so we are thankful to be able to drive to the races and look as cool as possible. And we are getting the new hybrids!"
Whatever the rumors, the rubber will be meeting the road for the Rock Racing team in a week, as they are scheduled to race the Tour de San Luis in Argentina. Ball also said the team will be racing the Tour of California in February. "We'll finalise [the Tour of California roster] at camp. But you will see Sevilla, Tyler [Hamilton] and Peña. We have a couple of new kids from Spain that are really strong. I want to make sure Baldwin is on the team, he is really flying right now."
In the mean time, it appears that the team's long-term financial future is in the same boat as the US housing market and auto industry, and only time will tell. But for the riders that time is currently a six-month countdown.
"I'm not a necessity!" Ball laughed. "I wish I was a chicken farmer right now! I wish I was producing eggs! But we are upbeat and I am still passionate about the sport. And I think we will get some support from another company that is a good fit and continue forward. It's a little hiccup right now. If you are sensitive to what is happening in this world right now, as long as you have a pay check and a job you are passionate about, you are pretty much okay compared to things that are happening around you."
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Images by Roberto Bettini/www.bettiniphoto.net