News Feature, March 12, 2007
Part 2: Coming out fighting, Unibet hits back
... Continued from part one.
Sold out by the IPCT and the UCI?
Although the group hasn't taken on the UCI or the three Grand Tour organisers before, the IPCT flexed its muscles in calling for a meeting to work out a solution to the ProTour dispute. Both sides agreed, with ASO, RCS Sport and Unipublic knowing that a global team boycott of their races would be considerable leverage, and the UCI being aware that a collective decision by teams to ride Paris-Nice would make disciplinary action very difficult.
That meeting took place last Monday. In the aftermath, it was initially difficult to work out what exactly had been decided. A vague phrase in the release saying that the three organisers would "examine in a positive spirit the granting of wild cards to the teams Astana and Unibet" could have meant that, unofficially, the two teams were going to get a green light to their races. Equally, it could mean that ASO, RCS Sport and Unipublic would consider it but not necessarily follow through.
As time passed it became clear that ASO had no intentions of changing its stance and allowing the team to ride its races. There has been no firm sign from RCS Sport in Italy or Unipublic in Spain that they will change their previously declared position against the team, although Terryn hopes that recent talks will have helped for the Giro.
Given the potential power of the IPCT, it is possible to see that they could have given the organisers an ultimatum; invite all of us, including Unibet, or you will have none of us. That appears not to have happened, and Terryn feels that no real solidarity was shown at the UCI–GT Organisers–IPCT meeting.
"The IPCT was very, very weak," he stated two days after the judgement. "Normally they should be one of the most powerful organisations but they sold us out. I don't have very good words for Patrick Lefevere [IPCT chairman, who represented it at the meeting]. He has the power to do something to ASO, to say that you are [acting] too big now, but he didn't use this chance.
"Basically, ASO is creating a cartel, they are going together with the Vuelta and the Giro and they are even in contact with the Tour of Flanders organisation and with the Amstel Gold organisation. Maybe in their dreams they see already the Amstel Gold and the Tour of Flanders as one of their organisations, and then they can have their own ProTour.
"What is going to happen then? Everybody from the IPCT says at the moment that it is very expensive with the UCI [to get a ProTour licence], paying €100,000 for four years. But maybe when ASO is powerful enough to have its own ProTour, we will need to pay €200,000 or €300,000. That is what I think is going to happen."
Speaking at the launch of its new anti-doping policy on Friday, the UCI put a positive slant on the meeting, saying that while concessions were made, the promise of future dialogue was a step forward. Terryn says however that the governing body clearly lost out. "When the UCI arrived at the table on Monday, they were already one mile behind [the Grand Tour organisers]. And they came out of the meeting five miles behind. What did they get, the UCI? Nothing.
"They must protect us, or they must say that the ProTour is finished. But you can't say to an organisation you have a license, you must pay for the license, you must pay about €1,200,000 as a guarantee, and then turn around and say, essentially, 'no, you don't have a license anymore,' without any reason. They should have defended our rights because, essentially, they sold us an empty box."
He feels that all the hands were stacked against the governing body, and that this could have long term consequences for the sport. "I think that Lefevere is very much closer to ASO than to the UCI. The only one that had the power to do something was him.
The Unibet saga
"But don't forget, next year there will only be 16 ProTour teams [going by the Grand Tour organiser's stipulation of December] so another two ProTour teams will have some problems. For the moment, though, each team is thinking only for himself."
He does however envisage a scenario by which it will be increasingly difficult to fill those slots. "There is another portion [of teams] saying, 'ah, we won't have any problems,' as too many sponsors are going away. It could even be that with 16 [slots] next year, we will have too much because it seems that Cofidis and Française des Jeux will stop and it seems as well that Discovery will stop. Then we will only have 15 teams."
As Discovery Channel have found while looking for new sponsors, the doping scandals of 2006 have made it tougher to attract major investors. Terryn warns that the treatment his team has experienced could also put them off.
"It will be very hard to attract another big sponsor when they see what they did with a backer like Unibet, which was willing to invest €40 million in cycling. A lot of other sponsors will say 'no, we won't take this risk,' because of that. So, apart from Unibet, the big loser here is the cycling world."
Wildcards or cash cards?
Terryn argues that there is a major imbalance in the cycling world due to the dominance of ASO. One feature of the ProTour model is that there is a more objective criteria for selection to Grand Tours and other races; teams are vetted when getting a licence, meeting sporting, financial and ethical obligations. If that system is functioning correctly, the teams know long before the Tour that they will get to ride.
However, with ASO and the other Grand Tour organisers are pushing for more wildcard slots, Terryn warns that this is open to abuse. Indeed, he suggests that they have a financial interest at heart. "It is not good that an organisation is so big that other teams need to be on their knees to ask, 'please may we come to ride.' It is not a good sign. And, of course, ASO likes to give wildcards because the name of the wildcards have changed... they are 'cash cards.'
"They are [officially] wildcards but everybody knows that they sell it. The more wildcards they have, the more money they have. That is the danger for the future, they are too powerful. They are very good organisers, but they are too powerful."
Returning to the legal issue, Terryn said on Wednesday that there are clear inconsistencies. Especially as the Giro organisers are denying them a ride yet, applying the French standard of gambling legality, other teams are actually the ones who are invalid. What is the logic in that, he asks?
"In France there is a monopoly [being used as a reason], but in Italy there is no monopoly any more since last year. In Italy, our sponsor Unibet has a license. As it stands now, we can't participate in the Tirreno-Adriatico or the Milan-Sanremo yet Française des Jeux and the Belgian lottery, who both don't have a licence in Italy, can start.
"Also, Française des Jeux don't have an English license. So can they start in the Tour de France [in London]? Unibet has a license in England, that is not a problem, so we can start. But Française des Jeux normally shouldn't be able to."
With regards to the numbers of teams the UCI and the Grand Tour organisers wanted, there was a clear solution which could have given both sides what they wanted vis-à-vis ProTour teams and wildcard teams. The mechanism? Have eight-man teams for the remainder of the season, thus allowing 25 teams start in a 200 rider peloton. The UCI would have had their 20 teams, while ASO, RCS Sport and Unipublic would have had a full five choices.
Terryn feels that this would have been the way to go, and would have made for a better spectacle to boot. "Why do you need to have nine riders on a team? If you look at a race that is very dominated by a certain team, it is not a pleasure to watch. But if there are only eight or even seven riders on the teams, there were be far more fighting during the race."
Even though the Grand Tour organisers and the UCI both proposed this at different times during their dispute, there has been no mention of that since Monday's meeting. The only conclusion is that this solution was lost. So what can Unibet do now?
"The only thing we can do is do our best [in the fight]," he continued. "It will be a shame for cycling to give up €40 million. At the moment I am not sure if the sponsor could pull out, but at the end of the day, if this problem keeps going, it won't be illogical that after a certain date they will stop."
Terryn hopes it won't come to that. The team has said it will continue to explore legal means to get into French races. Longer term, the European Commission is also considering legal action against France and other countries who impose restrictions of trade against gambling companies such as Unibet.com. If the Italian case is any barometer, then there is a chance that this 1836 law protecting state monopolies could be deemed illegal.
That leads to two questions. One, would ASO finally accept Unibet.com into
its races? And, secondly, could it happen in time for this year's Tour de France?
Court cases can be slow to progress, but Terryn, victorious riders this season
such as Jimmy Casper, Baden Cooke and Jeremy Hunt plus the rest of the team
will all be hoping this will come to pass. Fingers crossed, as they might say
in the betting industry.
Read part one of Coming out fighting, Unibet hits back.