Rather than avoid the issue, cycling efforts aim to convey the sport's anti-doping actions
The Tour de France is not quite the hot property that it once was. Last year, television ratings for the world's premier cycling event fell by almost half, as a Lance Armstrong-less field failed to hold the attention of casual fans.
However, the sport's governing bodies, its sponsors, and its media partners knew that the lack of Armstrong's star power was not the only issue limiting the public appeal of the event. Cycling, perhaps more than any other sport, has been rocked by a series of disclosures of performance-enhancing drug (PED) use and allegations of widespread doping among some of the sport's top riders. That culminated in doping allegations against Floyd Landis, winner of last year's Tour.
In many sports - like football and baseball in the US - PED use among athletes is an issue for which the league bodies have been accused of appearing to address as little as possible. Critics have accused the leagues, networks, and advertisers of having an almost tacit agreement that as long as the money continues to roll in and the teams continue to perform, there is little incentive to rock the boat.
Cycling, however, is clearly facing a crisis and could scarcely afford to ignore the issue. The International Cycling Union is requiring all Tour riders this year to sign a pledge acknowledging that doping is "undermining the credibility of my sport and is eroding the trust of the public" and agreeing to pay a fine equal to their annual salary if they are found to be in violation of anti-doping rules.
More notably, Versus, the TV network that is showing the Tour de France, decided not to avoid the doping issue in its ads for the event this year. Instead, the campaign included an ad in USA Today that made reference to the anti-doping pledge, which read in part: "Commitment isn't just something you can sign your name to... You won't find proof of it in the ink on some dotted line. But you will find it in the mountains of France."
It's a safe bet that viewers won't be seeing any references to steroids, for example, in ads for this year's baseball World Series. But Bill Bergofin, Versus' SVP of marketing, says the network's communication strategy must be realistic.
"If there's a big pink elephant in the room, you have to know what you're dealing with," he says. "We want to advocate everything that's great about that sport and the sports that we carry. We felt that by making a statement that we could get people to see and understand what this sport is at its core."
Bergofin also says that "our advertisers have stuck by us, and we have stuck by them" throughout cycling's doping troubles. Sponsors, he adds, have accepted the network's preferred message, "It's cool to ride pure."
Andy Lee, director of communications for USA Cycling, the sport's American governing body, emphasizes that cycling has been aggressive in its actions on the doping issue.
"I think every organization that is connected with the anti-doping movement... has come to the realization that there is a problem with doping in the sport," he says, adding that the sport has instituted an array of countermeasures in response. He believes communications programs that bring those anti-doping actions to the attention of the casual fan are beneficial to cycling as a whole.
"The benefit is that it shows that everybody involved is serious about cleaning it up," says Lee. "It's so easy for the casual fan to pass judgment and think the entire sport is dirty."
Ultimately, cycling's strategy of openness could serve as a blueprint for other sports (and their broadcasters) facing widespread PED problems.
"In general, the TV sports people treat their audience like idiots, painting a rosy picture," says sports PR specialist Jeffrey Graubard, founder of the Graubard Group. "You can't go wrong telling the truth."