The news that BSkyB will end its sponsorship of the British team at the end of 2019 means Sir Dave Brailsford now faces the biggest challenge of his management career. Blessed with a supportive sponsor since 2009 he has been able to concentrate on building his team and developing riders since their debut season in 2010. The success that has followed is in no small part down to that focus brought on by the financial stability.
Brailsford’s strength, both at British Cycling and Team Sky has been building a team around the riders, and putting their needs and performance at the centre of all they do. Blessed with big budgets at both organisations he has nonetheless spent his money wisely and built structures that have produced incredible results.
Now that unwavering support has gone he enters uncharted waters and will have to rapidly change his focus, and hope his riders and staff keep theirs.
All his focus will now have to go into finding a new headline sponsor, and to match the wages he pays out, he will hope it’s one with pockets as deep as Sky’s.
This is not a new situation in cycling. Other team managers go through this on a semi-regular basis as sponsors come and go. The constant calls for a new funding structure for the sport comes from the fact that the source of most team’s budgets is so volatile.
All WorldTour team managers will have been in this situation at least once before.
Brailsford however has been protected by this largely through his relationship with Sky’s former chairman, James Murdoch. The pair had grown close over the years to the point where they would sit in Murdoch’s office and pore over the details on the CQ-Ranking website as they looked for new signings and discussed team building.
Murdoch famously loaned Brailsford his private jet to fly out to the 2011 Vuelta to hurriedly re-sign Chris Froome as his new star gave the world the first glimpse of what he was capable of at that Grand Tour.
With Murdoch in place, Brailsford effectively had a blank cheque book at his disposal. In the team’s formative years many who left were never sacked, simply told they weren’t needed any more and paid up to the end of their contract while a replacement was found and employed.
That sort of funding makes building a team a little easier.
Murdoch resigned from the board of Sky PLC in October after the company was taken over by Comcast. It’s likely his exit had a significant bearing on the company’s decision to end their funding.
With the announcement coming early on Wednesday morning, the clock has already started ticking in the search for a new sponsor.
Brailsford realistically has until the end of June to find a new backer so he can retain his current riders. Their agents will have to start talking to other teams in July if nothing is arranged by then.
Conversations with prospective sponsors are ongoing behind the scenes, especially for a team’s second and third tier sponsors that regularly come and go. But such was the surprise of Sky’s announcement it’s likely Brailsford will have to start from scratch this time.
That’s six and a half months to find a replacement for the sport’s richest sponsor. Six and a half months when, in the UK at least, big business has all but stopped it’s own internal investment (let alone new marketing spend) as they wait to see what happens with Brexit.
With the UK’s ruling Conservative party in disarray over Brexit the fear is that the political turmoil will run right up until the 11pm on March 29 when the UK is set to leave the EU. This means most businesses are sitting tight and waiting to see what their future looks like before making any big decisions. Many are putting money aside in case they have to work through a disastrous no-deal scenario
While conversations could still take place in this period, the timetable threatens to leave Brailsford with just three months to find a replacement.