No top ranked cycling team has ever undergone so many turbulent changes in such a short space of time as the Dutch team now known as LottoNL-Jumbo. Since 1996 Rabobank had sponsored the team, but it departed in 2012 when the top brass read about one doping scandal in the sport too many.
The team transformed into Blanco in December 2012, then to Belkin in June 2013 and arose, like a cycling phoenix, into LottoNL-Jumbo for January 2015. In the space of 20 turbulent months, the team — the riders and staff — have been put through the grinder.
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Somehow, in the midst of the worst global financial crisis since the 1930s, the team’s managing director Richard Plugge has kept the spine of the team together and found two big sponsors ready to back a WorldTour team with appropriate budgets.
When Plugge was initially lined up to run a revamped, and continuing, Rabobank in the summer of 2012, it wasn’t the programme he had in mind.
Worse (or better, depending on your sense of drama), when US tech sponsor Belkin announced it was pulling out of the team in June 2014, the timing was as appalling as the news was shocking. After all, Belkin had signed up barely a year earlier and even then only properly taken over the title sponsorship in January 2014. The deal signed had been for 30 months but lasted barely 12.
When Rabobank announced its intention to withdraw sponsorship in October 2012 (where the original talk had been for Plugge to take over the team and to go through to 2015) the bankers at least had the decency to inform the team in advance. Importantly, Rabobank continued to fund the team through 2013 — rebranded, plainly, as Blanco from January of that year — allowing Plugge and his team time to find a new backer.
“We had contact with between 60 or 70 companies,” recalls Plugge, “which meant we had phone calls and meetings, then maybe 15 more seriously and finally four or five that went to several rounds of meetings. It was so important to be positive and enthusiastic in every meeting. In the end I was dreaming about my presentation, I had given it so many times!”
Although Plugge was close to signing with another big company, it was Californian consumer electronics company Belkin that moved the quickest, picking up the team just in time for the 2013 Tour de France when maximum publicity was guaranteed.
“When Rabobank had pulled out, I got the team together — riders, management and some staff — to work out what the team was about, what our vision was, who we were as a team. I realised that a bike team can’t just be about winning bike races, because even the biggest and best teams don’t do that all the time.”
As Plugge found, sponsors want exposure and when the team was not winning, he had to find other ways to generate interest in his riders and team.
“Normally teams only react to news, they respond to it. If you win, that’s a story and you tell that story, but we realised that we had lots of different stories to tell whether we won or not — and we needed to tell them,” he says.
Promoting the brand
“So we worked hard on social media and websites, improving communications in every way. In the 2014 Vuelta we live streamed interviews with the riders after the finish line because, if you don’t win a stage, the TV cameras aren’t there, are they? We had over 100,000 unique visitors just for the Vuelta.”
That’s an approach to sponsor and fan interaction that is well beyond most teams — and it’s clear that race organisers love the exposure too.
If we are getting a little ahead of ourselves, it’s to show how different Plugge and his cohorts were when it came to their conception of a bike team, sponsorship and stakeholders. There were no teams that did as much as the guys in green, black and white when it came to getting their name and deeds out there.
But, somehow, Belkin still bailed. “It was a real shock, a total surprise. They did have a clause in the contract which gave them the option to quit after a year, but up to that moment all the talk had been about extending to 2016,” recalls Plugge.
When Belkin announced it was pulling out in mid-June 2014, it gave no notice and — worse — pulled out at the worst possible time, just before the Tour de France when riders start to discuss future contracts.
From Plugge’s point of view, he effectively had a month to find a backer because he couldn’t ask riders to sit tight and hope for the best, as transfer chatter was loud all around them. The Tour de France is not only the biggest race on the planet; it’s also arguably the biggest rolling business meeting in world sport.
“It’s true that the timing was bad from that point of view, but in the end it was a good test for the team spirit,” Plugge says. “You know, it wasn’t ‘my’ team, it was always ‘our’ team, a team that we all helped create and believe in.
“The guys were part of the project from the start — they were part of the team’s DNA. Of course I told them to start preliminary talks with teams who were interested in them, but also to give us until August 1 before they got into serious talks and most did that, and waited.”
Mollema, at 28, was probably at his peak when it came to negotiating a new contract and if he didn’t buy in to the Blanco-Belkin project as much as some others, well, what more incentive did he need to jump ship?
In actual fact, although Plugge was shocked by Belkin’s decision, events earlier in the year had prepared him for this ‘nuclear meltdown’ catastrophe. “If you remember, in the previous year, Argos pulled out [of co-sponsoring the Argos-Shimano team, now Giant-Alpecin] in the November, which is really late and didn’t give the team much chance to find a new headline sponsor,” he says.
“After that, we sat down in January 2014 and decided that it was important to keep our network of contacts and potential sponsors up to date and informed. Not that we were doing anything underhand or expecting any problems, but we realised it was important to keep the channels of communication open.
“So, sure, the first couple of days after Belkin said it was stopping were pretty black, but it was actually worse when Rabobank pulled out.”
Plugge, a former cycling journalist turned magazine publisher, was communications chief at Rabobank before becoming the team’s general manager. The timing could hardly have been worse, given that he was still new to the job, trying to establish himself as well as put the team back on an even keel, attempting to rebrand a tarnished squad.
Plugge reckons that the initial strategy and team focus meetings he instigated in the winter of 2012 were absolutely fundamental to the survival and continuing success of the team.
“I’d say it’s like any successful business these days — when you have a general manager who just gets up at a meeting and says, ‘OK, this is the plan and this is how we’re doing it,’ it doesn’t work as well as when everyone has been involved in deciding what the company is and what it stands for.
“When everyone has had a say and everyone on the team is clear on what the goal and the vision are — and when everyone has had input into how we can achieve our goals — that makes for a much stronger team at every level.”
In September 2014, the team announced it had found a new sponsor to replace Belkin, by securing a deal with De Lotto, the Dutch national lottery, and Brand Loyalty — which creates loyalty programmes for companies — in a merger with a speed skating team. Jumbo Supermarkten then became the team’s second sponsor.
Given that Plugge has pulled a financial rabbit of out of the sponsorship hat multiple times in quick succession, what advice would he offer those seeking team sponsorship? “Oh, you need to have good riders!” laughs Plugge, before adding, “if you have a clear vision of what the team is, if everyone understands and agrees on those ideas, that’s hugely important. That and enthusiasm. Oh, yes, you’ll need plenty of enthusiasm!”
A new model for cycling
LottoNL-Jumbo was one of the first to sign up to the recently formed Velon group — an organisation currently consisting of two-thirds of the WorldTour teams — that is seeking to give more voice to cycling’s ‘stakeholders’, find new ways to generate money and improve the overall package of the sport from a televisual and sponsor point of view.
As far as Velon is concerned, cycling needs some stability — the Rabobank-Blanco-Belkin-LottoNL saga is testimony to that — but it also needs a sound business model, the first building block of which is to develop and clarify cycle sport’s ‘narrative’; the structure of the races and teams.
“When you look at cycling from an objective point of view — with its TV audience figures, spectator numbers and participation — I believe that it can be one of the top five sports in the world,” says Richard Plugge. “But I think one of the problems is that the general public don’t really understand the WorldTour or how the races and season fit together.
“If you look at the Champions League in football, everyone knows how important that is. The TV presentation, the theme tune, the graphics, the sponsorship, everything has been done to
make sure the general public knows what it is.
“Cycling needs to work on generating the same level of awareness, not just among fans, but so that your neighbour or auntie knows that the Tour of Flanders is part of the cycling WorldTour. That way you start to build a wider audience, which brings in more spectators, more sponsors which — in the long term — brings in the possibility of a more stable business model.”
Without the teams and riders there would be no races for organisers to sell to TV channels or race sponsors, but the teams don’t get any money from these revenues. Imagine if the Premier League sold the TV rights of football games to Sky and BT, but kept all the money. Consider too if Formula One kingpin Bernie Ecclestone didn’t share some of the television rights income with the teams participating in the car circus?
“I think the answer to whether or not it’s possible to share TV revenue is a long way down the line, that’s not our main goal at Velon,” continues Plugge. “At the moment we all have to work together, all the stakeholders in cycling need to collaborate to build the sport and bring it to a wider public in ways they can all understand.”