Two very interesting statistics emerged this week: 1) The capacity of the Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis has been expanded to 68,000 for this Sunday’s NFL Super Bowl; 2) the number of tickets sold for last Sunday’s world cyclocross championships in Koksijde, Belgium, was 68,500.
Wow, you’re probably thinking, European-style cyclocross is more popular than American football. And, in a way, it is. Not only was that ’cross worlds’ crowd bigger than the one coming to this weekend’s Super Bowl, but the percentage household share of the live television audience surpassed that of last year’s Super Bowl. The elite men’s race at Koksijde had a 77 share on VRT, Belgium’s Dutch-speaking TV channel, as compared to a 46 share enjoyed by the 2011 Super Bowl.
But let’s not get carried away. In sheer volume of TV viewers, there’s no comparison. At its peak, the 2012 ’cross worlds had 1.65 million Flemish fans tuned in (out of a population of 6 million Dutch-speaking Belgians), whereas last year’s Super Bowl attracted the largest-ever American TV audience of 111 million — roughly 36 percent of the U.S. population.
However, because it doesn’t get a huge audience overseas, the Super Bowl is not the world’s most popular annual sports event. That’s European soccer’s Champions League final, whose 2011 edition, held at London’s Wembley Stadium, attracted a live TV audience of 178 million (including 4 million in the U.S.).
The next biggest global audiences behind the Champions League and the Super Bowl are seen in Formula 1 motor racing (about 55 million), Wimbledon tennis (30 million) and NBA basketball finals (25 million). These are followed in the 20-million range by the U.S. Masters golf tournament, NASCAR’s Daytona 500, baseball’s World Series, motor cycling’s MotoGP worlds and the Tour de France. Yes, Tour organizers claim as many as a billion worldwide viewers, but that’s including those who only see recorded highlights, and then totaling audiences for the 21 days of racing.
GROWTH IN CYCLING
What’s most important for cycling is that worldwide audiences and the number of televised events is growing. When Cadel Evans won the 2011 Tour in Paris, a record 704,000 Australians were watching the SBS network’s Tour coverage in the middle of the night. That’s a massive number for a country of 22 million people when you compare it with the 792,000 American fans (in a country of 300 million) that tuned into Versus for its most-watched Tour stage up Mont Ventoux in 2009.
The number of paying spectators at last weekend’s cyclocross worlds in Koksijde was extraordinary, but just as significant was the capacity crowd of 12,000 that showed up the next day at a German velodrome to watch the dramatic finale of the 101st Berlin Six-Day — where Australia’s world Madison champs, Cam Meyer and Leigh Howard, came from behind to score their first victory in a European six. In a sense, these two events were cycling Super Bowls for, respectively, the Belgians and the Germans.
Because bike racing has so many disciplines — grand tours, weeklong stage races, single-day classics, six-days, track World Cups, cyclocross, BMX — the sport will never have what football has: a single Super Bowl. But, as with the cyclocross worlds and the track’s Berlin Six, each discipline has its stellar events.
The three grand tours (Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España) dominate road racing because of their three-week span and spectacular courses, yet the spring classics feature just as much passion, pain and winner-take-all intensity that sports fans most appreciate. Italy’s Milan-San Remo, Belgium’s Ronde van Vlaanderen and France’s Paris-Roubaix all boast their country’s biggest single-day-race audience, both at the roadside and on TV.
The unique courses of those three monuments of the sport can never be re-created somewhere else. Still, major one-day races in other countries are gaining traction because of other elements in their organization. The Baltic Sea lowlands around Hamburg, Germany, do not seem to be the best place to hold a bike race, but the Vattenfall Cyclassics, now in its 17th year, is on the UCI WorldTour calendar because it offers more than a bike race. Besides the 200 pros competing in the 216.5km classic, the event offers 22,000 amateur riders the chance to race on the same roads in a choice of three loops: 55km, 100km or 155km. Spectators are estimated at 800,000.
The organizer of that event, Upsolut Sports, is a subsidiary of the French corporation Lagardère Unlimited (which also has a 25-percent stake in Tour de France promoter, ASO). Upsolut is now considering a bid to apply its Hamburg event model to London — which is planning a two-day Festival of Cycling, starting in 2013, using the momentum gained from organizing the 2012 Olympic Games. The festival will open on a Saturday with a family fun ride of 70,000 cyclists, and will be followed the next day by a 100-mile event for up to 35,000 amateur riders and a professional classic based on the Olympic road race course, starting at the Olympic Park and finishing outside Buckingham Palace.
In North America, Canada hosts two UCI WorldTour classics, in Québec and Montréal, which are held on hilly circuits within the city limits. These have proved hugely popular with racers, fans and citizens, much like Pennsylvania’s longstanding Philadelphia International Championship — which incorporated the USPRO Championship until USA Cycling moved the title race to Greenville, North Carolina, in 2006.
The pro championship is set to move again in 2013, when ideally it will go to another part of the country, while Greenville could retain its own major event, as Philadelphia has. This could help establish more one-day classics in the U.S., just as was envisioned by Philadelphia race promoter Dave Chauner, who at various times in the past 25 years has organized similar classics on city-based circuits in Atlanta, Minneapolis, New York City, Pittsburgh and San Francisco.
The San Francisco Grand Prix, once the most popular one-day race in the country, drew great crowds, but it ended in 2005 for lack of a big-money sponsor and the withdrawal of support from the city council. But it would be wonderful to see the U.S. pro road championship held in the City on the Bay for a year or two and act as a precursor to the Grand Prix’s revival. Similarly, the upcoming 2015 road worlds in Richmond could help establish a permanent classic (or a two-day festival à la London) in the capital of Virginia.
Yes, it’s time for American cycling to establish its own Super Bowls — just like Europe.