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Cycling's Tough Sell

Cycling is somewhat popular in progressive Colorado, but race organizers have struggled to monetize those attitudes as race after race has struggled to make enough money. Major sponsors have been too scarce, TV ratings too low, and spectators too few. It hasn't exactly been a Tour de Colorado. But that won't stop marketers from trying, and what is now called the Colorado Classic is taking bold steps to address costs, create a buzz, and appease the prevailing sociopolitical climate all in one fell swoop. Instead of separate men's and women's races there will only one race. But instead of men and women competing bicycle to bicycle, organizers have decided to take bold marketing action. Men will not be invited.

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Marketers believe that they have an opportunity to create "the" premier women's cycling event in the Western Hemisphere, and in doing that can potentially impact women's cycling on a very large scale. The event chairman, one of a growing number of organizational leaders who make major marketing decisions around social issues, has said that in the past "women racers were overshadowed by the men and it would be better to have one great race" instead of two mediocre races. But how will this one race become great?

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This is an interesting marketing question. The hypothesis is that the event's positioning as a premier women's cycling event will attract the most talented cyclists and their sponsors while generating lots of buzz in the current zeitgeist of focus on gender issues. But sponsors ultimately want eyeballs on their brands and if marketers can't get enough people to attend the event (for sponsor revenue) and/or watch it on TV (for advertiser revenue), it is difficult to see how simply focusing on women as a product (and probably also as a target audience) will be enough to product a profitable venture that can grow into something truly impactful, as organizers desire. It is an inconvenient truth that women's cycling events (and the balance of women's sports, unfortunately) struggle with inadequate audience sizes all over the world. If this is true, and it is easily verified, will excluding men result in more or less sponsor/advertiser revenue? Is a product-market focus on women going to be effective enough to generate sustainable levels of interest? It might be uncomfortable to admit in this age of political hyper-sensitivity that a women's bicycle race held in the U.S. probably won't make money, but isn't generating revenue precisely what marketers are primarily tasked with doing? Let me ask this another way. Would you invest in such a product expecting return on your investment?

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If they build it, will enough people come? Americans as a whole don't consume much spectator cycling, having numerous other entertainment options at their disposal. This is especially true in Colorado even though lots of people ride their bikes. A decent-sized promotion budget will surely help some, but there must be a need in the market for a product to be successful. Is there enough of a market need for this women's entertainment product? Social initiatives can be an effective part of any marketing strategy, but I have found that they are best met through the attainment of profits through a sustainable business model that meets market needs. A healthy, for-profit event that devotes some of the proceeds to a cause can do far more good than a charity that struggles to make ends meet. Just look at how much the massive Natural and Organic Products Industry has transformed the food and personal care industries. Those folks have made a profit while making a difference. They have done good by doing well.

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At this point, despite the good intentions of the organizers and their experience in organizing races, it is difficult to see why the results will be any different this time around. Perhaps a not-for-profit event model can subsist on donations and grants and some attendance, a difficult proposition at best, but a successful traditional spectator sports model (either for profit or not) based on achieving adequate attendance, sponsorship, and advertising revenue streams, although well-intentioned, seems far-fetched to me a sit stands now. It would be nice if I end up being wrong on this one.


Discussion: Would you invest in this event? Why or why not? Explain whether or not you think it can be successful and what variables might be involved.