Media Coverage for Women's Sport
When 13-year pro cycling veteran Nichole Wangsgard got a phone call to join the 2013 Tour of Utah’s planning committee, her answer was an immediate yes. For Wangsgard, who currently serves as director for the Primal women’s team and is a tenured professor at Southern Utah University in Cedar City, supporting the advancement of cycling is a natural inclination.
“When I got the call to help the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah with their logistics and planning, I said, ‘Yeah, sure!’” Wangsgard told VeloNews. “My role was to build a curriculum for the local public schools, so students and teachers could understand the sport. I got pretty excited about that.”
That was, until Wangsgard thought through the inevitable questions she would field, specifically, “When will you race?”
As Cedar City’s only professional cyclist, Wangsgard saw the obvious problem.
“Here I was, about to go tell all these kids and teachers about the joys of cycling and how fantastic the Tour of Utah is, but when they ask when I’m racing, I’ll have to tell them I can’t,” she said. There is no women’s professional field at the Tour of Utah.
After careful consideration, Wangsgard turned down the committee position. The only question worse than “When will you be racing?” for female pro cyclists is the subsequent question of “Why not?”
“It just didn’t sit well with me, having to tell young children that women aren’t allowed in the race,” Wangsgard said. “It’s great that 150 of the best pro men come through town, but it simultaneously sends the message that women are not allowed to do this event.”
The absence of a women’s pro field in the six-day Utah tour and other men’s-only stage races leads to a bigger question: Are men’s-only stage races hurting the growth of cycling for both genders?
The Tour of Utah is one of five UCI-sanctioned men’s stage races in the United States that fail to include a UCI professional women’s multi-day event. The Amgen Tour of California and the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado follow suit and are nationally televised. (Silver City’s Tour of the Gila and the Tour of Elk Grove — which are not televised — do hold women’s pro races, though the women’s events are not UCI-sanctioned.) While the Amgen Tour does hold a single-day, invitation-only time trial event, for years female pro cyclists have lobbied unsuccessfully for a multi-day event to run in conjunction with the biggest men’s tour in North America. According to Wangsgard, the chicken-and-egg issue of adding women’s races to the men’s UCI events and/or the National Racing Calendar often gets caught in an unproductive blame game.
“Race directors often say they can’t find enough sponsorship to hold a simultaneous women’s event, while sponsors are largely unaware that women want the opportunity to race these events,” said Wangsgard. “So what comes first, the media exposure, the sponsorship, or the general knowledge that women can — and want to — race these events?”
The majority of U.S. race directors already possess this “general knowledge” when it comes to understanding the desire women have to be included at the highest level. In the U.S. there are six NRC stage races for professional women — Redlands Bicycle Classic, Joe Martin Stage Race, Nature Valley Grand Prix, Tour of the Gila, Tour of Elk Grove, and Cascade Cycling Classic — and these race directors wonder why the men’s-only races like USA Pro Challenge and Tour of Utah haven’t caught on.
“Including the pro women in major stage races should be a no-brainer,” said Jack Brennan, race director of the Tour of the Gila, a notoriously grueling five-day stage race in Silver City, New Mexico, which has hosted a women’s field for 25 years. “The professional women are incredible.”
Brennan cites that the pro women’s inclusion in the race goes far beyond the economic and sponsorship values. “Sure, there are economic benefits to having a race in a small town, but it’s really about the community. Colavita Pro Cycling, for example, would bring boxes of olive oil and products to the local families. They build lasting relationships. It’s wonderful. You’ve got to remember that the economic value of a race first starts in the community. You have to get the community and the people behind you first if you want to have a financially successful event.”
Redlands Classic marketing director Scott Welsh agrees. For 19 years, Redlands has included a professional women’s field in its four-day Southern California event.
“We’re really proud of our long heritage in promoting and supporting women’s cycling. It’s a very important component to the overall theme of bike racing. We feel like we’ve benefitted as much from women’s cycling as anything else we do,” Welsh said. “It’s great to see the variety of sponsors that the women’s field brings in, and we’re proud to bring recognition to those sponsors who support women’s cycling. Cycling is a very competitive environment, and the women put on a fantastic show. It’s absolutely first class, and they work just as hard as the guys do. We’re happy to support it.”
Welsh also values the long-term effect of what the pro women bring to his community. “The pro women are willing to talk to groups, to school-aged kids, to sponsors. We think it’s incredibly special what these athletes give back in return,” Welsh said. “Not to mention, it’s more than just a homestay when there’s a little kid in our community who gets to say, ‘An Olympic champion stayed in my house!’
Brennan and Welsh also concur on the economic value of including women’s fields alongside the men’s events.
“From the marketing angle, anytime you have a community event like ours — which is a 100-percent volunteer — and we’re inviting the greater community of Southern California to come and watch racing, it’s smart to have the diversity of events,” Welsh said. “There’s no doubt to the benefits of being multi-dimensional. Hundreds of thousands of dollars is generated in revenue by over 300 professional cyclists, teams, and managers who come to the community, and with the thousands spectators … well, let’s just say our city council really embraces it. This race spurs an economic boom.”
Better still, the Redlands Classic and Tour of the Gila don’t adhere to the chicken-and-egg conundrum of sponsorship allocation in holding simultaneous men’s and women’s events.
“I don’t think there is a difference between attracting men’s and women’s sponsors,” Welsh said. “In fact, there are many shared sponsors. Women bring additional sponsors, which is good for both sides of the sport. When a sponsor sees a highly competitive, talented, professional female cyclist with their logo on her back, it’s good for all of sport.”
Race directors like Brennan also tout the professionalism of the women’s field as a beneficial strategy in attracting marketing and sponsorship.
“In the women’s pro peloton, there are a lot of attorneys, doctors, researchers that work and race at the same time — they are smart folks. So you’ve got this really educated group of athletes coming into the community and getting involved in the race, and they can do so much with that. That’s the one thing I would stress to these [men’s-only tours] … the resources available in the women’s pro peloton is incredible.”
Wangsgard agrees, citing an example from her experience racing for Colavita when the team had a men’s and women’s program. (The Colavita men’s team is now Jamis-Hagens Berman.)
“Sometimes, if the guys’ team wasn’t having a great race, they were thrilled when the women’s team did well because it helped alleviate the burden of getting results — which is important to a sponsor. So, if there were more UCI-level men’s races that had a women’s race, there would probably be more men’s teams that would sponsor more women’s teams as well. Then the sponsors get that much more visibility. It’s good for everyone.”
For Brennan, any race not including a women’s field is simply selling itself short — not to mention the growth of American cycling.
“If the Tours of California, Utah, and Colorado included a pro women’s race, it would expose women’s racing to the greater population, which is now over 50-percent women, and we’d have more women and young girls looking at cycling as an activity they can do,” Brennan said, noting that televised media is key to growth and awareness. “But you’ve got to have those big televised events. [Tours of California, Utah, and Colorado] need to put the money behind a women’s pro field, and push it in the media. If you factor in the pro women, we’ll all benefit. We’ll have more race teams, more races, more women on bikes, and a high caliber of racing. But we need the big dogs to get behind it.”
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