Why brands like HSBC, Asda and Virgin want a piece of the cycling action
A view from Tom Kerry

Why brands like HSBC, Asda and Virgin want a piece of the cycling action

As the Tour de France gets underway this weekend, the Limelight Sports chief operating officer surveys the growth in cycling's popularity and the increase in interest from major brands looking to take advantage of the two-wheeled boom.

Cycling’s flagship event is one of the great sporting events and along with the Olympics, in recent years has provided some real success stories for British athletes.  

However, as sports go, cycling has certainly had its fair share of problems.  In recent times, the sport has been dogged by countless allegations of drug misuse and cheating.  It’s a problem for the sport that just won’t go away and when seven times Tour de France champion, Lance Armstrong eventually confessed to his drug use in 2013, many thought it would be a dagger blow for the sport. Not so. Cycling has proved to be one of the most resilient and enduring of sports which has seemed to not only ride out crisis after crisis, but actually grow and get stronger.  

The success of British riders such as Chris Froome and Victoria Pendleton at the Olympics and at the Tour de France has dramatically increased the profile of the sport in the UK. This in turn has helped attract huge numbers of people to the sport who are seeking greater levels of fitness through a recreational pastime. That offering is being improved all the time as a result of better equipment, safer conditions and increased participation opportunities.  

A Yorkshire welcome

At the top level of the sport, the major races provide magnificent spectacles, attracting millions of spectators and providing the host cities, regions and countries with levels media exposure that the average tourist board can only dream of.  In 2015, Welcome to Yorkshire, inspired by the impact of hosting the opening stages of the Tour de France in 2014, got behind the idea for a new event, the Tour de Yorkshire which has been a huge success.

This year the event attracted crowds estimated at 2.6 million and enabled almost 10 million people to see on television and online, hours of coverage showcasing the very best of the Yorkshire countryside. This type of interest in turn attracts sponsors and major brands such as Yorkshire Bank, Virgin Trains, Asda and Tissot were quick to see the marketing opportunities that such an event can offer.

Few other sponsorship announcements in recent times have made a bigger and more significant statement about the new priorities and focus of major companies and brands than the HSBC deal

However, it is at grassroots level and in particular the ever-growing number of professionally organised events for amateur riders which has opened up the new opportunities and taken the sport to new heights.  In the UK, five million people now cycle regularly for leisure. On mainland Europe both the popularity of the sport and participation levels are significantly higher. A lot of this is driven by new technology, such as the Strava app, and the importance to people of getting more active. Limelight Sports has seen at first hand evidence of this growth through the increased demand for new and innovative participation challenges such as Sky Rides, V Series, Palace 2 Palace and Race the World.

At the highest level of the sport, leading brands are committing millions of Euros to supporting individual riders, teams and events.  However, this support, unlike most sports, it not just designed to take advantage of the elite riders competing in the top events. Increasingly marketers are looking beyond that, and much more at the strength of the sport at grassroots level.  Mass participation events create extremely large audiences taking part and following friends and family. Sponsors are able to target the millions of people who now see cycling as both their preferred recreational pastime and their way of completing meaningful and regular physical exercise.    

Of course, major brands will always crave headline exposure and awareness, but the sponsorship world has changed. The combination of digital media and the ability to understand and target specific audiences has enabled brands to get much closer to their target market. The relentless surge towards being seen to be a better company, a more respected brand, a good employer and a caring contributor to society has also changed the priorities for sponsors.  

New directions

Many sponsors are now attracted to and interested in sports that can offer much more than just a brand name being centre- stage at a top sporting event. As one of the major mass participation sports, cycling now offers very much more, not only as a commercial proposition but as a means of significantly improving the image and standing of a company or brand.

In 2016 HSBC announced a multi-million pound, eight-year agreement to become the lead partner of British Cycling.  An important part of which was the HSBC UK City Ride Programme. For years, it was sports such as golf, cricket and rugby that had been an absolutely crucial part of the sponsorship portfolio for financial services companies.  Few other sponsorship announcements in recent times have made a bigger and more significant statement about the new priorities and focus of major companies and brands.

In the UK, there is still much more to do to open cycling up to more audiences and the European-style cycling culture. Also, it seems that at the top level of the sport, the issue of drugs will continue to haunt cycling. However, the rest of the sport finds itself in extremely good health and has been revitalised and in many ways reinvented as the digital world unfolds and begins to offer up enticing new opportunities.

Tom Kerry is the chief operating officer at Limelight Sports