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Continuing the Dialogue: Women’s Cycling

 

Today I read this great article over at Cycling Tips. It’s a quick take on a larger picture issue, and in the spirit of continuing constructive dialogue, I have a few thoughts of my own to add.

First and foremost, let us state the obvious: men and women are different. This is both a fact and a good thing. Our sexes have evolved differently in many aspects: physiologically, culturally, socially. While I believe in and hope for and work toward equal opportunity for men and women, I recognize that due to our inherent differences, when it comes to gender, equal does not mean “same.” Personally, I think it would be a shame for women to lose sight of the value of femininity in the quest for equality, and it is important to make the distinction between equality and sameness. As such, I am personally in favor of developing women’s cycling in its own right, rather than as a lesser version of the “real thing.”

When it comes to sport and questions of parity, many are quick to point out that women simply are not as strong and fast as men and that this justifies unequal treatment/salary/media/opportunity/what-have-you. Women are physiologically different from men, but I adamantly disagree that this physical disparity is grounds for treating women’s sport as something less. Especially in the case of cycling, speed and strength are only part of what makes an exciting race; more salient to a spectator is the strategy which unfolds unique and anew each race, as well as the skill of moving within an enormous, tightly-packed group of aggressive cyclists while navigating tiny roads, enormous cobblestones, tight corners, hair-raising descents and flat-out sprint finishes. Fans don’t simply watch a radar reading of speed to determine whether it is a good race. While strength and speed form an essential foundation for a good bike race, the appeal of bike racing correlates more strongly to strategy and skill, which abound as much in women’s races as in men’s.

In this regard, comparing women’s racing on the whole to men’s racing on the whole becomes the proverbial comparison of apples and oranges. They are different. Women’s races are shorter. While our longest races can get up to 160km, the longest men’s races get up to 300km. Our teams are also smaller. A men’s team might have ten or twelve riders in a race, while most women’s teams field 6-8 riders per race. These differences in parameters make for huge differences in race tactics. On one hand, the shorter distances mean that women tend to race aggressively from the gun: we want to make the most of the kilometers we’ve got! On the other hand, the smaller team sizes mean that we must be very crafty in how we use each rider in the larger strategic scheme; we don’t have as many matches to burn, so to speak. What results is exceptionally dynamic and unpredictable racing from start to finish. Women’s races are different from men’s, but different in this case does not mean less exciting or strategic or appealing. It’s different excitement, different strategy, different appeal. And I wholeheartedly agree that this difference, this particular brand of excitement, strategy and appeal, has yet to be optimally (or for that matter, even appropriately or effectively) leveraged.

This brings us to the question of marketing. To me, there are two big questions when it comes to marketing on the women’s side of the sport: how to market women’s cycling, and how to market cycling to women. In my opinion, these two questions are very, very different and require very different approaches.

How to Market Women’s Cycling

The first step is to accept, acknowledge and emphasize that women’s cycling is a very different beast from men’s cycling, and as such, should not be marketed in the same way. Men’s cycling has been around for centuries, so the model for marketing cycling has evolved and been refined in terms of what works for men and is by and large what has been applied to women’s cycling. Centuries of history compared with decades of history – that’s a lot of inertia in what may prove to be the wrong direction for the women’s side of the sport. First and foremost: market women’s cycling for what it is – distinct from anything else.

Then promote what it is about women’s cycling that appeals and fascinates. What draws the athletes to the sport? (I’ll give you a hint: it is not the money!) What is so damn irresistible about bike racing that these athletes leave such successful, respected and lucrative professions as medicine, law, research, investment banking, academia? If someone were to ever calculate the total opportunity cost represented by the professional women’s peloton, it would be a shocking illustration of the intangible value of pursuing a dream, rather than a paycheck. If that isn’t an intriguing and inspiring window into the human spirit, I don’t know what is.

Moreover, these women are fierce competitors and show it in their racing style. Last year, when The Sufferfest announced they were editing footage for the first-ever Sufferfest workout featuring women’s racing (Hell Hath No Fury), the difficulty became editing out attacks, as there were too many! The Olympic Road Race this year provided another great example. This aggressive nature of women’s cycling actually appeals just as much to men as it does to women, if not more so. Sponsors I have worked with have repeatedly remarked that the most traffic they get for our team is from men. Sure, one can argue this is simply sex appeal, but in the cases to which I am referring, the marketing was based purely on athletics; no bikini calendars necessary.

In my experience, cycling fans who initially get into the sport because of men’s cycling and later become fans of the women, tend to be almost fanatical in their zeal for women’s racing and take up remarkably active roles in promoting women racers. There is no such thing as a ‘fair-weather women’s cycling fan,’ and there is a reason for that. Men and women value what we are doing and quickly become loyal fans, if only they ever get the opportunity to see a race, interact with an athlete, or hear our stories. Potential sponsors take note:  there is something very powerful going on here.

(I could go on at length on this topic, but want to address a few more points before this post becomes prohibitively long!)

Marketing Cycling To Women

This is very very different from marketing women’s cycling. In the last several years, the bike industry has perked up its ears at research that shows women as being the fastest growing target demographic in cycling. Accordingly, every major brand has rolled out a “women’s specific” line of product. Yet again, these efforts largely miss their mark, because again, they apply the same old marketing model and think that by adding a pink or floral logo to their product, women previously disinterested in cycling will suddenly be inspired to ride bikes and buy all the latest pink, flowery product. I don’t know where they get their research, but simply slapping stereotyped packaging onto product isn’t the golden ticket to cornering the women’s market.

The name of the game is to create a) motivation to get into cycling, and b) a barrier-free pathway to becoming involved in the sport, at any level. The motivation part is easy. Everyone remembers that thrill of getting on a bike as a kid, and that thrill doesn’t go away, regardless of age! The second part requires proactively removing barriers – both real and perceived – that stand in the way of a woman picking up cycling. How? Promote the heck out of positive, approachable role models who went from non-cyclists to happy, fulfilled cyclists, and tap into the vast wealth of experience of women cyclists who know what works.

And here is where a fleet of professional women cyclists becomes your secret weapon: all of these women vividly remember the psychological, social and practical hurdles they faced as they got started in the sport. They offer a template for how a woman non-cyclist becomes an avid cyclist. What would benefit the bike/outdoor sport industry (and hence our sport as a whole) would be to recognize that women want what works… for them. Pink or floral or not. They want product and equipment and services and events that provide a quality experience… for them. Guess who has all those answers, and can clearly and honestly communicate them to your target market in a very natural and approachable manner? It’s not rocket science.

When it comes to the current model, I see two glaring deficiencies in leveraging women’s cycling for that holy grail of marketing, ROI:

1. a lack of presenting/promoting women’s racing in its own right, rather than the female version of the “real” thing, and

2. a neglect on the part of major brands to work with women cyclists to create friendlier pathways to cycling for non-cyclist women (and girls).

I agree that the current application of a historical business model for women’s cycling is ineffective and should be adapted re-created to address the specific appeal of, and value offered by, women cyclists. Women’s teams appeal to both men and women, and can provide additional value as a springboard for R&D of products and services aimed at the fast-growing and lucrative niche of women consumers. Marketing women’s cycling and marketing cycling to women are two very different sides to the same coin: namely the vastly underestimated and untapped marketing power of the women’s peloton.

Again, I have many more thoughts on this and would happily discuss further. Please leave your comments below, or tune in for my next Q&A Session – TBA via Twitter @ambermalika.

Thanks for reading,

Amber

amber_1Amber Pierce – An American expat living in Austria, Amber has made the leap across the Atlantic in pursuit of her dreams on the road. After making a name for herself as one of the top road cyclists in the US, she now faces new challenges in her life on the road in Europe.

Amber’s path to full-time racing in Europe has been anything but linear. From high school valedictorian holding national swimming records, to scholarship athlete at Stanford University and researcher on the open ocean, she has found herself in countless adventures all over the globe. With 53 career victories under her belt, however, Amber appears to have found her calling on the bicycle.

 

 

9 Comments

  1. Amber,

    First of all, great post about Women’s Cycling. Just passed by accidentally and felt the need to contribute as a Team Manager for an amateur team.

    Although the ideal situation would be similar to what’s happening at Tennis or Golf, in my opinion, Women’s Cycling should aim for a proposition more similar to Swimming or Athletics, or for instance Track Cycling.

    As much as in any other sport, Woman’s Cycling fans are also Men’s Cycling enthusiasts, so why should it be apart? Being a huge cycling fan, I don’t want to split my attention between Men’s or Women’s Cycling. It is true they are different, but they could be complementary also.

    For a road fan it definitely is. Let’s face it. Unless a race has a tremendous charisma and ambience like for example the Tour de France or Paris Roubaix, to wait a couple of hours for a 30 seconds glimpse on cyclists is utterly boring. The exception is criterium races. Providing more cycling time for a side road fan should be a priority, and swimming and athletics are great at it. The spectators might be more interested on the 100 meter championship final at the end of the agenda, but probably wouldn’t buy a ticket or go to a stadium for a 5 minute show. I’m assuming that the 100 meter race is more important than the 10.000 meter one, and although I would like both to be similar in importance, I do prefer that the most hyped one helps out the less publicized one.

    From the race organizer perspective also. Costs are relevant, and generally speaking they prevent more Cycling races to exist. Policing roads and race facilities like podiums and race villages are expensive, so diluting fixed costs is important. Here in Portugal, with its never-ending economic recession, successful women’s races have been associated with men’s pro races and there is nothing wrong with it for a start. I wouldn’t even prefer to create separate races, because in the end I would like to create a overall better spectacle for fans.

    Once again, thank you for the post
    Keep pedaling hard.

    Paulo

    1. Paulo – thank you very much first of all for reading my articles, and secondly for taking the time to share your thoughts. Getting perspectives from all the different stakeholders in our sport (e.g. fans, race organizers, team directors, athletes, sponsors) is exactly the kind of conversation that will ultimately reveal our common interests, and hence, how we can work together to grow this sport we all love.

      What I said in the article was that women’s cycling is inherently different from men’s cycling, and I stand by that. Such a difference, however, does not demand that the men’s and women’s versions of the sport be isolated from one another, nor that fans would need to forsake one for the other, or even appreciate them separately. My point is primarily that these inherent differences demand different marketing strategies to be successful: a marketing model that works for men won’t necessarily result in the same success when applied to women. Currently the same model is being applied to both. It works for the men (they have a long history of using such models), but for the women, it barely scratches the surface of the potential value.

      As regards races and events, I do think that including a women’s race on the same day and course as the men provides added value for spectators and fans, as well as the athletes (especially the women), for a marginal increase in cost. These kinds of events offer women’s cycling the opportunity to be televised and promoted to fans who might otherwise never get to see a women’s race, and that is the kind of exposure that will help grow our fan base. It would be great if more women’s races could get equivalent promotion in their own right, but looking toward step-wise growth, partnering with men’s races has already proven to serve as solid progress in that direction. Some great examples: Tour of Flanders, Flèche Wallonne, Philly Classic etc.

      Your point about the entertainment value of cycling as compared to track, swimming or golf is a good one. Those sports offer shorter events, which take place in a relatively small arena; well, small as compared to a 150-200km course or tour of an entire country, as is the case for road cycling. This is an inherent difficulty for organizers of road races: how to provide spectators with live action over such a long course. Criteriums, as you said, are far better suited to this, because like track cycling or tennis, they provide a lot of action in a relatively small area and short period of time. In other words, they are far more accessible to spectators. Running a men’s and a women’s race on the same course on the same day can go a long way to addressing this: the spectators get to see not one, but two races coming past. At Flanders and Flèche, it provides spectators who spend all day on the course with more cheering and heckling opportunities than they would otherwise have. Another solution that is gaining momentum is the awesome technology from Tour Tracker (http://thetourtracker.com/) that allows fans to see the race happening real time from any computer, iPad or smartphone device. This was a huge hit for the Exergy Tour last year in the US for women. In the future, it would be great to see a combination of live TV coverage/commentary and technology like Tour Tracker to promote women’s events on their own terms, but it’s certainly clear that the model of combining men’s and women’s races on the same course and day is also addressing the same issue with great success.

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment! If anyone else has some thoughts or feedback on these topics, please share!

  2. Amber, I again want to thank you for your great feedback in response to my comments! I also appreciate that you give us the opportunity to engage people such as yourself in positive, constructive dialogue about the sport that we love.

    Your recent articles inspired me to write about sponsorship in women’s cycling and the culture that surrounds it. My original response is perhaps much too long to post here for a free-flowing discussion, so I’ll have to figure out if I can share it some other way because it has some great points and concepts that I explain in greater detail. For now, I’ll just summarize some points that I wrote in my article.

    I like your idea about interacting with athletes, teams, and sponsors via social media, their websites, etc. I sometimes feel like the current sponsorship model or culture is for the sponsors to try to engage us, to get our attention and try to sell their products to us. They would, of course, need to get affirmation that their efforts are worthwhile, and while revenue from sales is concrete feedback, direct social acknowledgement can be just as valuable. The “culture of sponsorship” that I envision is one in which sponsors, target audiences (us), and supporters of women’s cycling (also us) mutually engage each other and try to understand and appreciate both the meaning and impact each of these groups has on each other and the advancement of the sport as a whole.

    Our understanding of the meaningful impact of the sponsorship is important so that we would be motivated to support the sponsor, and the sponsor understanding that there is indeed a worthwhile benefit is perhaps even more important; otherwise, the sponsor would perceive investing the time and resources as too risky and unprofitable. In my case, I used to look at some sponsors (not all of them!) in a very impersonal way, thinking that they just wanted to pay their dues as part of a business transaction so that they could flash their logos in front of us. However, after some observation and reflection, I realized that many sponsors actually do invest their time and resources with some personal meaning and concern for their team’s or athlete’s success. Once I saw the meaning in sponsorship, my attitude changed, and with my newfound respect for the sponsors, I become much more willing to support them with my business or recommend them to my friends.

    I was pleasantly surprised when you mentioned the statistic about men comprising the majority of women’s cycling fans; although, in retrospect, I often see men just like me genuinely interested in and passionate about supporting female athletes and their teams. This makes me feel that I’m in great company. I could talk about sexism, androcentrism, and the devaluation of femininity, all of which would have led me to believe that men support women’s cycling in far lesser numbers, but I’m happy that from my experiences and based on your research, this generally is false. As you said, this is a powerful message for sponsors. One effect is that advertisers don’t have to focus on products that primarily target females, which tend to deter men from watching a broadcast; this means that sponsors and the media could have less barriers to reaching the general community than many people previously believed. This could, therefore, mean that target audiences are less restrictive, and with the sport still being as male-dominated as it is, the money spent by men in response to sponsors’ marketing campaigns will continue to be financially significant.

    As you suggested, I will keep contributing to the positive constructive dialogues about the sport and providing feedback to the various media sources that do likewise. I think that sponsors and the media definitely need to understand the value of their time and resources spent on women’s cycling, and I understand that we all can play a role in ensuring their support. The culture of sponsorship can be most successful if we recognize that it is a mutual relationship, not just one side acting on or waiting for the other.

    Thanks, Amber, for all of your great insight, and I look forward to further enlightening discussion!

  3. Amber, I stumbled upon your blog by chance via another site, and I am very glad that I did. You have some brilliant insight and a definite passion for what you do for the sport, and I am thankful that you take the time to share your thoughts with us.

    I read the article you mentioned over at Cycling Tips and also your most recent article here titled “Money versus Ethics.” After reflecting on the points you discussed, some questions came to mind. The answers might not be simple or easy, but I think your perspectives would be very enlightening. If you find the time to respond, I would certainly appreciate what you have to say.

    First, what things can the average cyclist do to support women’s cycling? I feel very passionate about doing my part, and although I can’t do everything, I can do something. I always feel like I can and should do more than what I’m doing already, and I am wondering what suggestions you have for people who have some time, motivation, and resources to share.

    Second, what do you think is the importance of men (again, like me) supporting women’s cycling, and what obstacles do men and people in general need to overcome in order to have more active involvement the support in women’s cycling?

    I too could happily go on at length in response to the various points you discussed (mostly in wholehearted agreement), but I will just stick with my questions for now. Again, thanks for your excellent insight and contributions to the sport!

    1. Hi Chris! Thank you for reading the articles and taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment! What I love about cycling fans is that most aren’t content to spectate – they get involved, and that is just awesome! To answer your first question, there are lot’s of things anyone can do to support women’s cycling. The obvious answer is to sponsor an athlete or team. But there are actually many other things you can do. A very easy one is to follow all your favorite cyclists and teams on Twitter, “like” their pages and posts on Facebook, leave comments (as you just did) and click through their links to sponsors and product. Doing so helps show sponsors return on their investment – showing in concrete numbers that their teams and athletes generate “eyeball impressions” for their brand. This helps more than you can imagine, and it’s relatively easy to do! I’ve been hosting regular online live video Q&A sessions for fans, and this is a question that comes up often; I’ll work on a more detailed post about this soon! To your second question, men are great supporters of women’s cycling and contribute enormously to the success of our sport. In fact, the stats to which I am privy show men as comprising the majority of women’s cycling fans. To me this demonstrates the universal appeal of women’s cycling (i.e. it doesn’t just appeal to women), and that’s a powerful message for sponsors. As for barriers, a big one is the lack of television coverage for women’s events; fans don’t have the opportunity to watch women’s events (and therefore generate/show good ratings which would lead to more coverage). What you (and other fans) can do is to be vocal in your support of coverage for women’s events through all the major news sources. How? Click on links to articles about women’s cycling featured by big news sources and leave comments voicing your appreciation for the coverage and desire to see more like it. Be especially support of those journalists, television channels, websites, etc that already feature women’s cycling regularly. This is a business, and the more those media giants see a positive response to coverage of women, the more time, space, text, and coverage they’ll devote to our sport. Thank you very much for writing, and I’ll work on a more detailed piece discussing further ideas soon!

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