The financial challenges of hosting a cycling event in Philadelphia and beyond

Career sporting events manager Robin Morton is trying to see the 2013 cancellation of the Philadelphia International Cycling Championship as a valuable chance to regroup, rather than a crisis for a sport already suffering from the tarnished image of its biggest star.

A former competition director for Threshold Sports, Morton spent 20 years working closely on the race that drew a world of cyclists to Philadelphia before teaming with a group of women to launch a new company, G4 Productions, in 2005.

In a difficult double blow for Philadelphia’s cycling enthusiasts, G4’s plans for its inaugural Keystone Open bike race, originally scheduled for July 2013 in Philadelphia, have been canceled due largely to financial factors.

While facing the loss of the 28-year-old race (even if only for one year) is difficult for local fans, Morton says the race has enjoyed considerable luck in past years in what is often the most difficult and little-understood side of assembling a major sporting event.

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“The Philly race has been very fortunate,” she says, explaining that often, a sponsoring company will become involved with an event for opportunities of branding, community involvement, or simple goodwill, but the relationship soon “runs its course.”

After being acquired by First Union bank, which eventually became Wachovia, the Philadelphia International Cycling Championship had an unusually long run with a single sponsor before moving to TD Bank.

Achieving a consistent sponsor can be difficult for any sport, but according to Morton, cycling faces a particular challenge.

“Sponsorship sales are difficult because cycling is a niche sport,” she says. “Typically, unless you find a local sponsor that wants to do a lot of community outreach, it’s a difficult sell. It’s not the same as tennis or golf or Nascar.” Often, sponsors become involved with the sport because a CEO or high-level manager is a cyclist.

Major cycling races are also somewhat unique in the sports world because they don’t take place on a dedicated course, stadium or track.

“You’re out on city streets,” Morton emphasizes. “It’s not like you’re going from one point to another.” For Philadelphia’s famous race, that means “the streets are closed for the entire day.” And the practical aspects of hosting the event, such as traffic control, sanitation, food inspection, police and emergency staff, start adding up. 

According to Morton, the general cost of a race, including prize money, pay for the officials, security, permits and vendors, can range up to $1.3 million. 

City finance hurdles 

These are the challenges that any big city faces in putting on a bike race, but Morton can speak to specific urban nuances of hosting an event of this kind. 

While partnerships with city governments to host the events might seem ideal, Morton believes that it’s not the best way for the process to work. While some cities have been willing to enter into such partnerships in the past, because of the economic return of drawing in extra visitors, they are typically cities that do not attract a large share of events on their own.

It’s a different story in cities like Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. or San Francisco, where major media markets easily draw large events.

Morton points out that many city governments across the country operate in the red.

“It would be wonderful if we could get everything paid for,” she says of city support for these types of events. But ultimately, she said she doesn’t think that constituents would be pleased to see their dollars going toward for-profit events.

And financial and sponsorship woes aren’t the only ones that have been slowing cyclists down lately, in Philadelphia and beyond.

The Lance Armstrong effect 

Besides the fact that cycling, at least in the U.S., is viewed as a more Eurocentric sport (no American race, however prominent, can eclipse the Tour de France), the sport has suffered the fall of Lance Armstrong, its most famous athlete.

“I think Lance is special,” Morton says, explaining his impact on the sport at large. As a cancer survivor, “his story is so compelling, [and] I think that’s why [the sport is] wrapped up in the image of one person.”

“Cycling is definitely cleaning itself up, and I think this is the pinnacle of how bad it can get,” Morton said, adding that it’s a sport that has been revealed to be “rife with drugs” in recent years.

According to Morton, many companies potentially interested in the sport have a “wait and see attitude. It’s not a good time to be associated with cycling.”

But Morton has high hopes that the trouble will clear, especially with a good crop of future American cycling stars waiting in the wings.

Incorporating more women’s races 

Morton hopes that the rehabilitation of the sport will also include a greater role for women in cycling – part of the goal of the Keystone Open, which proposed a dedicated race for women with prize money equal to that of the men’s race.

While the Philadelphia race has always included the women’s Liberty Classic race alongside the men, Morton believes Philadelphia is ready to give a better spotlight to female competitors.

“We want to speak for the women in their own event, with equal prize money,” she says, pointing out that this is the first year women have had a professional category in the sport of cycling.

“We want the women to have their own event and not be overshadowed by the men,” she says of G4’s hopes for future Keystone Open races.

Morton said that City of Philadelphia officials were excellent partners in trying to make this summer’s bike races a reality, but as time is running short for new sponsors to emerge, the races may indeed be on hold until 2014.

“The city can’t pay for the bike race,” she admits. “It’s potentially better to wait and regroup” for 2014.

“It’s a terrific community event within the city of Philadelphia,” Morton concludes. “It’s just amazing the affection that people have for that event, and how many people [supported it] from day one in 1985. It’s something that needs to continue.”

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