Is a salary cap the answer to Team Sky’s dominance in cycling?
Sports Shorts has previously covered the idea of introducing a form of a salary cap in football after Aleksander Ceferin, the UEFA President, suggested that the greatest problem facing football is “the competitive balance between teams”.
The idea of balancing competition by imposing a salary cap system is now being discussed amongst the cycling community after Team Sky’s recent dominance in the sport.
Team Sky launched in 2010 and won the 2012 Tour de France with Bradley Wiggins, followed by victory the next year through Chris Froome who went on to win the Tour de France in 2015, 2016 and 2017. Team Sky won this year’s race with Geraint Thomas, which signaled their sixth Tour de France triumph within seven years. Froome also won Team Sky’s first Vuelta a España in 2017 (becoming the first British rider to win the race) and its first Giro d’Italia this year.
It is no secret that Team Sky are dominating the sport. Chris Froome himself admitted in 2016 that, “If I was riding for a small team it would be very different.”
Following the 2018 Tour de France, French newspaper, Libération, argued “the distribution of the booty has gotten worse. The gap between the means of teams has exploded – while the shareholders of ASO refuse to give up a cent.”
Indeed, the gulf between Team Sky and the rest is clear and steadily increasing. In 2016, Team Sky’s estimated budget exceeded £30 million whilst Sunweb Squad and Movistar are estimated to operate with budgets of £15 million and £12 million, respectively.
The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) President, David Lappartient, has previously encouraged introducing budget caps for teams like Team Sky. Lappartient clarified that he does not support a ‘salary cap’ per se for the cyclists, who he says should earn as much as they want and can.
Instead, he supports a budget cap for the teams so that they can only afford a limited number of the strongest riders within its budget, meaning, “you would naturally have the strong riders better divided among various teams”. This would result in the strongest cyclists being distributed amongst teams so that they can maximise their earning potential whilst at the same time not being monopolised within one team.
Similar complaints have been made in relation to Formula 1 and have provoked discussions in the sport to implement a team budget cap by 2021, although this is not set to include drivers’ salaries, which they hope will promote more tactical spending. An idea rejected in the past whilst the sport was under the control of Bernie Ecclestone.
The salary cap employed in the NBA enables players to earn serious money whilst requiring teams to operate within a budget. This has the effect of distributing the best players amongst the competition and not just within one team (despite what fans may say about the Golden State Warriors).
For cycling, this could be an attractive option, which could arrive sooner rather than later.
The sport is experiencing a particularly hostile climate this year, in part due to the negative publicity that arose from the infamous ‘jiffy bag’ incident involving Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome’s adverse analytical finding for salbutamol after stage 18 of the Vuelta.
Tensions peaked during the Tour de France as Team Sky were booed, jeered, spat on and physically attacked by spectators.
Libération commented that the “Tour leaves a deep feeling of weariness”, citing “disillusioned angry fans” and “icy indifference”. Indeed, L’Équipe, the French newspaper devoted to sport, wrote, “there has always been schoolboy behavior on the Tour, but a line was crossed this year, that of violence, and that in part ruined the feast”.
In light of this, it could be the opportune moment for the UCI to introduce some reforms to the sport to rebalance the peloton.
The idea has found support from some cyclists. Alberto Contador, who has achieved victories in the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, thinks that there should be a salary cap “because if budgets start to go through the roof, we’re going to find it difficult to attract sponsors at all”. Contador is referring to the fear that potential sponsors, unable to match the fees required by Sky, may take their money away from cycling and into other sports, where they would have a greater chance of backing a winning team and gaining the exposure associated with endorsing a champion.
It is clear that cycling is no different to most other sports, the team with the most money has a competitive advantage, either by attracting the best riders or by being able to afford the best nutritionists and strategists.
Therein lies a quintessential problem with all sport and one which many governing bodies have tried to solve with varying levels of success.