How did we navigate the Tour? With conversation!

Author: Rok Šinkovc | Read time: 9 min

Laurent Lachaux, Sales and Partnership Director at Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), has a highly unusual season behind him. Although he has been with ASO for 15 years now and is practically a veteran of sports (show) business, organising one of the biggest sports spectacles during the pandemic was an especially admirable achievement both for him and his colleagues. The Amaury Sport Organisation oversees and organises major sporting events, including some of the classic cycling races (La Flèche Wallonne, Paris-Nice, Paris-Roubaix, Critérium du Dauphiné), the Dakar Rally and the Paris Marathon, as well as, of course, the Vuelta a España and the Tour de France. The famous Tour was also the main topic of SPORTO’s conversation with its ‘number one marketer’.

SPORTO: The viewing figures for the postponed Tour de France 2020 were extraordinary – NBC reported this year’s Tour as the most viewed TDF since 2010, EBU had a 10-percent rise in the number of hours viewed and France TV saw its viewership increase by seven million. That kind of success must be rewarding both for your team and other stakeholders?
LAURENT LACHAUX: For many of us, 2020 was very special in many ways, bringing many challenges and a lot of drama. The constant changing of plans and organisational adjustments due to the Covid-19 were stressful, but in the end, it was all worthwhile. The Tour is the ‘crown’ of the cycling season globally, with tremendous advertising around the world, so we had to make it happen – as best as we could under the circumstances – otherwise the entire global cycling season would go down the drain. But the pandemic was also the reason that the numbers were so high, with people having more free time to watch television. We had great weather, and starting in Nice with maximum safety precautions, the race could take place.

If the Tour did not happen, it would be a total disaster for the entire cycling economy. The teams were aware of that. Together we have demonstrated that cycling is a sport that can survive even during the pandemic.

Of course, we were cautious, sometimes also sceptical, but we did a fantastic job. Viewership records are in part due to the curiosity of the audience who wanted to see if the Tour would actually happen, but also because of the initial success of the French riders. Maybe there was a little less interest in the last week as the Slovenians took over – but overall, live broadcast had three times more viewers than last year. This year, during the pandemic especially, people wanted to see more action, more fight and more drama.

With the “TDF bubble concept”, many adjustments and changes had to be made in terms of the usual practices and processes. Can you share some insights relative to these adjustments? What had to be changed to maintain the high-level standards of the Tour de France?
Our job is to plan, organise the logistics and make sure that everything goes smoothly. But this year, because of the special circumstances, the most important part of our event planning was – conversation. Everyone involved took much more time to communicate with all stakeholders, including teams, riders, sponsors, police and security officers, local authorities and others. Everyone understood that this would be a very specific Tour de France and they were all ready to actively participate to bring about the necessary changes. Going live with 3500 people day by day during the pandemic is not easy. The virus made our work more difficult, but safety was our top priority and always part of the conversation. We are happy that the communication was more or less successful on many levels.

It is easy to say we will not play the game this way, but far more difficult to find another way. If you do not agree with the solution, find a better one. Together we can do it. A lot of the media people stayed at home this year and worked remotely, so we were the ones who had to answer the questions – even more than usually. We implemented many procedures in order to make adjustments for the accommodation, testing and so on. We cut our publicity caravan by 60 percent, limited the number of events and gifts for fans, also because of smaller numbers of spectators. Although there was a lot of improvisation on the route, I would say that the spirit of the Tour remained intact.

Laurent Lachaux – Sales and Partnership Director at Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO)

How did sponsors adapt to the changes?
It would be foolish of us to insist on all points of sponsors’ contractual obligations. There are 40 sponsors on the Tour and we had regular and thorough conversations with each of them about what can or cannot be done. We were willing to adapt, but we also had to be creative. For example, as for Continental, which presence by contract is mainly during the last 25 kilometres of each stage, additional visibility has been exceptionally proposed this year in this critical final part of the race. But we didn’t lose a single sponsor, everybody wanted to be part of it. Initially, maybe, some of them didn’t believe we would be celebrating in Paris – but we made it!

How did the teams adapt to the new circumstances in your opinion – changes in sponsorship activities, safety precautions, testing and so on?
For cycling, it is simple. The Tour is the centre. If the Tour did not happen, it would be a total disaster for the entire cycling economy. The teams were, of course, aware of that. Together we have demonstrated that cycling is a sport that can survive even during the pandemic. And as mentioned, conversation was key also when it came to the teams – we were exchanging ideas, listening, communicating. It was the only way to fulfil our already agreed-upon and the new, adjusted obligations.

You mentioned in an interview that the Tour de France revenues are about 50% of TV rights, 40% of sponsorships and 10% of local communities. Was this different this year?
These percentages are not to be taken literally – they fluctuate year to year, and this year, it’s no different.

Among your 40 partners, five main (jersey) sponsors include LCL, Leclerc, Škoda, Krys and Continental as the stage winner sponsor and the official Tour de France partner as of 2018. Will you take this global approach in sponsorship moving forward?
We always strive for a balance between globally strong companies and nationally important brands. The Tour is a national pride and the people’s expectations that the French companies will be part of that are very high. It is because of this diversity that the sponsors’ chain is strong. Needless to say, many brands want to be included, as this is an event watched by 3.5 billion viewers worldwide every year. By all means, we will continue in this direction, but in the future, there will be many more challenges in the area of ‘localised sponsorships’ – adjusting of sponsorship rights according to the specifics of a particular market.

Everyone involved took much more time to communicate with all stakeholders. Everyone understood that this would be a very specific Tour de France and they were all ready to actively participate to bring about the necessary changes.

Speaking of stage wins, there were no ‘podium girls’ on the stage with the winners this year; instead, there was one female hostess and one male host.
I cannot say that we received any complaints, but there were definitely a lot of comments. In France, for example, 66 million people had 66 million opinions. Of course, we are talking about something bigger here. The Tour, like the rest of society, is evolving with the times. The world today is all about social change and engagement, and it doesn’t allow much space for intolerance or, in this case, sexism. And the Tour is adapting as well, this is just another way to reflect that. We are also actively promoting environmental protection and sustainable energy.

Tour de France Race Director, Christian Prudhomme, confirmed the creation of the eagerly awaited women’s Tour de France, announced for 2022. How will you approach this challenge from the marketing side?
Although it has not been officially announced yet, the women’s Tour will probably be in parallel with the men’s. We have already had some experience with women’s races from the professional women’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege and La Flèche Wallonne races. Unfortunately, they were cancelled this year, but we will certainly continue building women’s professional cycling at the highest level. As for the sponsor strategy, it is still too early to announce any details, but our current sponsors have shown great interest. I am sure that, with some of them, we will extend our partnership to include both races, while others will be exclusively women’s Tour sponsors. There are companies in France who are already focused on supporting primarily women’s cycling, so we do not see any concern there.

In July, at the time of the original 2020 dates, you created the first Virtual Tour de France in collaboration with Zwift, where all events were organised in aid of five global charity partners. What was your experience and the feedback from the cycling community around the world?
You are right, it was an agreement which included our sponsors, some other partners and the French public national television. July was an ‘empty’ month in terms of sports broadcasts and TV was very interested to organise a Virtual Tour. Also, we felt it was our responsibility to offer something more to the sponsors considering that the fate of the real Tour de France was not yet decided at the time. The feeling was fantastic! I am truly amazed at the experience. We were able to collect 5000 bikes given to two charities in France and South Africa, which will help promote cycling. Everybody was satisfied. I am certain we will expand and further develop the concept of the Virtual Tour, either with Zwift or another partner, but it is too early now to speak in which direction it will go.

You have mentioned (geo) localised sponsorships as one of the key areas in the future. Will that include smaller markets as well? For example, could Slovenian companies participate as official partners on a local level? Where do you see challenges in this area?
That is a good question. Absolutely, there is some room in our partnership strategy – also because of media and technology development – for local or regional activation. This will be one of our priorities in the future. In fact, we are already active in this area, for example, a Danish company Dansk Metal is our local partner only for the Danish market. The 2022 Tour de France will start in Copenhagen [the Tour de France Grand Départ in Copenhagen, initially planned for 2021, has been moved to 2022 in order to avoid a clash with next summer’s rescheduled European Championships football tournament, A/N] and this partnership will show what can be achieved with the Tour de France brand at the level of a single country. Of course, we want to reach specific markets as well. Slovenia has a fantastic fan base of cycling enthusiasts and recreational cyclists, so why not leverage that and enter into a partnership on the world’s biggest cycling stage. The investment would amount to about 100 or 150 thousand euro, and the benefits for the local partner would be not only visibility during the three weeks of the Tour but a year-round platform for many activations anytime during the contract period.

In the future, there will be many challenges in the area of ‘localised sponsorships’ – adjusting of sponsorship rights according to the specifics of a particular market.

Touching a more sensitive topic, we can often hear comments from professional team managers that the Tour’s total prize money sum is too small, that there is no revenue from TV rights – basically, that there is enough money, just not for those directly involved. What is your opinion on this?
At ASO, we have a lot of experience working with different sports disciplines, so I can say first-hand that it is practically impossible to compare different sports based on the profit or the relationship between the organisers and the players. The history of cycling cannot be compared to the history of football or tennis in this respect. In tennis, you have a group of players who can reach the top and earn the prize money, while in cycling, there are 200 riders from 20 teams and each is part of the organisation. It is not like at the Roland Garros where tennis players just come and play tennis, we, the organisers, are offering much more to the cycling teams. It is a team effort – the individual is supported by the whole team, which means that no one wins alone, as it is in tennis. The approach and how we work is completely different, we really cannot compare these different sports disciplines.

But still, the differences are big, when comparing, for example, the 38 million euro at the Roland Garros and 2.3 million at the Tour …
Let me give you a clearer idea of what I mean. If you want to have a winning middle-class Formula 1 team, you will have to make a bank deposit of 200 or 250 million euro every season to ‘secure’ the organiser. Big F1 teams are worth about 800 million euro per season, while the annual budgets in cycling are about 40 million euro for the top teams and about 20 for the average teams. And it is constructed in a different way, so it is difficult to put it in actual numbers, but every euro invested in cycling will bring much higher returns than in Formula 1. Just look at what is now happening in French football. Mediapro, the TV rights holder for the French Football League, failed to meet payments due to the pandemic-led downturn. They said that, because of the cancelled matches and empty stadia, they don’t have the money to pay the clubs. We, on the other hand, offer 20 teams to enter the Tour, with all logistics, accommodation, media exposure … It all depends on how you look at things.

Tadej Pogačar – Tour de France 2020 winner

Finally, let’s turn to Slovenia again. How did you, as the Tour’s ‘number one marketer’, see this year’s race and its outcome?
We saw the Tour in all its beauty – full of dramatic moments, surprises, tears of joy and disappointments. We saw a battle between the ‘veteran’ Roglič and the ‘newbie’ Pogačar – a battle between different generations, but also a battle between friends. The Tour must have suspense, it must be unpredictable, and this year, the ending was spectacular. Slovenia must be proud of its amazing cycling stars.

This was also a great opportunity for France to learn more about Slovenia. You probably can’t even imagine what a fantastic exposure this was. Thanks to Pogačar and Roglič, many French people discovered new things about the country. You should be proud of that, too.

The interview was first published in the SPORTO Magazine No. 15 (November 2020).