Counterpoint: Lance Armstrong, Champion of Positive Disruption

June 25, 2014

“You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you find you get what you need”

                                                                        -Rolling Stones

 

Say What You Will about Lance Armstrong, He’s a Champion Disruptor

 

As of today, Lance is fighting litigation about his career, his sponsors have left him, and the general public has largely turned on him. 

 

The easy thing to do is Lance-bash.  A quick Google search digs up a trove of animosity.  Much of it is deserved, as the sordid details of his career are hashed out in books still being published on almost a monthly basis. 

 

Cycling may not relish in its history with Lance Armstrong (in fact, they have all but erased his Tour years).  Call him what you want – hero, doper, cheater, stealer of dreams, kicker of innocent puppies – but in all this, there is one thing that remains to be heard: Lance was a positive disruptive force that may have been just what professional cycling needed.  A very strong argument can be made that - without Lance - cycling still would be stuck in its old ways and viewed no differently than FIFA and World Cup soccer

 

True Disruption Impacts Three Things: Policy, Technology, and Market Forces

 

In his fifteen years in the pro ranks, Lance was a tremendous change agent.  As an uber-competitive personality, he pushed everything and everyone to their physical, ethical, and practical limits.  The international governing body, cycling’s business model, sport technology, and anti-doping agencies were all tested by him.  In 1992, when Lance signed his first pro contract, the sport was archaic, an insider’s game rife with doping and short-term thinking.  When Lance retired in 2011, the sport had grown and evolved, much as a result of his success and demands. 

 

Here’s a brief analysis of the changes that occurred during Lance’s tenure in the pro peloton: 

 

1) Technology

 

Virtually every aspect of the sport advanced technologically during Lance’s career.  Some might say that this advance would have happened on its own, but Lance’s demanding standards served as a catalyst for equipment and training improvement.  The ‘F-One’ project, just one example, pushed the development of bike technology in a way rarely seen in any sport.

 

Ironically, Lance also helped develop the sport’s anti-doping agencies into what they are today.  Lance’s success and rumored doping made him a huge target.  Guarded by a phalanx of top lawyers and loyal business partners, he forced the anti-doping organizations to become smarter, more resourceful, and more focused.  Serving as a worthy adversary, Lance helped legitimize the then-newly formed World Anti-Doping Agency and the United States Anti-Doping Agency, which were founded in 1999.  During Lance’s career, he kept everyone on their toes, and as a result, the testing protocol continuously improved.

 

2) Policy

 

As Lance’s career evolved, it became very obvious that cycling’s international governing body was woefully inadequate for a bigger, more global sport.  Much of the relationship between Lance and the Union Cycliste Internationale still is not known.  However, conflicts of interest, poor transparency, and questionable management decisions became apparent.  After the increasingly poor management during the Verbruggen and McQuaid presidencies, Brian Cookson, running on a ticket of change and transparency, was elected in 2013 as the new UCI president.

 

3) Market Forces

 

Lance’s success on the bike pushed the teams to have increasingly more sophisticated operations, with team budgets soaring to an average $20 million Euros.  The problem is that the teams are built on an outdated business model that leads to poor, short term decision-making, including doping.  With the higher team budgets, the old business model has been pushed to a breaking point.

 

The outdated business model requires teams to rely on sponsors for virtually their entire operating budgets.  The sponsorships usually are short-term, one or two year deals.  This one or two year life cycle for teams can lead to terrible decisions by all involved.  Sponsors pressure teams for results.  Teams pressure riders to win.  Riders are left with the task of getting the win.  It is a condition ripe for cheating.

 

The reality hit home in 2011 when the world’s top-ranked team abruptly folded when it could not find a new title sponsor.

 

Now, certain teams are actively trying to update cycling’s business model to bring stability to the sport.  Under what they call the ‘Avignon Project,’ this group of teams is attempting to address fundamental problems in the cycling business through the following:

 

• Sharing of television revenue between teams and race organizers.  Currently, race organizers do not share television revenue.

 

• Permanent team licenses to ensure that the teams will continue into the future.

 

• Guaranteed starts at the Tour de France and other top races to provide sponsors with necessary media visibility.

 

These new approaches could provide enough stability to permit multi-year team planning and would help take pressure off of riders to continually win at all costs. 

 

Out of the Ashes, A Way Forward

 

Lance still is a very controversial figure.  That is without doubt.  His years on the bike, however, helped to produce new bike technology, a sophistication for teams never before seen, comprehensive and legitimate anti-doping programs, and new leadership in the international governing body.  Lance’s career may not have been a pretty decade and a half, but his tenure obviously wasn’t dull.

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