Tuesday, January 30, 2001
Steamboat Springs The dominoes began to fall in 1999 when the Outdoor Life Network signed a $3 million deal to televise cycling's biggest event the Tour de France for the next four years.
The last domino crashed on top of one of Steamboat Springs' longest running events earlier this month when the National Off-Road Bicycling Association (NORBA) officially announced that the 2001 Mercury Tour mountain bike stage race has been canceled. The cancellation came as a result of OLN not renewing it's sponsorship commitment and shifting its financial backing to the Tour de France.
"I think everybody here is very disappointed," Steamboat Ski Area's Cathy Wiedemer said. "I think Outdoor Life Network reached out to a demographic group that we were very interested in drawing. This event went into every skier's, and mountain biker's living room."
NORBA Managing Director Leslie Klein emphasized a mountain bike stage race is not off the calendar forever. But when and where that race will take place in the future is still up in the air.
"NORBA would very much like to hold a Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) calendar stage race in the United States. One of NORBA's goals for 2001 is to secure the sponsorship necessary to host one in 2002," Klein said. "We know the race has been a highlight for many professional teams and racers, and we hope to relaunch an event of this caliber."
The Mercury Tour, which has taken place in Steamboat Springs for the past four years, was unable to secure sponsorship in time to plan and execute the event in 2001. The main reason was that OLN chose to invest the majority of its budget into purchasing the rights to broadcast the Tour de France. The network beat out ESPN in the bidding war, but now many of the station's long-running events, such as the Mercury Tour, will not be supported.
Former race director Len Pettyjohn said the news was not a huge surprise, and as always, came down to money.
"No matter how well an event is run it all comes down to the same thing somebody has got to sign the check," Pettyjohn said.
He said the Mercury Tour signed on with Outdoor Life, the main sponsor of the event, when the cable network was just getting started. Since then, OLN has grown from about 7 million households to 28 million households.
"They provided lots of television coverage and the money for the operation of the race," Pettyjohn explained.
As the network and the race grew, the situation was a win-win for everyone involved.
"It wasn't a huge event in terms of spectators or participants," Chamber Executive Vice President Sandy Evans-Hall said. "But in terms of exposure it was significant."
Hall said the number of calls from people interested in Steamboat's summer activites always increased when OLN televised the races. She said she thinks that type of exposure will be hard to come by this year but there wasn't much to do about it.
"We knew we were on the bubble after last year's race," Evan-Hall said. "So we were not totally surprised."
Unfortunately, for the Mercury Tour, OLN was looking to gain more creditably in recent years. That credibility will come when it airs cycling's biggest race this year from Europe.
"I don't want to take anything away from the Mercury Tour because it was a great event but we are not the Tour de France," Pettyjohn said.
In 1999, OLN bid $3 million to buy the rights to televise the race that's about $750,000 a year over four years. The other network in the bidding war, ESPN was willing to pay about $400,000 a year for the event.
So this year, the new kid on the block, OLN, will take over the job. As part of the deal, OLN will also supply three, hour-long specials for CBS Sports and a half-hour highlight program for FOX Sports Net, that will air nightly during the race.
He said the event will most likely have to wait and see if OLN will come back to the table. He said that is unlikely before next year's Tour de France has taken place in July .