Bob Stapleton Interview: Full details from HTC Highroad’s shock farewell announcement
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Friday, August 05, 2011

Bob Stapleton Interview: Full details from HTC Highroad’s shock farewell announcement

by Shane Stokes at 10:01 PM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Interviews
 
Team owner explains how the sport’s most winning team unravelled

Bob StapletonAlthough there were some prior signs that things were not progressing as might have been hoped, the news on Thursday that the HTC Highroad team was stopping came as a big surprise to many. Even those who were aware of the team’s tough search for a new backer were taken aback by the announcement by Bob Stapleton that the squad would end at the close of the 2011 season.

That’s partly due to the squad’s phenomenal success in recent years, but so too the fact that the team has avoided any scandals, and also because Stapleton sounded somewhat upbeat about things at the Tour de France. Speaking off record then, he told this writer that he was optimistic, saying that talks with HTC over a renewal were ongoing, and that several other prospective sponsors had also been in touch and wanted to talk.

He added that a third option was a merger with an existing team, and that in this area too there had been several enquiries. The net result was that Stapleton said that he was reasonably confident that a solution could be found, and that the team would continue.

Fast-forward two weeks from then and things haven’t gone the way he, or others in cycling, had hoped. The clearest hint of that was the news that the Velits brothers Peter and Martin had signed for the Quick Step team; they were seen as two of the most promising young GC contenders on the squad, and their departure didn’t bode well for the future.

Combine that with the ongoing rumours that Mark Cavendish would go to Sky Procycling or elsewhere, plus the whispers that Tony Martin was negotiating with one or more other teams; the signs were worrying, yet nobody wanted to believe that a team which had racked up 484 victories in three and a half years could crumble.

Stapleton broke the news hours after the former pro rider and current Eurosport commentator Jacky Durand tweeted to say that the riders had been told that the team would not continue. The Californian spoke to a small number of journalists in a teleconference which had been called for 7pm European time; the announcement of a discussion about the team’s future set off warning bells for those invited to take part, yet there was still the possibility that the talk was to announce a late saviour.

However it was not to be.

Stapleton got straight to the point, saying that out of an initial pool of several prospective sponsors, that each one had failed to translate into something feasible. The mergers ended up having too many compromises; the existing sponsor was dragging its heels, as it had been doing for many months, and what looked like an exciting new backer ultimately proved not to be what it seemed.

Some of Stapleton’s quotes have already been detailed here and elsewhere. VeloNation has transcribed the full press conference in order to give readers the compete picture of what was detailed Thursday, and to show how a team as resolutely successful and tight as HTC Highroad ultimately unravelled.

It was a sobering press conference, and a development which raises questions about the current direction of the sport, the effects of the Armstrong and Contador investigations and the difficulties facing certain teams. Here are the details of what was discussed:

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Bob Stapleton:: I’d like to give you an update on the progress of the team since we last talked at the end of the Tour de France. As you know we went public with sponsor search shortly before the Tour. We were frustrated by the indecision of our title partner HTC, who after many month of assurances did not come forward with the commitment to the team. That indecision remains a mystery to me.

Our goals in going forward publicly with our search for sponsorship were twofold. One, we wanted to use the worldwide exposure of the Tour to draw sponsor interest to the team, and second we wanted to make sure all teams knew that the upstanding athletes, staff and managers at HighRoad would possibly be available if we were unable to continue.

Both these efforts were initially successful…we generated strong sponsor interest and also a feeding frenzy on our athletes, staff and management. We were actually told by some unhappy agents in the sport that we brought the transfer market to a halt during the last two weeks at the Tour.

Bob StapletonWhat concluded in terms of sponsorship is that we had sponsorship meetings in Grenoble, Paris, Amsterdam, Chicago, Atlanta and New York with a number of international companies…communications, electronics, transport, medical companies. We were also approached by seven different teams to consider mergers.

The net net of all this activity was that we had agreement in principle with a new partner which would have given us the necessary funds to operate our team at the same level we have done for the last four years.

This deal abruptly collapsed Sunday night during my wife’s 50th birthday party when I received an email and subsequent phonecalls from my intended partner.

We proceeded on our other options on the most expedited basis possible. We ended our discussions with HTC last night, and ended a remaining merger scenario which we believed would not succeed early this morning.

So that leads us to the conclusion that the best thing for us to do is to release our athlete, staff and managers to pursue their career options. What has really been special has been the people in it. I think it is in their best interests that we let them go forwards with what I think in general are very good career options.

I think what led to the team’s remarkable success was the great chemistry and great team spirit we had in the organisation. I think we ultimately..we should record our 500th win between the combined men’s and women’s team at some time later this year. We sit at 484 wins now, over 50 Grand Tour stage wins and a remarkable list of success in Classics and stage races around the world.

I would like to thank you for the interest and support over the years, and obviously thank the great job done by our management team and our partners, which has been an outstanding success.

Our fundamental goal, which I think many of you know, was to try to bring forward athletes and management that could lead this sport forward. Although this is a sad call in some respects, I do feel like we fundamentally achieved that goal. Some of the most interesting athletes have Highroad DNA and some of the most competent managers in sport will come out of this programme, and I look forward to their continued leadership as athletes and managers in cycling.


Rolf Aldag:: I think Bob said most of it. For me, personally, it might be an end of the episode or of a the team, but it is definitely not the end of the people in the sport. I think in the last four years we really developed a lot of guys there. It is not only riders, it is everybody…it is the team of mechanics and everything.

I think we can be pretty proud of that. It is not really like an end, it is really something to say…okay, the team of course might not be there, and of course that is sad, but I think we can take a lot of positives out of that and we are looking forward then.

Hopefully the people that we try to lead will get the chance in other teams to also make some really positive changes to the sport. That was the ambition when we started, that whole thing, by the end of 2006. For me personally, I would not miss anything in this time and I am very happy that I have been personally part of that team. Of course now looking a little bit into the future, the biggest ambition right now is to help our people. Of course the guys like Cavendish and Matt Goss don’t have any kind of problems to find contracts.

I think we have only good people and what I would like to do now in the next couple of days is basically try to be helpful and secure peoples’ futures. I think everyone on our team deserves a spot in the professional peloton, and that is right now the top thing on my agenda. From there we will see.

We will separate after the season. That is something that I want to point out, and will talk to a few people…it is not over now, it will be over with the last race of the season. That has always made us strong, the performances in the races, has kept us together, kept us laughing and smiling. I think that is what we are going to do until the last race of the season.

The question and answer portion of the teleconference now follows:

Q: Bob, to make it clear…the team will no longer try to find a future sponsor for next season?

Bob Stapleton:: Yes, that is correct. We are faced with a tough dilemma. I think you see this clearly…the rise of the super teams, if you will… there are quite a number of teams with budgets in excess of 20 million Euros that are queued up for next year. You can identify them as easily as I can. So it is the squeeze between keeping the team at a leadership level in the sport and the need to bring on substantially more funds.

In this case we are really making our decision based on the desire to see the individuals succeed, and worry less about our ability to compete at the highest level. That requires not only our personnel, but also more money.

Q: Was the sticking point in the negotiations with HTC the fact that you were asking for more money?

Bob StapletonBS: HTC was unable to reach a conclusion internally over continuing at the same level, let alone at an increased level. As I mentioned, there was a remarkable return…in my 25 years of general management experience, probably the most attractive proposition I have seen, but they were for whatever reason unable to move forward. Those discussions ended last night.

Q: Can you comment a little bit on what you think this means for the future of the sport? You mentioned a lot of super teams that have very large budgets, yet at the same time you have got the most successful team in the sport for the last few years, but you have been unable to find a sponsorship. What does that mean?

BS: I would hate to generalise it too much. But I think if you look at the super teams, there is a wealthy individual or individuals behind each one of them. And you have got a sport that has been consistently destabilised by a bunch of events.

There are some things like the points structure…you will see a feeding frenzy this year around points where teams are desperately trying to make sure they are in the top 16. These are the sorts of things that are not helpful to creating a sound structure for the sport.

I absolutely don’t want to be in the position of blaming anyone or to suggest anything other than we didn’t get it done, but there are some destabilising factors in the sport and there is a concentration of wealth in a handful of teams which is going to make this very challenging for many teams in the sport in general.

Q: Can you quantify the effect of either the Contador affair or the Armstrong investigation on sponsors’ thinking?

BS: I don’t think I could quantify it other than tell you that I don’t think there has been a single discussion with a potential sponsor where one or the other wasn’t talked about at some length. I think it has been a factor in everyone’s view of cycling that we have talked to in the last year.

The flip side is that the fundamental attraction of the sport is very strong. Despite some challenges, there’s interest in the sport that I see growing, and long-term it looks quite promising. So its growth as an international media property, its fundamental part of a healthy lifestyle for many, many, many enthusiasts remains its attraction and I see that still in place. And probably more broadly recognised.

So the potential for the sport is still very significant and I remain long term optimistic on that.

Q: Do you think it is possible to look for a sponsor for 2013 and have a new team then?

BS: For me, it is really about the people you work with. That is what made this special, and that would have to be a precondition to every doing anything further in this sport. My personal interest has always been along working with distinctly competent people and trying to achieve a focussed mission. So it is the How and the Who which is most important to me. Those situations don’t come around that often. If those stars lined up, I would certainly be open to it, but I don’t know if lightning strikes two or three times.

I’ve had it a few times lucky in my career, I wouldn’t expect that to happen again.

Q: The sponsor who wrecked your wife’s birthday party – are you willing to name that company, and/or what was the main obstacle, or the cause of that deal falling through at the last minute?

BS: Well, I do know, but I shouldn’t do that. As much as I would like to, that would be rash of me (laughs).

Q: Even in general – was it in terms of financing, internal disagreements….?

BS: Well, I would just say that in doing our due diligence, we uncovered some difficulties that were not resolvable. The process of asking some very tough questions caused the deal to fall apart. I couldn’t say anything more than that.

It was not a defect on the team’s side.

Q: Do you think the riders on the women’s team might struggle a bit more than the those on the men’s side to find new teams for next year?

HTC Highroad womenBS: Well, it is really the subject of a second effort. We think we have got some real opportunities to continue the women’s programme, but that s not certain either. I am optimistic that we can continue to support our extremely meritorious female athletes, but I can’t say anything further on that now.

In general I think that women’s teams….although there’s quite a number of them, many of them are very poorly funded and I would like to find a way to continue to support our women athletes at some level.

Q: Do you think the UCI should be playing a bigger role in the financing of the sport, vis-à-vis the money that teams get through sponsorship and television rights and things like that?

Well, I do think Jonathan [Vaughters] and others have called for the opening up of television rights and a more sustainable revenue stream that is not sponsor-dependent. That is clearly the successful model for most professional sports. That is a real challenge to pull off in cycling if you have two dominant economic parties that control the sport [the UCI and ASO – ed.].

So yes, of course, but the practical difficulties in that are enormous.

Q: Much of the team’s success in the Tour de France in recent years has been in Mark Cavendish winning stages. The team has put a lot of effort into backing Mark, with others giving up their chances to help him. To what extent is Mark’s talks with other teams and reported move to another team been a factor in not being able to secure a sponsor?

BS: I think the entire team are deep personal supporters of Cavendish. We are really proud of the success we have had and I think that every member of our team at some level has contributed to that.

I would just hark back to the chicken and the egg. If we could have secured funding in a timely manner, there would have a lot less drama about what would happen about Mark Cavendish. Ultimately I don’t think that was a defining factor in bringing in sponsorship.

Q: Can you talk about the proposed mergers and why that didn’t work out?

We had a lot of interest in doing this. In almost every case, it involved some degree of compromise that we ultimately didn’t think made senses. We literally ended our last discussion on one of those scenarios early this morning.

I wouldn’t want to character ise it any further other than there is inherent compromises when two different organisations coming together. Sometimes that makes sense, sometimes it doesn’t.

Q: You were on the leading edge of the anti-doping methods. Do you think that is a strong legacy that you are proud of during the tenure of the team?

BS: Absolutely. And remember we took the long-term goal on this. This team was always about practical serious change. Anti-doping was not a marketing slogan for us or a gimmick for us. That is why we had to be open to experienced management, external expert review and testing. We really tried to push forward concepts like the biological passport and much tougher sanctions for those who cheat.

So I feel like we were part of a progressive change in the sport, but I think we are all proud of that. But what it really took as new athletes who were credible and could compete. That is what I think we are all excited about now. We showed you can win a lot of stuff in a credible way if you are using all the best tools and technologies, and you work and ride as a team.

So this team-based success , committing everything you’ve got for the group’s success, in my mind was a little bit of a game changer from the traditional approach to the sport. We are very proud of that success and these athletes we are all following now which came from this programme.

Q: Allan Peiper said at the Tour that the prospects of you not being able to continue would be incomprehensible. I think one of the most incomprehensible things for the average American fan to try to digest is the fact that you are folding your tent and RadioShack is continuing on, apparently, despite the fact that they have a number of staff and riders compromised in ways I don’t need to explain by the ongoing investigation. Can you explain that?

BS: Not really… (laughs). I guess a lot of sponsorship decisions are based upon close relationships with partners and in some cases, there are different views on what is good and what is bad publicity. Each company makes their own decision on those variables. Really it is more appropriate for RadioShack to comment on that than me.

Q: You really committed to the sport – how much of a personal disappointment is this for you, at a personal level?

ColumbiaBS: Well, I talked to some of you at the Tour and people asked me if it was bittersweet. I think for me, we have succeeded athletically far beyond my wildest dreams. When we first had that blue Columbia jersey, I wrote on the inside collar ‘100 times 3’. I thought, ‘well, we could be a success if we could win 100 races a year for three years. But the team just blew that away.

We won kind of everything. We never won a Grand Tour, but we got to the point where we were competitive, we won the green, we won stages. But basically everything other than that, we did win. So I am very proud of the unqualified athletic success of the team.

My second ambition was to help try to lead a restructuring of the sport so the sport would reach its ultimate potential as a media sport, as part of a healthy lifestyle…all of it potential that I think we all believe in. And that hasn’t worked so well.

On one hand, I am extremely proud. I am very proud of our managers, by the way, who I think are clearly the best in the sport and I hope that three or four new teams spring forth out of this management group. But I can’t help but be a little disappointed in our relative modest impact on the long-term structure of the sport.

Q: What do you think the sport needs to reach that potential, in terms of restructuring?

BS: Well, again, I don’t want to appear like we are dumping on others because we didn’t get the job done. But my position is unchanged - I think we need a professionally-managed sport, a properly formed league. Things like media rights and television rights need an equitable sharing. We need to take anti-doping and conduct and all these issues and put them in the hands of independent oversight and review, whose authority is absolute and sanctions administered by a properly-run league.

The list goes on and on, but those are the basic tenants. And that is entirely doable if you could get basic cooperation across the key stakeholders in the sport right now. What to do is pretty obvious, it is the getting it done that is very difficult.

Q: Would you have any interest in a role working towards that, one away from a specific team but in an overseeing role?

A: You know, I am a lousy politician. I think that is why we are all on the phone here together. You all have independent thoughts and an insight into the sport. I think anything that is fundamentally politically based, I would be a poor choice to be involved in. So I think that’s a no…

Q: Obviously the women’s biggest goal is the Olympics. I am sure they would all like to have some security ahead of that. When do you expect to know if you are going to continue the women’s team?

BS: Well, I had hoped to be able to say something today. We have a concrete alternative that we are really going to try to develop quickly. The women’s calendar in terms of decision is a little different. They typically do make their hiring decisions quicker than the men. As you know, that is the legacy and starting point of my involvement in the sport, and I would like to come through for our girls.

Q: Earlier, you kind of criticised the fact that a few teams in the peloton are going about with lots of money and this is harming the sport…

BS: No I didn’t, I am not criticising anybody. This is a structural change that I think we all should be mindful of. The stakes of having a top team have increased, and you have haves- and have-nots, and that is not an optimal structure for the sport. Look at any professional league, that is destabilising in its nature.

So I am not criticising them, but it is there and it is a factor in our decision-making process. But I don’t want to suggest that they are screwing up the sport, they are doing what they need to succeed. You have got at least three which are north of 20 million euro budgets right now, and at least two more on the way.

Q: Was it a matter of those teams outbidding you for riders, or was it a matter of you feeling that you had to have that level of budget to be competitive. Or are they one and the same thing?

HTC HighroadBS: Well, I think it is all in the same mix. I mentioned the competence of our managers a few times…in general we produced heavyweight results with a middleweight budget. We never had the budget that people suggested or that we read about in the press. We were very average, very similar to Garmin and others.

You can do that against people whose budgets are 50 percent bigger than yours. But when it starts to get 100 percent or more, and you have got such a narrow talent pool of riders, than just becomes increasingly difficult. I think our view was if we couldn’t be in close enough on the financial firepower, that we just couldn’t consistently outperform with far less money. And if we couldn’t be in a leadership position in the sport, we weren’t going to be in a position to drive change.

That was our fundamental mission coming in. If we were not going to be able to succeed on that, it was best to let people go and pursue their own interests.

Q: How close was the sponsorship deal…was it all signed up for next year, or did the company or party pull out just before that?

BS: I don’t think the details are important. We in good faith thought we were there, and in requesting subsequent underlying documents, we uncovered additional challenges. I will just leave it at that.

Q: You mentioned these wealthy team owners coming in. Financially, from a business point of view, is that sustainable? It seems to be some extremely rich people…it is hard to see a financial return for them, it almost seems more like an expensive hobby on their part. Is that sustainable for the future of the sport when you have that happening?

BS: Well, it’s not unique to cycling. You see this in quite a number of sports…I was going to say in American sports, but you see it in European sports as well. That is a big question. I think what you are seeing now is a real acceleration in cycling that may be catching up to some other sports in terms of level of investment for the unit of return. I am not expressing it very clearly, but there is definitely a question mark on how sustainable that is, and what that does to the sport overall.

You really could have five or six teams that dominate the sport, and everybody else is fighting for results. You could really have a two-tier system quite quickly.

I don’t even know how interesting that is from a fan perspective. It is very different from the current model where there are 20 or 22 teams racing and anything can happen…
 

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