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Opinion: Thank You, Red Bull

With Discovery winning the World Cup coverage rights, let us not forget who got us here

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“Red Bull has done great things for us. Without them, we wouldn’t even be here anymore.” – Benno Willeit, Specialized Global Racing

In the comments for the news article about Discovery winning the rights to the UCI World Cup coverage, there is one thing missing: I didn’t see anybody saying thank you to Red Bull.

We should. Red Bull took the mess that was World Cup coverage and made it professional. Yes, some small part of me still misses a drunk Rob Warner happily shouting about whatever crossed his mind, but it’s rose-tinted nostalgia. The fact is that the World Cup is far better today for Red Bull’s investment. 

When I interviewed the head of Specialized’s global racing programs, Benno Willeit, last year, he summed it up like this: “Red Bull has done great things for us. Without them, we wouldn’t even be here anymore. I mean the times of Freecaster, Rocky Roads … That didn’t work out. Red Bull saved our arses many, many times. But at the same time, I do think that right now we have the riders, in cross-country, in downhill, we have proper idols out there that inspire other people to do what we do, what they do. There is a huge industry behind us. There must be a way to get a bigger piece of the cake than we currently do and make it to the next step professionally.”

There’s the rub, the big question: Was Red Bull a big enough player to take the sport to the next level?

Before you point out the drink company’s empire, F1 team, and everything else, yes, Red Bull is successful. But when we talk about media clout, they are not in the same league as Discovery. While a quick Wikipedia search will tell you that Discovery takes around twice as much revenue per year as Red Bull, that misses an important point of detail. Red Bull makes their money doing many different things, manufacturing energy drinks is not a small part of that number, while Discovery does one thing: media.

Many people don’t realize that Eurosport (a channel operated by Discovery since 2015) held some rights for World Cup DH in the past. Si Paton used to commentate for them and got to see the live viewing numbers. He last commentated a decade ago, and recalls clearly, “I remember one race when the World Cup followed the MotoGP. I was in the studio, where you get live viewing figures. I was in the booth and you had the announcement, ‘World Cup downhill follows after the break’ They had 10 million plus people watching the MotoGP and you could see more than half of them switch off as they said that, but that still left several million people watching the race. People who maybe hadn’t heard of DH before and thought, ‘That sounds interesting.’ My next door neighbor has no interest in DH, but he came to me to chat about it as he watched it after the Moto GP. That’s where the value is, that is when he found out about the Athertons, Danny Hart, and that kind of mainstream recognition is a huge deal.”

The most recent viewing figures we have for the Red Bull series are from 2019, and they show just how great a job Red Bull did. When figures were previously released in 2015, the series pulled in around one million cumulative viewers over the season. By 2019, that had increased ten-fold to 10.8 million viewers. However, in total Red Bull’s footage from World Cups reached 82 million people via TV syndication including live summaries, recap programs, short reports or news. The implication is stark: Under the current arrangement only around an eighth of the total audience is from the marquee broadcast.

When we talk about Discovery, most people will assume the World Cups would return to  Eurosport, which is understandable. After all, Eurosport will likely carry the races to a mainstream European audience, which would bring the bulk of the viewers. However, in the modern world, there are more options available, the racing will likely be split onto a couple of platforms that can be broadcast around the world, namely the GCN Race Pass. 

Today it costs €40 per year for ad-free coverage of pretty much everything in pro-road racing, with app-specific shows for insight and analysis. It gives them a space to offer more nuanced (and ad-free) coverage than they can on a linear TV channel. At the moment that skews heavily toward road cycling, largely because mountain biking doesn’t put out much broadcast content that they could show. When they did have the rights, the Olympic XCO, Olympic BMX, and European XCO Championships were all on Race Pass last year. 

When Pinkbike ran its State of the Sport Survey last year, we were shocked to see how badly paid many racers are. Surely we all want more, better racing, to see racers paid properly, fancy camera angles, and sharp analysis? If we want to change that, the sport needs to change and grow. We need more people watching the races to attract more sponsorship money from outside the sport. To think change can happen without more money coming into the sport is just magical thinking. If you are not convinced, ask someone like Rob Warner how the pay checks were the last time the sport had mainstream recognition in the Grundig days.

Maybe this Discovery deal will work out, maybe not, but it looks a lot like a step in the right direction if we want the sport to grow. And if you’re not happy with the commentary, why is nobody doing what UFC fans do and finding a way to offer alt-commentary?

This is a big change for the sport, and it is normal to be nervous when things are changing. Through all that, we should not forget to say thank you to Red Bull as they have done so much for mountain bike racing.