Murdoch Money for British Tour Team Provokes Envy in France

Rupert Murdoch’s money is backing a U.K. cycling team at the Tour de France as the British try to end a winless streak that goes back more than a century.

Team Sky’s sponsors, led by British Sky Broadcasting Plc and Murdoch’s News Corp., see a marketing benefit during the current cycling boom for Britain, which won eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympic Games. Its superior financial clout is making the French envious, according to Daniel Malbranque, general secretary of the international riders’ union. A Frenchman hasn’t won the Tour since Bernard Hinault in 1985.

“There’s a lot of money in the Sky team and there are criticisms and comments” from French teams, Malbranque said from Perpignan, France. “If they were French, it would be different. There is jealousy.”

Team Sky, which wants a Brit to top the podium in Paris within five years, paid 2 million euros ($2.4 million) to hire U.K. rider Bradley Wiggins from the Garmin team in December, according to French newspaper L’Equipe. In promoting a high-tech approach, Manchester, England-based Team Sky is also irking some in France, host of the Tour since 1903.

The July 3-25 Tour crosses into France today after a prologue and two stages in the Netherlands and Belgium. Team Sky has three Britons among its nine competitors, and is in fifth place, 3 minutes, seven seconds behind the Quick Step team from Belgium after two stages.

British riders haven’t had success at the Tour de France, with none finishing in the top three. Wiggins was fourth last year, matching Robert Millar’s best performance by a U.K. rider 25 years earlier.

Last U.K. Team

The last U.K. Tour team was ANC-Halfords, which ran out of money during its 1987 appearance, according to William Fotheringham, author of “Roule Britannia,” a history of British riders at the race.

Team Sky has enough cash to fit mood lighting in its Volvo AB bus and equip its riders with Apple Inc. iPhones, BSkyB officials said. Sky cyclists are better paid on average than counterparts on other teams, according to Malbranque. Murdoch’s son James, News Corp.’s chief executive officer in Europe and Asia and a keen cyclist, is taking a special interest in the team and watched it at the Paris-Roubaix race in April, News Corp. officials said.

Murdoch, 37, declined to comment for this story, News Corp. spokeswoman Alice Macandrew said from London. In April, Murdoch, who’s also non-executive chairman of BSkyB, the U.K.’s biggest pay-television operator, told cyclingnews.com at the race that “we’re trying to push the envelope” with the team.

Takeover Offer

On June 15, BSkyB rejected a 7.8 billion-pound ($11.8 billion) offer from New York-based News Corp. to buy the 61 percent of the company it doesn’t already own.

News Corp. and BSkyB declined to give details of their financing of the team, whose other backers include Marks & Spencer Group Plc and Jaguar Cars Ltd., the luxury automobile maker owned by Tata Motors Ltd.

Tour de France teams’ annual budgets typically range from $10 million to $20 million, Jonathan Vaughters, manager of the Garmin team, said. While not the biggest in cycling, Team Sky’s budget is “healthy,” Robert Tansey, BSkyB’s group brand marketing director, said in a statement.

Team Sky is led by David Brailsford, who oversaw the British Olympic cycling success and who is bringing an approach to road racing that the team and backers call “aggregating marginal gains.” They’re not shy of talking about it: after testing riders’ aerodynamic profile in a wind tunnel, the team puts out a press release, says Marc Madiot, Francaise des Jeux team manager.

‘Media Driven’

“We too have that kind of know-how but we don’t make a fuss about it,” Madiot said from Paris. Sky is “more media- driven” than French teams, Madiot added.

BSkyB, which has shown English Premier League soccer games in the U.K. since 1992 and whose current contract with the league is worth 1.62 billion pounds, is backing the Tour team “not to promote a product” but to inspire millions of Britons to ride bikes, BSkyB’s Tansey said. The company, based in Isleworth, west of London, also supports “grass roots” cycling in the U.K., Tansey added.

The cycling investment is “small beer compare to what they pay for football,” said Nigel Currie, director of Guilford, England-based sports marketing agency BrandRapport. BSkyB “can help the sport develop and will easily get their money back” with the publicity, he added.

Of the Tour teams, Team Sky is not just upsetting the French. The Boulder, Colorado-based Garmin team objected when Sky lured away Wiggins while he had a year left on his contract. While signing under-contract athletes is common in soccer, it’s “not typical” in cycling, Garmin team manager Vaughters said.

Compensation

Wiggins told the Guardian newspaper Feb. 4 he couldn’t turn down the chance to lead a U.K. team, adding Garmin received compensation from Sky. Vaughters declined to comment, saying the accord was confidential.

The British shouldn’t get their hopes up, according to Madiot. Wiggins is fifth favorite at 20-1 with U.K. oddsmaker Blue Square and France’s best hopes are 250-1 chances, meaning a successful $1 bet would yield $250.

Spain’s two-time winner Alberto Contador is 1-2 favorite.

“There’s a possibility a French rider wins the Tour de France but it’s very difficult,” Madiot said. “And the same applies for the English.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Duff in Madrid at aduff4@bloomberg.net.

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