The Tour de France, marred by the doping scandal of seven-time champion Lance Armstrong, stands to get a boost from people it once rejected.
Opening the three-week race to women, who haven’t ridden in the Tour for 24 years, would cast the event in a positive light and has the potential to increase interest in the $46 billion cycling industry.
Scarred by the stripping of Armstrong’s titles because of a drug scandal so pervasive that just one winner between 1995 and 2010 hasn’t been linked to doping at some time in their careers, the organizers said they’ll consider a women’s race.
“They’ve got the stars now, and there’s certainly a bigger market because the general interest in the sport has grown tenfold to where it was in the 80s,” said Phil Liggett, who has covered the Tour de France since 1974 and called this year’s event for NBC Sports.
Campaigners including Olympic road-race gold medalist Marianne Vos are pressing organizer Amaury Sport Organisation to hold a parallel race for women for the first time since 1989. More than 83,000 have signed a petition that began July 12.
The petitioners are trying to bring cycling in line with marathon running and triathlon, where both sexes have competed on the same course since the 1980s. They want to trigger more recognition and pay, and must win over a male-dominated sport. Elite women racers earn as little as $15,800 per year, more than 20 times less than the men.
A November study of 21 cities worldwide by Cologne, Germany-based sports marketing researcher Repucom showed that about 40 percent of cycling fans who expressed a high interest in the sport were female.
As the first female winner of the Tour in 1984, American Marianne Martin received $1,000 to share with her team. Last month, champion Chris Froome split 450,000 euros ($596,000) with his squad.
“We pooled all our winnings and divided them,” said Martin, who now works as a photographer. “My winnings might have paid for my trip to New York: I didn’t care.”
The American didn’t defend her 1984 title because of illness, and was retired by the time the women’s event was dropped five years later. The Tour de France celebrated its 100th anniversary last month, with Froome’s accomplishment being celebrated with a light show that illuminated the Eiffel Tower.
“What I do remember is that fans, especially the French, were very impressed by the courage and the strength of the women,” Liggett said. “And now you’ve got both stars and strength in the depth of women’s cycling.”
ASO officials said last month that they would consider adding a female version, although not in time for next year. Organizers may be willing to expand the race as the sport tries to overcome doping that has plagued the event and resulted in Armstrong losing his seven titles from 1999 to 2005. Cheating accusations continue to trickle out, with a French senate committee report released July 24 naming 1998 Tour winner Marco Pantani of Italy and runner-up Jan Ullrich of Germany as having tested positive for blood-boosting erythropoietin, or EPO.
Ullrich said he has doped. Pantani died in 2004.
Issy-les-Moulineaux, France-based ASO, formerly known as Societe du Tour, held a parallel event for women from 1984 to 1989, although it didn’t prosper, according to Hugh Dauncey, author of “French Cycling: A Social and Cultural History.” The 1984 race used the same finishes as the men, although stages were shorter. There were five rest days compared to two for men, and the women drove to their separate start towns each night.
“They closed the roads for several days for the mountain stages and we’d have huge crowds,” Martin said.
The women’s Tour didn’t catch on with media or the public and was discontinued, according to ASO Chairman Jean-Etienne Amaury. He said July 22 that the family-owned organization is willing to discuss reviving the event, including how to finance the extra costs.
“We need to work out the right economic model, get the media on board and discuss with public authorities about closing the roads,” Amaury said in a telephone interview. “All these parameters need to be planned.”
The net income of Paris-based ASO, which also manages sports events including the Dakar rally and Paris marathon, remained little-changed at about 32 million euros ($38.9 million) between 2006 and 2010, company filings show.
A women’s race would find a market in the U.S., said Brad Adgate, director of research for media-buying agency Horizon Media Inc. in New York.
“There is a huge appetite for live sports and a lot of room available for it,” Adgate said in a telephone interview. “The biggest question about a stand-alone women’s race will be if it dilutes the men’s Tour de France viewership because that’s not a huge ratings draw in this country as it is.”
It would be better to hold it simultaneously, he said.
Women accounted for 36.6 percent of the viewers of Comcast Corp.’s NBC and NBC Sports Network’s live coverage of the 2013 Tour de France, according to Adgate. Most female athletic events, such as women’s golf and women’s basketball, attract a larger male television audience than female audience, he said.
Pat McQuaid, president of cycling’s ruling body Union Cycliste Internationale, said while it’s “an absolute priority” to develop women’s events, it may be too early to target the Tour de France.
“I am first and foremost in favor of investing heavily in grassroots development of women’s cycling which will have a significant effect on elite cycling down the line,” McQuaid said in a statement.
Women’s 34 elite teams have 60 races on UCI’s schedule for this year, while the top 20 men’s teams -- those riding in the so-called classics in France, Belgium and the grand tours -- can race almost 30 times. Second-tier mens’s pro teams, which number more than 150, have another round of continental competitions to develop new riders and interest in the sport.
Former world time-trial champion Emma Pooley, a 5-foot-2 Briton, said a women’s Tour de France running in conjunction with the men would immediately benefit from the presence of 85 broadcasters and as many as 12 million spectators on the route - - about one-third of whom are female. If the race was held at another time, “no one would send a TV crew,” she said.
Women’s elite cycling struggles to attract television coverage and sponsorships, forcing many riders to take second jobs or give up competing, Pooley said. A typical salary is 12,000 euros ($15,800), she added. The average pro salary for men is 264,000 euros, according to a report by Ernst & Young for the Aigle, Switzerland-based UCI.
“It’s a constant battle for us to find a team,” Pooley, 30, said by phone from outside Zurich. “I’m full of envy watching the men’s race.”
Ulrich Lacher, a senior consultant at marketing firm Repucom, said women’s cycling needs a sponsor willing to invest over several years to establish a brand that can compete with the men’s Tour.
“You’re not going to build a success purely building from a grassroots perspective,” Lacher said. “You need an investor with a proper strategy, marketing strength and the ability to set up communication to the target audiences.”
Carlos Sastre, the 2008 Tour de France champion, said he sees no reason that women can’t race on the same course as men.
“It’s a good idea,” Sastre, 38, said by telephone. “Women should have the same treatment.”
Not all riders may share his view, said Daniel Malbranque, former general secretary of the professional riders’ union, Cyclistes Professionnels Associes.
“I don’t know if the French macho types are ready for this,” Malbranque said.
“I came from triathlon and was shocked by the discrepancy between men and women’s cycling,” said Bertine, 38. “Cycling is stuck in its ways: We are trying to be the tow truck that gets it out of the quagmire.”
Javier Guillen and Michele Acquarone, who head up cycling’s biggest stage races after the Tour, the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana, said that while they are in favor of having a simultaneous women’s event, they don’t know if it’s viable.
The Giro’s organizer, RCS Sport SpA, funds television production costs of 6 million euros with broadcaster RAI that include hiring helicopters to film the more than 2,000-mile (3,218 kilometer) race on public roads, Acquarone said. Compared to soccer and tennis, “cycling is incredibly expensive” to broadcast, he added.
Giving women more coverage will help to eventually create sporting icons like tennis player Maria Sharapova, who in turn will lure sponsors and TV revenue for race organizers. Her sponsors include Head NV, Nike Inc., Porsche AG, Danone’s Evian and Samsung Electronics Co., (005930) according to her website.
“First we have to work out the costs and then we can go to the market,” Acquarone said.
Martin said she was broke when she retired, and took up photography, a hobby that she shared with her father. Women’s sports have moved on and athletes expect better pay and better treatment, she said. More money will attract more women, which will help bring in sponsors as well, she said.
“First and foremost we would like the chance to take part in an iconic race like the Tour de France,” said Pooley, who got as little as 163 euros for winning a four-day race in France in 2009. “And some day, the prize money will follow.”
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