The Tour de France is launching what looks like a bit of a counter-intuitive experiment this year. The 104th edition of the three-week race started in Düsseldorf yesterday and it will, for the first time, be broadcast in its entirety. That’s every stage, from start to finish, including the longest, which is 222.5km, and will likely last around six hours.
This seems a brave, or foolhardy, move at a time when, apparently, our attention spans are, sorry, what was that? When we are moving towards only being able to digest information in three-second GIFs or 140-character chunks.
There’s even a name for it: ‘distraction culture,’ and it could have serious implications for sport, or for televised sport, at least. It could also provide a partial explanation for why this past year has been a sobering one for TV companies who bet their mansions on sports rights. In the US and the UK paying subscribers have been deserting in droves.
Early in the football season it was reported that the TV audiences for Premier League matches on Sky had fallen by 19 per cent. Across the Atlantic, NFL ratings fell by more than 10 per cent and ESPN have been shedding 300,000 subscribers a month. They still have 86 million subscribers but in five years they’ve lost 15m, and at some point the sums – the £13 billion various TV companies have shelled out for three years of worldwide rights to the Premier League, the $7.3bn that ESPN pays for the TV rights to so much American sport – will no longer add up.
One reason is illegal streaming, which makes it difficult to determine to what extent the declining audiences are a consequence of fewer people watching or of people watching in different (illicit) ways. It is probably a bit of both. But another trend, as Paul Hayward suggested in the Telegraph earlier this year, seems to be for people to not sit through entire 90-minute games, but instead to follow football, or whatever their sport, in other ways: “They have seen the goal in highlight clips, watched Player A poke Player B in the eye in a GIF and followed the Twitter storm about the referee missing an offside.”
Thus: “The massively empowered social media spectator can escape the 90-minute commitment, the long sit-down, and consume the game in fragments, on demand, any time, anywhere.”
Given all this, it seems an odd time to begin showing the Tour de France, of all sporting events, in full. If viewers are reluctant to sit through a 90-minute football match, what are the chances they will watch six hours of bike racing?
And think of the poor commentators. Rob Hatch, part of the Eurosport commentary team at the Tour, says that the move to show entire stages was instigated by broadcasters. And if some broadcasters were going to show full stages, the others had to follow. Ultimately, it is driven by money: more coverage equals more advertising. “One of the main reasons historically that people have bought cycling rights,” says Hatch, “is that it’s a great schedule filler. Like tennis, it happens during the day, not in the evening.”
Surely, though, the TV companies do not expect people to watch stages in their entirety. “The challenge is to make it interesting,” Hatch says. “But the advantage of broadcasting the full stage is that you get the start, and this is often when the racing is most exciting, when the breakaway is getting established. People want to see that, and they want to see the finale. The only question is whether they want to watch the middle bit.” This could be a real problem in the first week, with several long stages in which, once the break is away, nothing much will happen, other than a slowly changing backdrop of French countryside (which is what some watch the Tour for anyway).
Ironically, broadcasting the whole stage will make it easier for broadcasters to satisfy those who only follow the Tour in fragments. If the footage exists then it can be sliced and diced, with crashes, attacks, echelons and bunch sprints clipped out and distributed digitally. Why watch the peloton rolling past sunflower fields and chateaux for six hours when, simply by monitoring your Twitter feed, you know you won’t miss any of the real action?
The trouble, as most fans will surely recognise, is that football is more than its goals, tennis more than its match points and cycling more than its sprint finishes. The devil is always in the detail and the result never tells anything like the full story.
The challenge for cycling, in a culture of distraction, is likely to be in attracting new fans. It faces a similar dilemma to cricket. The whole point of a Grand Tour or a Test match is that it unfolds over a long period of time, with nothing much seeming to happen for sustained periods. Twenty20 was cricket’s response, and there are now moves to come up with a cycling equivalent. The first ‘Hammer Series’ – shorter races, with races within the races – was staged in Holland in early June by Velon, a group owned by the top teams. Like Twenty20, some hated it and some loved it, but most would surely agree that it’s too early to say whether it has a future.
There will be a similar experiment with road racing in its traditional format at this year’s Tour, though it will not involve the men. The women’s event, La Course, over two days in the final week, will see a short mountain stage followed by an innovative time trial featuring only the top 20 from the mountain stage, set off at the time intervals that separated them on the mountain.
It’s new, it’s different, and who knows, it could be a precursor to similar innovations in the men’s race.
But it seems, at the very least, an acknowledgement that three-week Grand Tour racing faces a similar challenge to other sports: how to engage time-limited fans who follow sport and ‘consume’ information in ever more fragmented ways.
Broadcasting all 90 hours of the Tour de France is certainly an interesting, counter-intuitive response to the problem.