Sometime in the first two months of this season, Leopard-Trek will score its first victory on the road. When it happens, at least one headline will read, “Leopard Pounces.”
Sometime in the run-up to the Tour de France, in May or maybe even June, Leopard-Trek will sign a title sponsor, necessitating a hasty revision of all the team’s kit and materials. When it happens, at least one headline will read, “Leopard Changes Its Spots.”
Those last minute pre-Tour sponsor pickups – and the horrible headline puns that come with them – are becoming a sort of late-spring tradition. Though it would be easier on everyone’s nerves if sponsors signed on for the whole year, the late arrivals obviously aren’t a bad thing. More sponsors are better than less, and the latecomers infuse the post-Classics period with a little hint of pre-season freshness as a whole new round of kit designs and bus stickers and god-knows-what-else are unveiled. Slipstream’s done it. High Road’s done it. And you can bet your ass Leopard will do it, too.
What I’m wondering now is, when that sponsor emerges, how much will the nascent Leopard-Trek be forced to change those headline-heralded spots? If the new sponsor is a fashion-forward undertaker or Mercedes-Benz, the current look could be carried forward relatively intact. But if, say, Krylon or Lego cough up some cash, a somewhat more obvious change could be in order.
Thanks to James Huang, we know the team's present look was put together in short order once it was clear there would be no title sponsor by the time the onrushing season forced the team to go public with whatever it had. So in that sense, Leopard management may not be terribly wedded to the resulting black-blue-white spray job. But the Leopard powers that be, including its manager and noted PR man Brian Nygaard, seem to be an image-conscious (and image-controlling) bunch, so I have to wonder if sponsor-directed change might be a bit of a bitter pill if and when it comes. As it stands, the team has a very northern European composition, look, and feel, and remaking it in the visual image of something like Kelme at a sponsor’s behest might not sit too well. Obviously though, money talks, and I have every confidence that a cool $5 million would be enough to get Kim Anderson driving the team car in a lavender cordoba.
A look at the relevant case studies, the teams currently known as Garmin-Cervelo and HTC, could give hints at the approaches Leopard might take when the check clears. When Jonathan Vaughters signed Garmin to replace the name of his Slipstream ownership/management company in the team's title spot, the fashion-aware manager nevertheless retained much of Slipstream’s orange-'n-argyle branding on kits and ancillaries. With this season’s Garmin-Cervelo merger, the need to accommodate Cervelo’s established branding crowded the argyle a bit more, but it’s still there.
Bob Stapleton’s High Road formation has proved a bit more malleable. After T-Mobile’s pullout (but still temporarily running on T-Mobile money), the team debuted in black and white livery stamped with High Road, the name of Stapleton’s ownership entity. It was a blank-slate, your-name-here approach that allowed the team to easily adapt when Stapleton landed Columbia Sportswear as a headliner during the pre-Tour bargain sale. The team went first to blue jersies, retaining its black shorts, then shifted towards its current yellow-black-white look that’s survived through the addition and ascent of HTC and Columbia’s departure. The High Road logo, though, has remained, not across the chest, granted, but always present.
Though both teams have thankfully found steady corporate backers, it’s worth noting that both retained either logos or subtle branding elements that keep their management companies – traditionally anonymous and anonymously-named entities – very much in the public eye. The same could be said of Riis Cycling, made evident on this year’s Saxo Bank kit by the infamous trouser bird. I expect that the Leopard name and some aspect of its branding, like those of High Road and Slipstream, will remain prominent as the team moves forward, regardless of any evolving sponsor situation. Why? It’s good business.
The increasingly visible role of management companies in cycling provides the entities we think of as “teams” with a consistent business identity in an unpredictable sponsorship environment. It makes it easier for team ownership to present potential sponsors with a unified story of value that the company has accumulated under an array of different sponsors, different sports directors, and different riders. The company name – Slipstream, High Road, Riis, Leopard – unites all of the organization's history, reputation, structure, and operating procedures into a convenient, easy-to-understand package. The corporate approach also helps avoid the pitfalls of gathering sponsors through cults of personality, Giancarlo Ferretti-style. In making themselves high-visibility cycling companies, High Road is not just selling Bob Stapleton to sponsors, and Slipstream is not just selling Jon Vaughters (though those figureheads’ skills undoubtedly drive their companies’ successes). Thus, when and if something changes regarding the individual's involvement, there’s a better chance that the whole thing won’t simply crumble in their absence. For potential sponsors, particularly those educated in cycling's long string of team failures, any reassurance is valuable.
- What’s the inverse of the pre-Tour sponsor infusion? Why, the post Tour dope scandal sponsor exodus, of course. Easy come, easy go.
- Is Leopard-Trek a greatest hits album of “new team” initiatives? The staff and riders of CSC/Saxo Bank. The videos of Cervelo Test Team. The on-bike fashion sensibility and media strategy of Sky. The natty team presentation stylings of Garmin. That’s all well and good – now show me the development team or the women’s team.
- Some folks have a problem with Kim Anderson (and his extensive and arguably landmark doping history) being in team management for Leopard. I don’t. Because if I were a Leopard rider looking for doping guidance, Kim Anderson is about the last person I’d ask for advice. He clearly wasn't very good at it. What I do find interesting about the minor Anderson uproar is that he’s been working for Riis for years with little fuss. Guess working under a guy nicknamed “Mr. 60 Percent” and who confessed to winning the Tour doped up provides a pretty good diversion.
- Twitter sponsors Radio Shack. So many potential jokes my head hurts. I'm content to chuckle to myself rather than make you all suffer, but in keeping with the initial paragraphs of this post, I will predict that “Failwhale” will appear in at least one Shack-related article this season, as will the phrase “character-limited.”