I don’t know about you, but I love watching cycling on TV. There’s nothing quite like seeing the cyclists at the top of their game pushing themselves to the very limit of what’s possible on human-powered two wheels. It’s great how many of the races make it on to TV now, covered mostly by Eurosport in the UK.
The trouble with cycle races is that they give us a lot of time to think and my brain never switches off. When watching cycling I always think there could be some enhancements to make it even better. To draw in the viewer and hold our attention a little bit longer.
I want to be clear from the outset, I write this article as a viewer and nothing else. I have no background in TV production or inside knowledge of the sport. Some of the suggestions I make may be completely unrealistic and impossible to implement in the real world. However as a viewer I feel all of the suggestions would make a difference to the watching experience, and I hope they aren’t too far fetched.
I also want to point out that this post is in no way meant to criticise the coverage we get already, merely build on it. The logistics of bringing us cycling TV coverage must be like a military operation. A race across vast distances, needing multiple cameras both on the ground and in the air. It’s amazing we get to watch anything at all! Chapeau to the teams that slog every day to bring us what we get already and if you’re in any doubt how much effort goes into bringing us the TV coverage, have a read of this article at CyclingTips.com.
What I do understand, though, is that it’s hard to make money from viewers in cycling. The races are run on open roads, meaning no income from ticket sales as with football or rugby. This makes TV revenue even more important. For TV revenue a key part is advertising, and for advertisers to be interested you need higher viewing figures. Therefore, having a viewing package that will keep people interested can only be good for the sport.
So without further ado, here are my suggestions to improve cycling TV coverage.
Use GPS To Track Riders
This was the starting point of my thoughts around cycling coverage. Why not attach small GPS units to each rider, and then produce a live map showing where everyone is at any given time?
I first thought of this when watching sailing during the Olympics. They manage to produce a graphic showing where each of the boats is on the course and in relation to one another. This makes working out what is going on in the race much simpler in what can be quite a complex environment. Replicating this in cycling would really help the coverage. Imagine this:
- A breakaway happens and you would instantly know who was in it.
- You are able to keep up with what’s happening away from the current camera you are viewing.
- You are not waiting for an overhead shot that might cut out to see how far the leader has broken away on a mountain stage.
- You are able to follow your favourite rider without having to wait for a camera shot on mention in the commentary.
There are so many benefits and it does seem to be possible. There are companies out there such as GeoRacing already offering this service in sailing and rally driving. On their site you can see the various graphics they offer at live events and for TV coverage.
There may be bigger difficulties in covering cycling, such as the larger number of competitors and bigger courses, but even if they started monitoring a few of the favourites and built up the technology from there I think it would be an innovation that would be beneficial to the viewer. Adding GPS tracking of riders would add a lot to the TV coverage of cycling making it really clear what’s happening out on the course and allowing you to follow your favourite riders with ease rather than relying on having a camera in the right place at the right time.
The host broadcasters generally do a good job of capturing bike racing coverage in very difficult circumstances. With the field sometimes spread across massive distances and moving at great speed, it is a wonder they manage to get as much onto our screens as they do. There are a few things I think that would add to what is already there.
1. More on board cameras
On board cameras like this give us a glimpse into the world of cycling unlike any we’ve ever had before. The sounds, strains and shoving that make up a pro peloton moving at speed are remarkable. I’d like to see more cameras like this. I think they really add to the footage available, and if you were able to link into them live, it would really help capture the moment when a breakaway is formed or an intermediate sprint contested.
I’m not suggesting all the riders, but maybe the day’s top contenders, or the key jersey riders. How about getting the viewers to vote on the three riders they want cameras on the following day? It adds another layer of viewer interaction and allows watchers to be on board with the riders they want to see. There is a slight weight penalty as a GoPro camera is around 150g. But even if the UCI lowered the bike weight limit for teams signing up so they didn’t feel penalised I think this could be a great innovation to put the viewers right at the heart of the action.
We all love the aerial shots of the Grand Tours from the helicopters. Sweeping views over beautiful countryside while following the race from a perspective just not possible from the ground. I think the future of cycling TV coverage has to involve drones, too. They are still very much in the experimental stage at the moment, but if cycling could be at the forefront of this innovation the benefit to coverage would be massive.
Firstly, they are much cheaper than a helicopter, meaning having more views for less money. Secondly, they can fly much lower without affecting the race, meaning we could get some really amazing close up overhead views of the riders.
Some sports are already trying them out (Fox used them in its recent coverage of the US Open Golf) and I’d love for cycling to experiment too. Even if it couldn’t be streamed live and was just saved for replays and highlights packages it would bring a new viewpoint and understanding of the sport on top of the shots we get already.
More Information About The Riders
One of the things I’d like to see as part of the TV coverage is more information about the riders. Again, the commentators do as good a job as they can, but it surely cannot be hard to put together some additional information. I would like to see infographics about the riders. These would then be flashed up on a split screen when needed. Maybe when a rider makes it into a breakaway, or takes intermediate sprint points. There is lots of time in the coverage to talk through them, and they wouldn’t be too hard to update once they have initially been produced.
Take this example from the NBA. This is specifically about three point shots, but you get the idea. You could have a photo, then include the rider’s basic stats such as weight, height, nationality and age. It could also cover teams they’ve been with, stage wins etc. Perhaps they could also include extra factoids about the riders; which pedals do they prefer? What’s their favourite pre-ride food? What advice would they give to other cyclists?
I think this would really help us relate to the riders, and make watching cycling over a long period of time more informative. GCN do a really good job of this with their ‘Features’ videos getting us closer to the riders by checking out their bikes and gear, and a lot more of this could be provided to the viewers during stage races.
I’d love to be able to hear some of what is being said over the race radio. I appreciate some of this might be sensitive information that is crucial to the tactics of the race, but even if we were allowed access to small snippets of the messages I think it would really enhance the viewing experience. They manage to do it in F1 which is in many ways more tactical than cycling, so why not give us a glimpse into the communication heading to and from the riders?
There are lots of examples where it could be beneficial. Let’s take a common one, the cameras missing out on a crash. Tapping into the race radio to hear what’s happened would help the commentators piece together the incident. You’d get an insight into the confusion and isolation that sometimes comes from being a cyclist, having no idea what’s happening in front of and behind you on the course. Not a major addition, but an extra twist that would spice up the coverage further.
This is less of an enhancement and more damage limitation.
I’m not sure how true it is of every viewer, but where you lose me is in the advertising breaks. That’s where I switch channel and get stuck on something else, or head out to the garage to do a couple of tweaks on my bike and forget about the race. Getting the advertising right for these races is crucial. I realise this wouldn’t be down to the producer of an individual program, and is more down to the choice of the channel or network involved, but I do think more can be done. I also realise getting rid of advertising breaks is not financially viable.
However, using less advertising breaks and more pop ups I think would really help. It’s one thing I find very noticeable with TV abroad is that they don’t always go to an advertising break to get adverts in. When I was in South Africa recently that they would quite often put up adverts on the bottom of the screen during sporting coverage, or fade them in from the right. This barely detracts from what you are watching, and certainly wouldn’t make you switch channel.
This option could be perfect for cycling. It would mean less expensive advertising blocks and more targeted marketing. Coming from a retail operations background I can’t claim to know the ins and outs of marketing, but I imagine a 5 second static advert costs a lot less than a 25 second filmed advert. This would open up a whole new market for advertising in cycling. You would engage smaller suppliers as they would be able to afford the shorter advert blocks, and you could then target them on screen to an audience who I imagine are largely already passionate about the sport.
This would allow less advertising breaks and more regular/relevant adverts to appear which would keep the viewers focused on the sport itself.