I’m the sports fanatic in our family. But this weekend, my other half is planning a boys’ night in, to watch the UCI Track Champions League.
Typing this feels like a disingenuous plug for something that I’m involved with, but it’s surprised even me.
If I’m right, it’s the first time he’s got the boys around for beers and sport since round one of the new track cycling event a few weeks ago, when he thought he would give it a try. Now, it seems, they’re all hooked.
The UCI Track Champions League is the latest attempt to make track cycling more attractive and accessible outside the almost unfathomable frenzy of the Olympics.
A dark art for most of the four-year cycle, there is something about the fever and excitement of Olympic track racing that shoots a dart into the collective consciousness and hooks us for the duration of a Games. We are experts within half a day and clueless again three weeks later.
The premise of the new format follows something of a theme for sports aiming to increase the size of their audience and decrease its average age.
Think more zoomer than boomer. When we look at successful innovations like T20 cricket or, latterly, The Hundred, it’s all about shorter, simpler formats.
Hence, the Champions League takes five days of competition, as it would be for a world championships, and compresses it into a single night, made up of only what are thought to be the most exciting disciplines — two sprints and two endurance races.
Throw in a generous prize pot split equally between men and women, a narrative spread over five, condensed nights of racing across Europe, all the power data you can shake a stick at and an impressive light display, and there is enough to applaud and fear in equal measure.
Simplicity, speed and sexy graphics. The kind of combination to bring purists out in a rash no amount of chamois creme can prevent.
But if more fans can be brought into a sport, bringing money and greater stability, it becomes difficult to argue against. Here, the devil is in the detail, even as it’s taking the hindmost.
There are two details that count more than most; athlete buy-in to get the very best in the world on the track, and full-scale TV production, to attract and retain eyeballs on those athletes.
Among the 72 riders you can count ten Olympic golds and 63 world titles. I could name them but it is unlikely you will have remembered many of them from Tokyo, and that’s kind of the point.
Crucially, when I spoke to one of the stars of round one in Mallorca, double Olympic champion Katie Archibald, she explained her seemingly genuine excitement about the new competition with an answer that was as honest as it was perceptive — ‘It’s the chance to race on TV.
Most of the time we don’t get that’. Athlete buy-in is one thing, having them understand the need for the hype and noise is quite another.
Messing with tradition doesn’t always work. It mostly doesn’t. Remember the Athletics World Cup, or cycling’s own Hammer Series? Anyone? Exactly.
While I have already mentioned successful examples from elsewhere, track cycling isn’t cricket, which already enjoyed a huge and consistent fanbase throughout the year.
Sports climbing is an interesting example of a much more niche sport to benefit from annoying traditionalists and mashing up the format.
In Tokyo, three previously distinct disciplines were combined into one, to make a sort of climbing triathlon. The purists hated it, and the audience loved it, with the event drawing in one of the largest audiences for Eurosport of the entire Olympics.
Of course, there’s a long road between a flash of success and a sustainable sporting franchise, but it is a reminder the combination of speed and simplicity is, a least, the essential starting point.
I’d argue road cycling should be made more palatable, more digestible than the standard six-hour carb-heavy feast, but that’s a discussion for another day.
One thing I know is my half-French husband, who declares his deep-seated, almost spiritual love for cycling for three weeks every summer, has never managed to watch an entire stage of the Tour de France, let alone turn it into an event with the lads.
It will certainly not be the measure by which the success of the UCI Track Champions League will be defined, but finally getting Mr C interested in one of the sports I cover is a huge deal. In my house at least, that already counts as a success.
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