Opinion: In women’s cycling, we must think beyond the minimum wage
Brew yourself a coffee, and consider the following, short quiz, if you will. Should women’s “professional” cycling have a minimum wage? Easy, right? Of course it should.
Next question. Should a minimum wage be instigated as soon as possible? Again, no brainer. Take a caffeinated sip.
Third question. Where is that money going to come from? Hmmm… slightly trickier. I told you to have your coffee to hand.
While the first two questions and answers provide the easy headlines, the emotive tweets and the proverbial call to arms, it is the third that matters most. Unless, and until, we have a solid financial foundation on which to build a minimum wage, introducing a basic salary would be tokenistic at best, potentially damaging to the sport at worst.
First, let me address a few of the misconceptions, as I see them, in the current argument for an immediate minimum wage.
The gender pay gap is, quite rightly, a huge topical issue across society. While it is easy to point to the embarrassing disparity between salaries in men’s and women’s cycling as a further example of this, I believe that conflating the two issues is not simply disingenuous, it is incorrect.
The underlying thrust of the gender pay debate is that employers need to change their ways. Which they do. But this can be confused with an argument that the UCI has to do more to bring women’s cycling on a level with men’s.
The UCI however is not the employer, the teams are. And by and large the teams and their sponsors are entirely separate from the men’s sport. Only six of the 46 UCI registered women’s teams are directly aligned with men’s WorldTour squads.
Women’s teams operate in a different economic market with different constraints, but also different opportunities, which I’ll come to in a bit.
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This is not a sport like tennis where the women routinely compete on the same courts in the same tournaments, in front of the same crowds. There are exceptions, but women’s cycling operates largely in isolation from men’s, with the teams often racing different races.
The issue of the gender pay gap hinges on fairness. But I would argue this isn’t a question of fairness, rather viability. If paying everyone a minimum wage isn’t immediately viable, then this has less to do with gender per se, and more to do with the economic maturity of the sport.
To demand an immediate minimum wage is to suppose there is a pot of money from which to draw. Women’s cycling is not, by and large, run by greedy, self-serving megalomaniacs, who are syphoning off a huge profit to the detriment of their poor riders. If a minimum wage is to be paid, who is going to pay it and how?
There are those who argue that if some teams have to be sacrificed at the altar of principle and financial equality, then so be it. If they’re not professional enough to pay their riders, they shouldn’t be in the sport to begin with. That would be a valid argument if the sport were stagnant, if there were not teams building year on year to be able to pay their riders a fair wage.
Cut some of the less-funded, in some cases well-intentioned teams, and how many will you be left with at the top? Enough to convince sponsors and media outlets alike that this is a dynamic enough sport for investment?
Will there be enough riders at the start line, race in, race out, injuries and individual programmes withstanding, to draw in the necessary new fans to the sport? Or do we run the risk of cutting off the sport at its knees?
The other alternative is setting the minimum wage sufficiently low for a competitive number of teams to be able to afford it. The danger here is that not only will most riders still not be paid a living wage, but those involved in the sport who genuinely can’t be bothered improving it, can argue we’re already on the right path.
As an example of the conundrum, take Trek Drops, a team whose ethos and ambition I hugely admire. They started out in 2016 with the aim of being ‘the most professional amateur team’ in the peloton.
Unable to pay their riders a salary in the first year, they aimed to be as professional as possible in all other aspects, so as to quickly offer financial recompense. After just one year, they were paying a salary to all but one of their riders who, I’m told, volunteered to remain unpaid because she already had a well-paid job.
In 2018, everyone on the team will be paid, and more or less sit in the top half of the female peloton’s pay scale. So far, so encouraging. But team manager Bob Varney tells me this is not the source of pride that it should be for him, since they are still not paying a true living wage.
A glance at The Cyclists’ Alliance survey results from last year, shows riders earning in the top 53.10% of the peloton, are only guaranteed €5,000 a year. That’s €416 a month, or €96 a week.
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Varney says if the minimum wage were set at £10,000 in a year or two’s time, the team could afford it. But that’s still some seven grand short of the minimum living wage. Approximately £17,000 is the minimum salary considered realistic on which to live in the UK -outside of London- for example.
As much as they might like to, if Trek Drops were to pay that, Varney estimates he’d have to let five riders go so that the team could continue with the minimum roster of eight riders. This is not because of a lack of duty of care, but simple mathematics.
Do we lose riders from teams moving in the right direction, because they wouldn’t be allowed to keep them on, or do we work towards bringing more money into the sport as soon as possible? Do we impose a minimum wage for the sake of it, or do we make sure riders are being paid a decent wage which the sport can progress with?
The good news, I believe, is that there is something each and every one of us in the sport, from fans to riders to team managers, can do to change this situation. If you’re of the mindset that we shouldn’t need to do any more than supporting or participating in bike races, because that’s how the men seem to do it, then perhaps you were born a few generations too early. I have lived in an unequal world for the entire time that I’ve been on this earth, and it’s only by working to change things that we ever see a difference.
Firstly, teams need to engage their potential audience in a way that is different to those in the men’s sport. In an article on the power of image rights, The Cyclists Alliance refers to ‘scientific and economic studies’ which show that while a male athlete’s images are ‘valued’ by their race wins, a female athlete’s image rights are measured by how relatable she is to fans of the sport.
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Teams and riders need to be more savvy about their image rights. While women’s teams struggle to promise race wins to potential sponsors as a way of getting eyeballs on their products, since broadcast opportunities are currently so poor, there are other ways of delivering a return on investment.
Company wellness programmes or the ambassador programme like that implemented by Hagens Berman – Supermint this year are exactly the kind of initiatives that can work well in women’s cycling.
If relatability equates to marketability in women’s sport, then let’s take the fact so many female riders (52% according to The Cyclists’ Alliance) need to work a second job, and turn that handicap into a marketing positive.
As a busy, working mum to a 3-year-old daughter, I’m constantly looking for positive role models with whom both she and I might be able to identify. You’re working a part-time job and racing at the top level? Wow. Let me see what that looks like on social media and in team advertising, because that’s the kind of superwoman I want to aspire to. That’s the kind of strong woman I want to point out to my daughter.
Fans of the sport can do their bit too. Yes, there is a lack of broadcast coverage, and the UCI urgently needs to renegotiate broadcast rights from the race organisers so that they can be directly and financially responsible for the welfare of the sport, rather than paying lip service to it. But for the supporters’ part, let’s start extolling the virtue of women’s racing to encourage others to click, consume, and create demand.
There is not the same traditional television coverage for women’s cycling, but there is the benefit of the entirely measurable medium of digital platforms. The number of views and listens of online media correlates directly with set financial brackets that advertisers are willing to invest. Every thousand clicks on a race link or a podcast is measured by sponsors, and leads in turn to more investment in race coverage. This is not pie-in-the-sky talking. I’ve seen it with The Cycling Podcast Feminin, which I co-host with Richard Moore.
A minimum wage is not a panacea for the sport. It has become the catch-all issue, but it is not the catch-all solution. Yes, women racers need to be paid a proper wage, but not because the men are, rather because the sport has grown to such an extent that it becomes not only equitable, but viable in its own right.
Let’s keep shouting for better financial structures in the sport, and shouting loudly. But let’s not pretend that’s enough. If you care, and you really want to see a living salary in women’s cycling, and grow the sport for the future, then you can and should do something about it, whatever your involvement in the sport.
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