The Matt Slater Column: What price for bad publicity?

With doping and governance stories plaguing cycling again in recent weeks, Press Association’s chief sports reporter wonders if sponsors can put a price on bad news.

The Matt Slater Column: What price for bad publicity?

They have had the decorators in at British Cycling recently and no, it was not for a whitewash. It was actually to erase all vestiges of Sky’s sponsorship and rebrand the Manchester ‘medal factory’ in HSBC red and white.

British Cycling’s Sky years were great for both parties, with medals galore, a nice sideline in Tour de France glory and booming participation numbers.

But now HSBC’s belief in things getting better is being stretched to breaking point.

Since slapping its logo all over British Cycling’s building, clothing and stationery, the world’s local bank has deposited precisely zero goodwill and run up an alarming overdraft in negative headlines, doping inquiries and select committee appearances.

It has got so bad HSBC must be pining for the good old days of the credit crunch.

At the time of writing, neither the independent review into allegations of bullying and sexism within the British national team – which is being Maxwellised, in a sign of the company BC is keeping – nor UK Anti-Doping’s investigation into mystery packages and controversial painkillers is over.

The former has churned out bad news for nearly a year, while the latter is a relative infant at just five months of misery.

Sky, of course, is still on the hook, in terms of marketing blowback, for what might come from the anti-doping probe, but having cut ties with the more cumbersome parts of the governing body business – coaching badges, race insurance, membership packs and so on – it can get on its bike and leave Sir Dave Brailsford behind any time it likes.

That sounds incredible when you consider the bang-per-buck provided by Chris Froome and co since 2010 but even a fifth Tour win in six years cannot be worth much more of the press they have had in recent weeks. Even corporate stablemates The Times and Sunday Times have been calling time on Team Brailsford.

None of this is new, though, for cycling or its commercial partners. They have been in it together, through thick and thin, from the beginning.

While some sports have taken decades to realise their full sandwich-board potential, road cycling has been an advertising vehicle all along. With no tickets to sell, it had to be.

Races were set up to sell newspapers or places, and the riders work for trade teams that last until the money runs out, the company’s Mr Big gets bored or somebody in the marketing team decides there are easier ways to sell hearing aids, kitchen flooring or extractor fans than trying to win Grand Tours.

When the pictures are great – as they are when your guy is in yellow, pink or polka dots – cycling is the one of the best bargains in advertising.

Originally, it was column inches and epic photography that attracted the sponsors, but cycling is a TV sport these days – so much so that worrying about crowds on the roadside is almost quaint and the deciding factor when choosing where to put a race is whether the host will pay for decent coverage.

When the pictures are great – as they are when your guy is in yellow, pink or polka dots – cycling is the one of the best bargains in advertising.

Sky gives Brailsford about UK£15 million (US$18 million) a year to be the team’s title sponsor, a month’s wages for a Premier League team or what a Formula One entrant burns every fortnight. In return, Sky has been getting three weeks of blanket advertising in papers and bulletins every July, and a decent showing for the rest of the year, too.

I have also often wondered if it did so just to annoy the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Eurosport. You try sticking to the letter of the BBC Producer Guidelines in a news package about the British team that has just won a race without it becoming an advert for your great commercial rival. It is hard – I tried.

But now, like so many of the sport’s sponsors before them, Sky might be thinking those mentions on BBC news bulletins are not shifting as many satellite dishes as they once did. Who knows? They may find a receipt for whatever was in that package and this all goes away.

In the meantime, an American court might be about to put a price on bad publicity, as the federal government wants back all of the money it spent plastering the US Postal Service’s livery over Lance Armstrong’s Lycra and a multiple of that in damages.

The former seven-time Tour champion is looking at a bill for US$100 million (US$122 million), with former fellow cheat turned whistleblower Floyd Landis set to get a quarter of that for initiating the case.

Armstrong’s defence will be that there was no harm – US Postal sold a lot more stamps and its staff delivered letters with a spring in their steps during those heady days – but that looks like a tough argument to make when the American mailman is now synonymous with one of sport’s great scandals.

Timing is clearly everything in comedy, sport and advertising. Sky will be hoping it has not held on too long and HSBC may be wondering why it got started at all.

Press Association is an official SportsPro media partner.