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Professional women’s cycling attacking mountains, market and media obstacles

Largely gaining momentum through social media, the Women’s Cycling Association is reshaping the landscape of women’s racing.

Women’s cycling advocacy has reshaped itself in the last year. In particular, social media has proven an invaluable tool for rallying support and pressuring change in both the sport’s industry and governance sectors. The Tour de France race organizers, Amaury Sport Organization (ASO), added La Course after receiving persistent and mounting pressure from women cycling advocates who had amassed nearly 100,000 signatures demanding inclusion of a women’s race.

Social media and digital innovation has enabled new advocacy actors to mount pressure and effect change on how the sport is organized. Increasingly, the sport industry and its sponsors care about how messaging efforts and corporate reputation circulate in social media.

Largely gaining momentum through social media, the Women’s Cycling Association’s (WCA) national campaign is about educating the public and media who the top pro women racers, the contenders, are.

image WCA first meeting Brian Hodes
WCA’s first meeting (Credit: Brian Hodes)

According to WCA President, Robin Farina,

“We try to show, pump up the media, talk to people – talk to USA Cycling, and help them and race directors know the face of women’s cycling, and we are a lobbying effort to make the racing scene better in quality, safety, number of races.”

In the last year, WCA’s work to foster dialogue with a number of private race organizers began reshaping the landscape of women’s racing. Major races like the Tour of California, Tour of Utah, Gastown Grand Prix and Winston Cycling Classic are now including improved media coverage and equal or healthy prizes for pro women.

When corporate actors and media partners make room to recognize, respect and prioritize women’s racing, change becomes possible.

These issues of better prioritizing women in cycling are not limited to the professional sector. Sociologists Peter Donnelly and Michele Donnelly’s gender audit of the London 2012 Summer Olympics presents a portrait of ongoing gender inequality in sport at large and on the Olympic program.  Donnelly reports, the discipline of “cycling is one of the worst offenders with respect to gender difference that consistently privileges men.” Donnelly’s report concludes that differences in funding and sponsorship; publicity and media; the re-emergence of sex testing for female athletes; as well as structural and rule differences remain substantial obstacles to realizing gender equality for athletes.

The growing momentum behind WCA demands for improved pro women’s racing makes some nervous. To advocate for change, to push back against the status quo of how the sport is organized, threatens some stakeholders.

Demands for changes in how the sport is organized, priorities of funding, and revenue sharing unsettle ingrained ways of running the sport. For sport governing bodies, these demands can ignite fears of breakaway leagues. As Farina admitted:

“USA Cycling expressed concern that we were attempting to create our own union, as if to start our own union or federation. By no means are we trying to take what they are doing and replicate that. We want to be in their ear. We want our voices to be heard. They have always made decisions as to what was best for men, but that’s not how our – women’s – sport thrives.”

As I listen to Farina explain the relationship with USA Cycling, what she calls a work in progress, I cannot help but wonder if this emerging advocacy is sharp enough to launch women’s sport to a new level. While being a player on the business side of sport is a step up from having no voice, might the WCA learn from examples set by the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA)? The lessons and successes of WTA may provide a model of a different direction, a model of an independent sport series proved necessary for securing respectable prize purses, media exposure, and corporate sponsorship of women’s sport.

The 2014 edition of the Tour de France and its race organizers’ inclusion of one day of elite women’s racing expose the relationship between legitimate sport governance and production. Perhaps paradoxically, the moves advancing women’s sport status and market positioning are largely being driven by corporate actors (like ASO) – not sport governing bodies like national and international federations.

As demands for gender equity in professional sport rise, sport industry actors may capitalize on seeing corporate responsibility going hand-in-hand with new opportunities for revenue, business packaging, media production and authority.

[newscred id=”645be844d1fc5c9b55b47cc88f8686f0″ title=”Professional Women’s Cycling”]

Part 1: Can the Tour de France help improve the secondary status of women’s pro sport markets?

Related: The 2014 Tour de France mixes business of war memorial and sport

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Rook Campbell is an Adjunct Professor of Communication at the University of Southern California. Follow her on Twitter @cabinet48

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