On Race Broadcasting & Going Mainstream

Blister Topic of the Week: On Race Broadcasting & Going Mainstream
Rob Warner & Claudio Caluori in the Booth (photo: Bartek Wolinski / Red Bull)
On Race Broadcasting & Going Mainstream, BLISTER

As fans of World Cup mountain bike racing, we’ve had it really good in the Red Bull broadcasting era. When Freecaster.tv started broadcasting World Cup racing in 2008, it was a huge step forward for the sport — the coverage wasn’t without its shortcomings, to be sure, but Freecaster made the racing infinitely easier to watch and more widely accessible. Red Bull took over in 2012 and built on that momentum, improving broadcast quality and the number of cameras on track continued to raise the bar for the level of commentary and broadcast mountain bike racing to a far greater audience than ever before.

The UCI just announced that Red Bull’s reign of broadcasting World Cup racing will end after this upcoming season, with Discovery taking over in 2023, through the 2030 season. As someone who’s enjoyed the Red Bull broadcasts — and the fact that they’re available both live and as replays online, for free — it’s hard not to worry about what this means for watching World Cup racing in the years to come. But I also think that bringing a bigger broadcaster on board at least has the possibility to be a positive development for mountain biking — both for fans and for the racers and the long-term development of the sport itself. Red Bull has unquestionably brought greater exposure and with it more money to the sport and helped grow it in the process. And it’s that increased viewership that lead to the UCI and Discovery reaching an agreement for the next eight years of broadcasting.

Red Bull certainly seems to think that they’ve been a victim of their own broadcasting success. Bart Brentjens — co-commentator with Rob Warner on Red Bull’s XCO broadcasts — said “you could say that RedBull Media House has made the MTB sport too popular. With the high viewing figures, it also becomes interesting for other production companies. Discovery Sports has won the bid at the UCI. Red Bull TV thinks that’s a shame.”

With little information yet available, all we can do is speculate about what Discovery’s broadcasts will look like. And it’s hard not to worry that we’ll wind up with a World Championships scenario, the rights to which have been sold separately from the main World Cup season in recent years. Here in the US, that’s meant NBC not broadcasting the race live or in its entirety. If Discovery’s broadcasts are anything like that, it’ll unquestionably be a disaster. But I’m cautiously optimistic that there’s simply too much money on the line for that to be the case — it’d be incredibly short-sighted of the UCI to accept a broadcast arrangement that doesn’t guarantee good access to viewing, no matter how much money Discovery is offering for the privilege. It’s one thing to have one race un-viewable without a VPN and other such shenanigans; if the whole calendar isn’t shown in full, worldwide and there isn’t a backdoor option to watch the whole thing viewership is obviously going to crater.

And that’s exactly why I’m cautiously optimistic. It’d be insane for the UCI to take a short-term cash grab that tanks the popularity of their sport as it’s in a period of strong growth. Discovery is on the hook for eight years, sure, but what comes after that, when it’s time to sign the next broadcast contract? The UCI and Discovery should both have a strong vested interest in putting forth a good product, and even if it might not be free anymore (and I’m speculating there — we just don’t know yet) I’d be fine paying a bit to stream the races going forward if the coverage is good.

But notice that I said “stream.” And “if the coverage is good.” If watching racing means ponying up for a cable subscription so that I can get the Discovery channel, that’s a much taller order, and I bet that a lot of other folks are in a similar boat. So here’s to hoping that the UCI and Discovery know what they’re doing. And it’s also very easy to see how, in the best-case scenario, this is a good thing for mountain biking in the long run. More broadcasting money could mean that the quality of those broadcasts only improves, that there’s more money to pay riders better, that the calendar can expand, and so on.

Change can be scary, but it’s also part of growing up — and mountain bike racing has certainly done a lot of growing up in the last 15 years. Like it or not, it’s much more of a professional sport than it used to be, and that’s brought a lot of upsides with it, including a deeper field and better racing than ever. And while I doubt that we’ll get a call quite as loose as Rob Warner’s legendary one from Danny Hart’s 2011 World Championships run, no matter who’s doing the broadcasting, if the move to Discovery means that next season is the end of the line for Rob, Claudio, Eliot, and the rest of the folks who have made the Red Bull broadcasts great, I’ll certainly miss them. But mostly I’m just pulling for Discovery to succeed here — both because I want to watch the racing, and because I do think that they can do a lot to keep moving the sport forward if they play their cards right. Here’s to hoping that they do.

The full press release from the UCI can be read here:

At its recent meeting in Montreux (Switzerland) from 10 to 12 February, the Management Committee of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) decided to enter into exclusive negotiations with Discovery Sports for the organisation and promotion of the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup for eight seasons, from 2023 to 2030.

The proposal by Discovery Sports, which was selected by the UCI as part of a tender process, comprises several strands: those relating to sporting and commercial matters, as well as those concerning the production and broadcasting of the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup.

More detailed information on the concept developed by Discovery Sports to further drive the development of the discipline will be communicated at the signing of the contract that will bind the two parties.

The UCI would like to thank Red Bull Media House, the producer and main broadcaster of the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup, who has used all its expertise to satisfy the passion of mountain bike fans around the world for more than 10 years, while significantly increasing the series’ audience during this period.

Discovery Sports will get in touch with the 2022 UCI Mountain Bike World Cup organisers as well as all the organisers that expressed their interest in hosting a round of the series for 2023 and 2024.

Meanwhile, all rounds of the 2022 Mercedes-Benz UCI World Cup will be available for viewing on Red Bull TV (RBTV) and on the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup broadcasters’ channels.

2 comments on “On Race Broadcasting & Going Mainstream”

  1. WC DH broadcasts without Rob Warner would be an utter dumpster-fire. Discovery does not have 30yrs to learn as much as Warner about the history of the sport he helped create. It’s one thing to expand scope of coverage (e.g. w/ “personal interest” backstories on athletes, or adding cameras) in a way that appeals to a general audience, but if Discovery doesn’t bring the most knowledgeable & passionate commentators on the planet across from the existing Red Bull team, then they will have zero credibility, and not many more core viewers. (Caveat: they can lose Bart Brentjens from the XC coverage. He was a formidable racer, but is utterly lacking in analytical acumen, verve, and English skills. Almost anyone else would be better.)

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