The Lance Armstrong Effect: Follow the Money

You would have to  be dead, deaf and blind, or possibly crazy to have missed the crescendo of chatter about the upcoming Lance Armstrong appearance on Oprah tonight.

The show will air at 9 PM on OWN, and will also be streamed at Oprah.com. Part II will air tomorrow night on the same channel.

Back to the media build-up, which is more heinous and annoying than the fact that Lance managed to sneak some EPO in his blood over the years (didn’t he have cancer after all?)

Starting with PBS last night who had both Juliet Macur of the New York TImes, and David Walsh providing live commentary.

Now I have nothing against Macur, and it’s finally nice to see what she looks like after reading her reports on the Tour de France every year in the TImes. But I don’t think she’s ever raced a bicycle.   Not that you need to in order to report on it, but it would certainly help to understand the physical pressures that bike racers are under, especially when they ride the Tour.

And then there was David Walsh, gloating, who in gathering information for his book on Armstrong had to pay his sources,–and he still only got innuendo.

Then there have been the endless mentions that Lance is going to tell all to Oprah tonight, and what big news that is, from every mainstream newspaper and television station that normally doesn’t give the time of day to covering cycling competition.

And therein lies the rub. Where were all of these reporters, and more importantly their bosses who run and fund their news outlets, when it came time to show Americans how great cycling is?

Well the answer is simple, they were pouring all their time and money to covering the ball sports, basketball, football, and baseball.

Now we also know that there has been some coverage of doping in the ball sports. Barry Bonds comes to mind, and the Adderall drug report circulating around the NFL players that came out last October. But is the testing as rigorous in these sports as it is in pro cycling?

The answer is no. And the reason is this: there is an inverse relationship between the amount of sponsorships, profits made, television advertising, and salaries of professional athletes and the number of times per year and level of drug testing they are subjected to–at least when you compare cycling with the ball sports.

And that paradigm is not just unfair, it’s also grossly hypocritical.

Let’s look at the facts; yesterday Macur blithely posited that she is “quite sure” that Armstrong has not been drug tested as much as he claims. How could she possibly know that? Perhaps it was from the number of times she has been a cyclist in the top 10 of the Tour.

The truth is that top ranking cyclists are tested all the time, anywhere, at any time of the day or night, by surprise. By contrast, ball sports testing is regulated by the union–and is scheduled ahead of time. Now isn’t that a joke?

Let’s start with the suspensions in 2011 for drugs among National Football League players–21 as of last October. That’s quite a high number. If a cycling team had that many suspensions in one year, there would be no one left. If 22 of the riders in the Tour were suspended , that would amount to about 10%.

New “rigourous” testing at the NFL announced last year that the players would be tested “at least once a year,” possibly more for growth hormone. And for the first time ever–they will be tested on game day (though only once a year.)

Under the new drug policy, there is no limit to how often NFL players can be tested for steroids and

Barry Bonds in 2007

H.G.H. during the season, and they can be tested up to six times in the off-season, the league spokesman Greg Aiello told the NY Times last August.

Competitive cyclists, on the other hand, are given unscheduled tests at any time during one event, and if they are in the top 10, they are tested every day during an event like the Tour. There is no limit other than one dictated by the bounds of science for the types of drugs they are tested for, including erythroprotein, or EPO, the drug that Lance Armstrong is alleged to have taken the most.

The league said it does 14,000 tests per year for 250 players, which comes out to an average of 5.6 per year. Professional cyclists can be tested that many times in one stage race.

Salaries in the N.F.L. reflect the same hands-off attitude towards this highly protected sport: the average N.F.L. player makes $1.9 million a year, the median player $770K, according to Bloomberg.com.

While the average salary for American pro cyclists is thought to be less than $100K per year, UCI pro cyclists (as part of European teams,) can make on average from $250,000 to $370,000 a year.

Obviously Lance Armstrong was able to make a lot more than that–some of that money or perhaps almost all of it, he’ll have to give back to his previous sponsors, along with his winnings if tonight he actually admits to having taken performance enhancers repeatedly.

But looking at the facts, shouldn’t the inverse relationship between pay and drug testing, be corrected? What are American athletes hiding–besides the massive dollars being pumped in to the ball industries? In 2012, the N.F.L. made $9.5 billion–yes that’s right–billion dollars.

That does not include the amount of money being made by TV stations and other media, by advertisers, and all the other businesses drafting off of professional sports. And that’s just the N.F.L Then there’s Major League Baseball, (MLB) and the National Basketball Association (NBA), and hundreds of other leagues that aren’t large enough to talk about. The salary cap for a pro basketball player is $58  million and the minimum salary is $49.3 million.

By contrast the total budget for all UCI pro teams in 2012 was $449 million–and that’s for all pro European cyclists spanning several countries.  That makes the NFL eighteen times –18 times–better funded than all of the cycling teams in Europe combined.

Incidentally, the dollar amounts we are comparing are not only grossly different, they are apples and oranges. UCI teams spend money each year–so $449 Million is their total sponsorship budgets. The NFL makes money every year–the $9.5 Billion is their earnings.

The U.S. Postal Team could not even continue their sponsorship of the cycling team for lack of funding, and over 10 years paid an average of $400,000 a year to host the team– an amount that would not even pay for two pro European UCI cyclists, though from 2001 to 2004 they paid about $39M a year to host the team.

Turning back to the whole “Lance cheated,” concept, many fans still consider him to be a champion. The reasoning is if everyone was doping, then he was still the best.

But looking beyond that small boxed in story is the bigger story: why are we–and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency okay with low testing for fat-cat ball players? If we want to be true moralists, we should look there first, and then consider Lance Armstrong’s deeds within that context.

 

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