Okay, short version: big money triumphed. Again. As expected.
Forget for a second who actually won arguably the most important competition of the season. They are fantastic athletes, no doubt there – but that’s been said a thousand times over the last day and we want to focus on the other aspect^
Just look at where they come from.
In men’s standings there are four Russians and four Norwegians plus Olympic champions Dario Cologna and Iivo Niskanen
In women’s Top 10 there are five Norwegians plus skiers from Russia, Austria, US of A and Germany.
To give it spin we want to give for a purpose of this story, that Norwegian investment once again outperformed the Russian one with everybody else fighting for the crumbs. Oh, and the Swedish blue chips did not perform at all as expected this time around – but that’s a story for another day.
To win any drawn-out competition, be it Tour de Ski, world championships or the Olympics it’s not enough to have talented skiers. You have to have individual coaches, assistant coaches, waxers doctors, physios, masseurs, nutritionists, psychologists ( still optional but helps), drivers, interpreters, media handlers and administrators. So your athletes are completely detached from any vagaries of life for the duration of competition and could concentrate on winning. That’s a lot of money on the table to find & polish good support personnel – and to bring them along to fancy Alpine resorts where TdS competitions are held.
But you really can’t win without aforementioned team members. Not in 2020.
The Norwegians did need a win – preferably, in dramatic, headline-capturing fashion – more than ever. After nearly five happy years together, the national team’s main sponsor, banking group Sparebank 1 is pulling the plug. Which means a loss of some NOK 15 million ( 1.5 million euros) per year that used to go to team’s training and yes, travel to places like Tour de Ski for dozens of support personnel and those skiers who are not part of the World Cup’s Red Group.
Would the Russians now overtake the leaders?
A couple of weeks ago a maverick boss of the Russian skiing Yelena Vyalbe was openly talking about financial side of her team’s performance. The gist of it: the money are tight. Many a thanks to Lukoil and Rusal , main national team’s top sponsors and regional sport budgets that often pay costly training camps, but the expenses are growing each year – and income is not. But at least national team skiers are getting paid for training & performance and thus can concentrate on their performance and don’t have to go around asking sponsors for funds personally, the way many competitors are forced to do.
Whether Cologna, Niskanen, Parmakoski and Stadlober feel forced to go out and ask for funds or sponsors chase them, only they would now – but the trend in skiing is unmistakable: sponsors increasingly prefer to invest into nationally recognizable individuals rather than a team that tends to languish in standings.
The reason for that is simple enough: cross country skiing has started to disappear from national television channels thus robbing sponsors of target audience. Even when the races are stil being shown ( not for long ), it’s hard to explain to company shareholders why you’d want to sponsor a team that barely makes it on television broadcast, never mind a podium. Makes much more sense to sponsor individual skiers who would plug your brand in via their developed social media channels.
Not all is doom & gloom.
Sweden keeps on producing such a seemingly endless crop of podium talents ( all of them in women’s racing for some reason) that as a fan you simply forced to root for the flag, not a particular skier.
Slovenia has invested wisely – Anamarija Lampič is a true new star of sprint and the team is fairly close behind.
Most importantly for the future of the sport, Germany has finally got its skier on the podium. The jubilation was international – to get German sponsors back one has to have German skiers – or a skier – winning. So far so good – in the country where the audience still reads daily newspapers and weekly magazines, every single one of them found a minute to mention Katharina Hennig’s brave stage medal and overall good performance.
In conclusion: it’s an absolute money race and the ability to win is now directly linked to overall budget available. In biathlon they are trying – sometimes successfully, other times less so – to redistribute the profits towards less fortunate, but then the IBU has all the marketing rights and thus most of the sport’s income in its pocket. The top skiing would probably have to accept that just like in football or F1, some teams always win – they simply invested more than the rest