Words: Brian ParkDisclosure: Pinkbike has long, complex relationships & partnerships with Red Bull, the UCI, and Discovery. Our parent company Outside Inc also has a broadcast subscription model. This shouldn't be read as an objective take by a neutral third party.
Last year I suggested there was a proxy war brewing between Discovery (parent company of Eurosport and Play Sports Network) and Red Bull, but with this week's announcement that Discovery is likely taking over the UCI's DH and XC broadcast rights
for World Cup events through 2030, it's official.Frenemies.
The mountain bike industry has always had a complicated relationship with Red Bull. The Salzburg-based energy drink brand has undoubtedly poured money into the sport, supported untold numbers of riders, and been the reason that the best events have had massive global audiences. They’ve provided the canvases for many of mountain biking’s biggest moments. But most of all, over the past decade they’ve entrenched their position as holding the keys to the kingdom of free access to the sport’s most important broadcasts. Until now.
Every year or two we see a groundswell of “is Red Bull good for the sport?”
type articles and opinions pop up. Including on this site. And a lot of it is compelling—nobody believes Red Bull supports the sport purely out of the goodness of their hearts. Their revenue broke €5B in 2018, and free access to broadcasts isn’t free; they’re marketing to an audience they believe is important to their business. The money they bring into the sport comes from somewhere, and some critics have been uneasy about the ethics of marketing energy drinks to action-sport audiences.
Information is still scarce, but I suspect Discovery was willing to pay significantly more than Red Bull had paid in the past. Again please take this with a huge grain of salt, but several unofficial sources have suggested that mountain bike racing hasn't been a huge moneymaker for the UCI in recent years, so it would be unsurprising for the UCI to move forward with Discovery's even deeper pockets. Room for improvement.
As much as Red Bull has given to the sport, its coverage has lots of room for improvement. Team and media access issues. Fairness in coverage for non-Red Bull athletes. Improving their camerawork and broadcast logistics. Insurance and prizing that's out of sync with risk factors. Challenging communication. And they’ve missed some of the most important racing moments over the past few years.
I'm sure Discovery has big plans to improve the content, and they certainly have the means and ability to do just that. But it’s hard to know what’s possible until you’re in charge. I bet some folks at Red Bull are looking at the cataclysmic, doom-and-gloom comments about the Discovery news and thinking “weren’t you the same people that complained bitterly about our coverage?”
The truth is that despite Red Bull’s issues, they’ve set an incredibly high bar for production and many of the key people running the broadcasts care deeply about the sport. It remains to be seen what kind of access Discovery is going to give for World Cups, but if it does become a subscription service, there will be higher expectations from the audience. Full disclosure, the subscription model is a cornerstone of Pinkbike’s parent company’s business and I’m fundamentally happy to pay for content I want to see, but to get the mountain bike world on board they’re going to need to step way up.
Discovery needs to both elevate the coverage, give a better representation of the sport, and get it in front of more fans.A huge opportunity.
If the American multinational is able to level up World Cup racing, it’s great for the sport—better content for core fans, and more visibility on traditional TV, bringing more non-endemic dollars to the sport. But if they don’t, and viewership falls, it’s going to be a hard sell for teams to commit the same level of funding in an arena where some of the most talented riders are already hurting for support. In other words, many brands will struggle to commit marketing dollars to race programs that will get seen by less people (or less mountain bikers). I know I’m beating a dead horse on this, but I don’t want a sport where only a few ultra-rich kids can compete, while everyone else is part time racers and full time influencers.
Discovery is, in a sense, a competitor to Pinkbike/Beta/Outside, but for the sake of the sport, I’m rooting for them on this. They have the opportunity to do something amazing, but the stakes are high. At least with the benefit of hindsight we’ll be able to better understand Red Bull's contributions to the sport.The UCI, Red Bull, and Discovery have declined to comment for now on this evolving situation.