The Tour de France is the world’s most famous cycling race but it started off as little more than a content marketing ploy. In the early 1900s, L’Auto, a cycling newspaper with a confusing name, was struggling to sell papers. In 1902, Henri Desgrange, L’Auto’s editor, and Geo Lefevre, a writer, came up with the idea to sponsor a nationwide bike race.
It wasn’t the first time a newspaper had sponsored a cycling race, but it would be the first time that any cycling race lasted more than a day.
Since the race was so extensive and encompassed most of France, it was named the “Tour de France.” It was a huge success, boosting newspaper sales from 25,000 issues per day to 65,000. People along the route bought issues of L’Auto to learn about the cyclists’ progress and to find out the winners of each leg of the race.
Not only was the race great for selling newspapers, but it was also an incredible source of exposure for brands, such as bicycle manufacturer La Francaise, which sponsored the 1903 event.
The race is three weeks long, which adds up to more than 100 hours of television airtime.
It offers brands international exposure in dozens of countries across the globe, and it is estimated that for every dollar spent in advertising, brands make more than five dollars back in brand awareness.
Running on dynamite
Doping has marred the race since its inception. In the old days, cyclists would sniff ether-soaked handkerchiefs to numb the pain in their legs.
“We run on dynamite,” boasted Francis Pélissier, a rider from the 1924 Tour de France, after explaining all the drugs he and his brother (a former winner of the Tour de France) took to stay in the race.
For more than 60 years there was no prohibition against the use of performance-enhancing substances, but in 1966 the Tour started drug testing its athletes.
Nearly 100 years of doping scandals came to a climax last year when Lance Armstrong revealed he’d used performance-enhancing drugs and was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles.
The Lance Armonstrong effect
Lance Armstrong was an icon in the cycling world. After conquering cancer he started the “Livestrong” Foundation, which was backed by Nike, a major presence at the Tour de France, until 2011, when allegations over Armstrong’s doping intensified.
Nike reportedly spent more than 40 million dollars for Armstrong’s endorsement before severing ties with the disgraced cyclist last year.
One of the most talked about ads in the history of Tour de France was Nike’s chalkbot, which won a 2010 Cyber Lions Grand Prix.
In partnership with the Livestrong Foundation, Nike wrote messages of cancer survival and encouragement, sent in by fans via text or Twitter, along the cyclists’ path.
Armstrong finally admitted he had cheated in all his races on The Oprah Winfrey Show in January, which led to a wave of brands fleeing the Tour.
Dutch financial services provider Rabobank, for instance, was a loyal sponsor of the race for 17 years and brought more than $20 million to the event annually.
Rabobank pulled their sponsorship from the race this year, releasing the following statement:
We are no longer convinced that the international professional world of cycling can make this a clean and fair sport. We are not confident that this will change for the better in the foreseeable future.
Rebranding for 100 years
This year, big name sponsors were replaced by smaller, less notable brands. Nike was replaced by French clothing manufacturer Le Coq Sportif and Rabobank was replaced by Belkin, an American electronics manufacturer.
Nevertheless, the Tour de France bounced back from all the negative press, with 17.1 million viewers tuning in to the opening stages, making it the highest opening in six years.
It helps that this year marks the race’s 100th anniversary, which the event’s marketers have been promoting through a series of videos that focus on the Tour’s rich history and the French landscape.
For the first time in 10 years, the route is limited to France. Noticeably absent in the videos, however, are shots of any recent winners.
It seems the organizers’ strategy has been to erase the past rather than confront it.
Armstrong’s name has been removed from the records and there are no first-place winners listed for the seven races he originally won. At this point, it’s hard to say whether the Tour de France will return to its former glory days. But everyone likes a comeback story, right?