Duncan Steer

Tour’s finances still based on post-War model, according to new book

Tadej Pogacar picked up $528,000 [£430,000] for his 2021 win - but the Tour's total prize fund is 90 per cent smaller than Wimbledon's. (Getty Images)
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A huge global TV audience has made the Tour de France one of the most lucrative sports events in Europe, yet its finances remain vague, according to Alex Duff, author of Le Fric: Family, Power and Money; the Business of the Tour de France.

Only three people are guaranteed to benefit directly from this year’s Tour de France: Marie-Odile Amaury, 81, and her two children. The Amaury family are the sole owners of the Amaury Sports Organisation [ASO], the company that has run the Tour since 1947, the first post-War edition.

And, while the Tour’s revenues will top 100 million euros again this year, the 22 competing teams will receive only around 50,000 euros each towards their expenses from the organisers.

The Tour’s business model was forged in the aftermath of France’s liberation from Nazi occupation in 1944. The story is told in a new page-turner, ‘Le Fric,’ by Alex Duff, whose previous book turned the spotlight on the dark side of the football transfer market.

“When I covered the 2007 Tour de France for Bloomberg, I tried to work out who was getting rich out of this whole event,” Duff told Stelvio. “I wanted to know exactly who ASO were. I wanted to know more about how the Amaury family got to that position, so I started digging into the history of it.

“Marie-Odile Amaury is the daughter-in-law of the founding father (Emilien Amaury) who started the ASO empire. Obviously, the organisation has a lot of staff who set the route and manage it day-to-day. But every major decision goes through Mme Amaury and her two children – they own the Tour de France 100 per cent.

“They also own Paris-Roubaix, Paris-Nice, the Paris Marathon, and the Dakar Rally. Altogether, the revenue from all their events is 250m euros a year. Most analysts think the Tour de France accounts for more than half of that but there’s no way of knowing exactly. Every year the family take dividends of between 20-30m euros from the company.”

Until the 1980s explosion in the value of TV rights, the Tour lost money every year. It was regarded as a marketing expense for ASO, who used it to promote their papers, L’Equipe and Le Parisien Libere. Now, though, the increasingly globalised Tour is a money-spinner.

“In most sports, the TV revenue is shared among the teams,” explains Duff. “In football’s Premier League, more than 90 per cent goes to the teams. In F1, it’s 60 per cent, maybe more. In the Tour de France, it’s zero.

“Whatever you think about the rights and wrongs of that, the way the Tour revenue is divided is, at the very least, unorthodox.

“The family’s main interest, I suppose, is to preserve the Tour as a spectacle. They are not the governing body of the sport. You might say, on the plus side, that the Amaury family has kept the Tour traditional by not selling out to private equity firms that might have tried to squeeze as much money out of it as possible. On the other hand, if ASO wanted the sport as a whole to develop and continue to compete with other sports for public attention, they could share more money with the teams.

“But then again if you gave more money to the teams, maybe they would just spend it on bigger riders’ salaries, which wouldn’t necessarily help the sport as a whole.”

Even prize money for the Tour has plateaued in recent years. “ASO pushed up the prize money quite steeply in their first decades in charge to make sure the top riders still came. But since the 1990s and 2000s doping scandals, the family have pushed back on prize money.”

The Tour’s prize fund this year is the same as last year: $2.7m [£2.2m], with the winner getting $528,000 [£430,000]. (The total prize fund at Wimbledon is over 15 times as much).

In the early 2010s, teams, the UCI and Sky TV held talks about a new World Series of Cycling designed to challenge ASO’s dominance of TV revenues. The idea ultimately petered out. Deep into the 21st Century, the biggest race in world cycling is still built on a deal carved out in the aftermath of World War II.

“The post-war French government went about reshaping the media, which had been controlled by the Nazis. Basically, the entire newspaper industry started again from scratch in 1944. All the existing publishers were kicked out, including the owners of L’Auto who had invented the Tour back in 1903.

“That left lots of scope for people like Émilien Amaury, who had been involved in secret Resistance newsletters. Amaury went from being a small-time resistance publisher to being a big media magnate within a few weeks. And with that, came the opportunity to own the Tour de France.”

How well the arrangements made in the immediate post-War period suit a global sport in the digital age is, suggests Duff, a moot point. It’s clear too, that many of the World Tour’s top teams feel the same way. But, in Duff’s hands, the Tour’s financial pot-boiler makes for a riveting read.

Le Fric: Family, Power and Money; the Business of the Tour de France by Alex Duff is out now, published by Constable.

 

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