Monday, July 23, 2007

France: Sporting jewel struggles to retain shine

by Will Bryan
Street and Smith's SportsBusiness Journal
Published July 23, 2007

The Tour de France again this year is drawing an international spotlight to the French landscape, the country’s local traditions and its sporting culture. Spectators from around the world are lining the nation’s roads this month to watch the competition across its 23 days and 2,200 miles.

They’re also watching a race drawing an unprecedented amount of scrutiny. While doping allegations have swirled around the Tour and its competitors for years, the events of this past year have left a significant mark on the race and its sport.

Only a week after the event’s organizers last month decided to strip 1996 champion Bjarne Riis of his title after his admission of doping, event and team sponsor T-Mobile decided to move its reported $1.3 million investment away from advertising with Germany’s national TV coverage of the event and toward that country’s national antidoping agency instead.

Before this year’s race, competitors were asked to sign an antidoping charter. It was a move aimed, in part, at increasing public confidence in the event’s competition and its competitors.

Meanwhile, last year’s champion, Floyd Landis, continues to fight doping charges against him, having been found guilty of drug use four days after winning last year’s yellow jersey.

Landis’ victory came after Lance Armstrong’s run of seven consecutive Tour wins from 1999 to 2005. U.S. television viewership of the race grew along with Armstrong’s title count, culminating with an average of 607,250 viewers for race coverage on OLN (now Versus) in 2005.

By comparison, last year’s OLN coverage averaged 287,000 viewers.

Versus President Gavin Harvey said the increased scrutiny of this year’s Tour won’t affect the network’s coverage of the race.

“We don’t intend to do anything different this time around,” Harvey said. “Our job is to cover the most grueling and intense sporting event on the planet. We don’t need to editorialize about the doping issues.”

Harvey added that a strong showing by the U.S.-based Discovery Channel team could help ratings. In addition, he said, no advertisers have withdrawn from the network’s coverage of the event citing doping concerns.

“Like all networks hoping for good ratings, we know that what ends up happening in the race will ultimately affect how interested Americans are,” Harvey said. “But I will say that it seems like Americans are far less appalled by the doping issues than Europeans are. Maybe they are happy that the Tour is actually doing something about the problem.”

The Tour is arguably France’s most visible sporting event, but cycling is not the only sport that captures the nation’s attention. The French national soccer team won the FIFA World Cup title in 1998, when it also served as the event’s host. The team advanced to the finals of the 2006 competition before losing to Italy, a match remembered by most for Zinedine Zidane’s headbutting of a Italian player.

In tennis, last month marked the conclusion of the 2007 French Open, an event whose international history dates to 1925. France’s Amelie Mauresmo, a former world No. 1, ranks No. 6 worldwide, and Marion Bartoli ranks No. 11 after her upset run to the Wimbledon finals earlier this month.

In addition, basketball’s presence in the country continues to grow, fueled by both domestic efforts and NBA influences.

Tony Parker and the San Antonio Spurs competed in Paris last year as part of the NBA Europe Live Tour exhibition. Parker is one of seven NBA players from France who played in the league last season, and five of those seven competed on playoff teams.

France’s team in last year’s FIBA World Championship included NBA players Boris Diaw, Johan Petro and Mickael Pietrus.

“The main catalyst for the growth of French basketball has come from the exposure of the French national team,” said Matthieu Van Veen, NBA senior director of international television and media. “When you have stars like Tony Parker and Boris Diaw [of the Phoenix Suns] come back to compete successfully in their home country, people become more excited about the sport.”

The French Basketball Federation manages the sport domestically. Its oversight spans from amateur leagues that enroll players as young as 16 years old to the country’s pro and national teams.

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