Unless NTT Pro Cycling Team Principal, Doug Ryder, can find a new sponsor in the month or so, there’s a very good chance the team will fold, setting back South African and African cycling, and dealing a blow to the Qhubeka Charity it rides for.
Doug Ryder has a fight on his hands – perhaps the biggest of his career.
That’s after Japanese telecommunications company, NTT, announced that after six years of partnership with the team, which was formerly called Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka, it would be concluding its title sponsorship at the end of the 2020 season.
The fight Ryder has on his hands is for the future of his team, one he founded back in 2007 and which grew to become Africa’s first professional continental team and the first to ride the Tour de France in 2015.
And, to put it into perspective, the sort of money he’s looking for to save his team is not insignificant, even in European terms.
“He has a month to find around 15 million euros (R293m), so it’s not an easy task,” says Robbie Hunter, the former pro cyclist and the first South African to win a Tour de France stage.
Hunter is now a sports agent and Managing Director and co-owner of the agency, ProTouchGlobal, and he says he has a good sense of the challenge Ryder faces.
“That’s the minimum budget for a year for a World Tour team,” he says. “They have a month to find the funds, but no matter what sport, the times are not exactly conducive to sponsorship in sport.”
That would seemingly apply to NTT, as well, which seems to be refocusing its sponsorship efforts elsewhere, whilst at the same time not giving Ryder an enormous amount of time to find a new backer and save the team he built, even though discussions regarding the possible renewal of the sponsorship appear to have been ongoing for a while.
“While sport will continue to play an important role in the company’s partnership landscape, it will also now invest beyond sport in a wider range of partnerships that focus on the impact that technology can make in supporting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in the coming decade,” said Jason Goodall, CEO of NTT Ltd, which is a global technology services company and the holding entity of Dimension Data, following NTT’s acquisition of Di Data in 2010.
The statement went on to say that NTT would continue as the official technology partner of the Tour de France and that “its relationship with the Amaury Sports Organisation (which runs the Tour) remains unchanged.”
Reports out of the cycling world suggest that rumours about the future of the team’s sponsorship deal had been circulating for some time, but Ryder’s renowned tenacity appears to have kept alive hopes of NTT continuing to fund the team.
“This is of course is very disappointing news, but we are committed to fight for our team’s future and are exploring every possible avenue available to us,” said a NTT Pro Cycling statement. “Our partnership with the Qhubeka Charity has incredibly spanned 10 years and seen us play a key role in the distribution of over 100 000 bicycles in disadvantaged communities throughout South Africa. This relationship forms part of the foundation of our team and has seen us touch the hearts of people in every corner of the globe, from supporters, partners, staff and riders all sharing in the belief that bicycles change lives.”
Qhubeka is a South Africa-based charity that “moves people forward with bicycles in Africa.” People earn bicycles through its programmes, improving their access to schools, clinics and jobs.
It says, “a bicycle is a tool that helps people to travel faster and further, to generate income and to carry more. In the face of extreme and persistent poverty, bicycles can change lives by helping to address socio-economic challenges at the most basic level – helping people to get where they need to go.”
Ryder and Qhubeka Charity Founder, Anthony Fitzhenry, appear to have built a close bond over the past decade or so, and it’s clear that the relationship between the team and the charity goes far beyond just naming Qhubeka as its charity of choice.
“The team has been unique in that they put a charity and a cause central to what they do,” said a Qhubeka Charity response to questions put to it by this writer. “The team has also been great in providing hope and belief in what can be done. The proof of what can be done will remain, but the passage for any athlete or team from the continent of Africa to the top of the sport will become more challenging once again.”
Just about every communication out of NTT Pro Cycling references how seriously the team takes its responsibilities and commitment to Qhubeka, and how proud it is to have played a role in contributing to the number of bicycles it has.
“We are grateful for the team’s support and appreciate the encouragement and funding we have received over the years from the team, its sponsors, partners, riders, staff and fans,” said a Qhubeka statement. “The team helped introduce Qhubeka to the world and to spread our message that bicycles change lives. It is a sad day for us to see this stage of the journey drawing to a close.”
Qhubeka are not the only losers in the wake of the NTT decision.
“It’s sad for South African and African cycling,” says Hunter. “But it’s also a massive blow to the top tier of global cycling in general. It’s never good when a team vanishes and it obviously leaves the majority of South African and African athletes without jobs, which is not ideal in an already flooded market.”
According to Hunter, the whole NTT Pro Cycling operation will probably number in the region of 70 people, and that includes 38 riders – among them, South African cyclists, Ryan Gibbons, Louis Meintjes, Reinardt Janse van Rensburg, and Nicholas Dlamini.
“They are all looking for jobs currently and time is obviously running out for them as well,” he says.
Hunter also believes that Ryder has more than his work cut out for him, as he looks for a new sponsor, and concedes that there’s a good chance the team will cease to exist.
“Yes, that’s a big possibility,” he says. “They would lose their World Tour licence, which means even if they had to come back, they would have to go through a process to get to the top again. It’s not automatic entry.”
And what about the possibility of the team being bought out?
“The team licence can be bought for a fee, but nonetheless, they would need the funding to continue to run the team,” says Hunter. “Ideally, a smaller team like (US-based) Rally Cycling would like to move up to the World Tour, but then again, no matter who comes in, the identity of the team usually changes. Two teams joining is never an easy process.”
So, once again, we return to the fact that Ryder has an incredible fight on his hands.
But, if you speak to those close to him or those who have worked with the NTT Pro Cycling Team Principal, it’s a fight he’s up for and won’t concede until every possible avenue has been explored.
Right now, though, the future of South Africa’s premier international pro cycling team looks in serious doubt.