If you want to know about the dangers of corporate sponsorship, ask T-Mobile. One of its team’s riders in the Tour de France has been suspended after positive drug test results came through, but only after he had withdrawn following a collision with a spectator.
Two German television channels have stopped Tour coverage – which means the dedicated fan has one obvious place to go: the website. T-Mobile can’t switch its website off, much as it might like to, so it is having to manage its reputation as best it can. And that is exactly what it is doing.
For me a bicycle is a way to get around; I know little of the sporting side. But I assumed that corporate sponsors of the Tour would be exploiting the web like mad. Some are – including T-Mobile – but many are not.
This is a surprise. After all, dedicated followers of any sport want to know everything they can about their teams, or heroes, and the web is unbeatable at storing and generating huge quantities of facts, numbers and stories.
A site should surely be a feast for the fan, and a powerful brand-booster for the sponsor. Yet despite Rabobank spending $13.2m on its sponsorship this year, and also having one of the top riders in Michael Rasmussen, its cycle coverage is restricted to a subset of its Dutch banking site (www.rabobank.nl).This has news, comments, interviews and articles, but nothing to gorge the data-hungry fan. The Dutch version has RaboSport TV, with more interviews and snippets, but this is still some way from the cutting edge (and also inaccessible to the anglophone masses).
Before getting back to T-Mobile, I must point to a couple of sites that are worth examining for quite different reasons. Team Astana is sponsored by Kazakhstan Railways, Kazakhmys, Kazzinc and others – as you may have guessed, they are from Kazakhstan. The official site (www.team-astana.eu) is quite basic, though it does have some video, but it sensibly takes the opportunity to tell us all about the country. A Kazakhstan link (which worked only in the French version when I tried) leads to a guide to the country, including a mass of photos. Why not? Kazakhstan needs its reputation managed, post-Borat, and this seems like a good way of doing it, in principle at least.
The team sponsored by the Discovery Channel (team.discovery.com) is, as you might expect, rather flashier, with a big and a small ‘f’. As well as a smattering of videos, the ‘special features’ are worth examining. Look at the 2006 Trek Team Issue SPA bike, which is used for one day while bumping over the cobbles of Belgium. Click to learn more than you probably need to know about the design of the bottle cage. That’s what I like about the web – it never has to worry about running out of space, so it can give you itsy-bitsy detail you would never get in any other way.
The T-Mobile site (www.t-mobile-team.com) is much better than either of these, because it is boundless in the detail it gives the enthusiast. Here is video (specially handy, given the lack of coverage of television), slideshows, huge detail on the team, and huge detail on the course. Click a stage number to see all the statistics generated on that day, with times, points, climbers, youth classification – numbers, lots of numbers.
Best of all, click Live Coverage while the race is going on, and you are in a Flash-powered panel of fun. I admit to getting confused, and I have a feeling that T-Mobile may be too, because it was showing the previous day’s date on ‘live data’. But in principle at least it is all quite marvellous.
The first window has a number of panels. In one you see where riders are on a cross-section of the route, another shows how they are grouped, another gives a text commentary, and another has information on individual riders. I clicked SRM Data above this, and found myself watching a red dot moving across a Google Earth hybrid map. Clicking again, I could see the vital statistics of each rider, which in this context meant heart rate, speed, power in Watts and ‘cadence’ (the speed his legs were whizzing round, apparently).
This is squeezing the most out of the worldwide web, making the most of its abilities. But what about the less happy side of the race? The site home page has a news story headed ‘Sinkewitz suspended by T-Mobile Team’, leading to a straightforward press statement. A link at the bottom leads to another story: ‘Sinkewitz’s Tour over after freak accident’, where the reporting is a little more emotional (‘T-Mobile’s horror-day continued post-race Sunday when Patrick Sinkewitz was involved in a freak collision with a spectator’).
It seems to me that T-Mobile is managing its reputation as best it can – by playing it straight, and not trying to ignore what everyone (well, people who care) already know. A combination of honesty and a first rate service to its fans may, just may, help it get through its horror-week.