Only two editions of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift have taken place but already the race is pulling money into the sport. The most recent beneficiary is SD Worx, winner of four stages, the general classification and the points classification at the Tour in 2023.
On Wednesday, SD Worx announced a new addition to the front of their jerseys before the team officially kicked off the 2024 season: Protime. The “workforce-management” company sponsored the team last season but wasn’t a front-of-the-jersey sponsor. This year, they are stepping it up. According to the Protime CEO, the Tour was what sealed the deal.
“We already entered as a shirt sponsor last year just before the Tour de France Femmes and saw directly its positive impact. As a result, we wanted to continue full steam ahead,” said Protime CEO Gille Sebrechts in a press release of the announcement.
Protime is technically part of SD Worx, an independent member of the group, so the money coming into the team next year isn’t exactly “new.” It just means that the larger SD Worx company is increasing their investment in the team and putting forward one of its other brands to reap the benefits of being front and centre in the women’s peloton.
The increased sponsorship will mean more funds for the most dominant team of the 2023 season, but it’s not the only team that got a boost thanks to that little race around France. The addition of Protime to the SD Worx jersey is just another sign that the “Tour de France effect” is working.
“One of the most exciting developments from the visibility of the Tour de France avec Zwift and how it’s really going to change the game is more sponsors wanting to get on board,” Kate Veronneau, Director of Women’s Strategy at Zwift, told Escape Collective. “They recognize the high value, the attention, the incredible social media, the content that’s coming out of it and wanting a piece of that, feeling like it’s fresh, it’s exciting.
“It’s a great investment in the bike world right now. I’ve heard from both Canyon-SRAM and FDJ-Suez, directly from them, that more sponsors are coming to the table. Especially FDJ-Suez, they were so excited after even the first Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift.”
“The renewed and increased interest in women’s cycling over the last five years, especially linked with the new version of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift, has had a direct impact on our team,” Stephen Delcourt, General Manager of FDJ-Suez, explained to us. “New sponsors came on board with us, Suez and also CB, while we managed to keep our historic sponsors like Futuroscope.”
“We also noticed a widening effect on our local cycling ecosystem. Local partners came in numbers to our events in France and showed interest in new forms of support, often during races or milestones events.”
Indeed, multiple teams including Human Powered Health and Roland (formerly Israel-Premier Tech Roland) applied to join the women’s WorldTour for the 2022 season solely because they wanted a guaranteed entry into the Tour de France Femmes. The now-folded EF Education-TIBCO-SVB team also sought a deal with EF Education for the funding required to join the Women’s WT so they could race the Tour. Although the team is gone now, EF Education stuck with the sport, becoming EF Education-Cannondale, a Continental-level team attached to the men’s WorldTour team, that is determined not only to race the Tour but win it in the years to come. They have cited the Tour as a major reason for their interest in the sport.
At another time, the loss of TIBCO and SVB would have meant a women’s team no longer existed. A whole team of riders, staff, and everyone involved behind the scenes would have been out of a job. But not in 2023, when the importance of women’s cycling is only on the rise. Even if the team is only Continental for the first year or two, it’s a sign of the confidence EF Education has in the sport that they wanted to own the team themselves.
Not every team has seen an increased budget because of the one race, but the growing importance of having a women’s team attached to the men’s has made an impact on some of the men’s WorldTour outfits. Lidl-Trek started their women’s team back in 2019, for them the extra exposure from the Tour de France Femmes is great, and of course, the impact of the race makes it a huge target for the team, but it wasn’t the reason Lidl signed on. When the supermarket brand wanted to get involved in cycling they were in search of a team that had an established women’s team they could be proud of. They found that in Trek’s squad.
Similarly, Visma-Lease a Bike was asked by their sponsors to start a women’s team, so they did in 2021.
AG Insurance-Soudal, the newest member of the Women’s WorldTour alongside the long-running Ceratizit-WNT team, gained interest from the men’s Soudal-Quick Step team in 2022 when it became clear to sponsors of the men’s team that adding a women’s team to the mix would be beneficial to the team’s future, despite team boss Patrick Lefevere saying he’s “not a welfare centre” in 2021 when he was asked about starting a women’s team.
For a smaller non-WT team like Coop-Repsol (previously Coop-Hitec Products), just being in the race increased the number of riders who applied to the team by an outrageous number. According to manager Karl Lima, the team was getting at least ten CVs a day from young riders and experienced riders alike asking to join the team for the 2024 season.
“We all know that that’s what it actually takes to change the game,” Veronneau said. “Money being pumped into the sport and people wanting to be a part of it, because then also all the sponsors that are doing such a great job with the content, they don’t just see this as slapping their name on something, they see this as a true partnership with the teams. They’re being creative and having a lot of fun with the riders and teams as ambassadors for their brands.”
In the two years the race has been going on the exposure is already impacting the sport, the sponsors, the teams, heck even Escape Collective gets a boost in clicks when the race rolls around.
In France alone, nearly 20 million people tuned in to watch the women’s race last summer. Two million viewers watched each individual stage on France’s free channels France 2 and France 3, with a peak of 4.3 million viewers during the Col du Tourmalet stage seven won by Demi Vollering. Additionally, online streaming platforms in France saw a jump of 8% from the 2022 edition of the race.
The Tour de France Femmes website saw 4.5 million visits, up 60.7% from the previous year, and 74.4 million views on social media. Throughout the race, the women’s Tour social media had more than 100 million views. Germany and Spain had the second-highest viewer figures behind France.
“As a name sponsor, your brand gets much more visibility wherever the team is at the start,” explained SD Worx CEO Kobe Verdonck in the Protime announcement. “The international environment of cycling helps us perfectly in our ambition to be the leading European supplier in HR solutions.”
Cyclingnews reported a total of 2.3 million site views during the women’s event, more than they get during the men’s Giro d’Italia.
After the first edition in 2022, Zwift, the title sponsor, reported a cumulative audience of 23.2 million people over the eight stages. The virtual cycling company presented numbers that indicated the Tour de France Femmes is helping grow the reach of women’s cycling by combining the social media stats for the top five women’s races in 2021 compared to the same races in 2022. Reach and engagement was up 300%.
The Tour of Scandinavia that took place eight days after the 2022 Tour reported viewer numbers of 4.6 million live views on Eurosport, and that number was estimated to be closer to 16 million viewers when factoring in TV, other online streams, and delayed viewers.
The top 35 riders in the 2022 race also saw increased social media followings averaging 8.6%, teams that participated got a 4.3% boost during the race, with more in the weeks after the race.
“[Zwift has] already seen a significant impact, especially in terms of our social reach and web hits, also sales of trainers spike during the Tour big time, we’re definitely seeing our women’s numbers, especially in key markets, start to go up,” Veronneau said. “We’re very happy with the investment so far.”
For Zwift, supporting the women’s Tour, along with Paris-Roubaix Femmes avec Zwift and a couple of the women’s teams, has increased their brand loyalty from consumers. Women are likelier to be loyal to brands that align with their values. A fan of women’s cycling is more likely to back the brands they associate with a team or race because, in their eyes, they are supporting something worth believing in.
“When [women] do align with the values of a brand, we feel like that they support things that we care about, you know, we’re going to be more loyal to that brand,” Veronneau explained.
We saw it with Visma-Lease a Bike, EF Education-Cannondale, and AG Insurance-Soudal. Sponsors who understand the importance of their brands aligning with their consumer base pushed for their men’s teams to expand into the women’s peloton.
“Customers and prospects regularly talk to us about our commitment to further professionalise women’s cycling and about giving young talent opportunities to develop as top athletes,” said SD Worx’s Verdonck.
In addition to the loyalty of cycling fans, Veronneau finds the women’s peloton an easier place to make an impact and stand out amongst the chaos.
“There are so many sponsors with the men’s Tour, but sponsoring the women’s teams and the women’s Tour right now is still pretty new. So you can really stand out, it’s a real opportunity for brands to combine their values with a strong, smart investment.”
“Consumers are putting pressure on brands, they’re telling brands that they want to see more parity,” Veronneau added. “They’re demonstrating it in their purchases that they appreciate that support, especially across women’s sports.
“Fans of women’s sports are fabulous consumers.”
With the increased exposure on social media, on television and streaming, and in the media, Protime is one of many brands that are diving headfirst into women’s cycling. The SD Worx company is committed to supporting the team through 2026.
The 2024 season will be a pivotal year for women’s cycling. With the Olympics just a few weeks before the third edition of the Tour de France Femmes those viewer numbers will no doubt increase yet again. Brands that are investing in women’s cycling now are no doubt hoping for sustainability and long-term success for the sport.
The future is promising, as more teams mine for bigger budgets, but it’s still early days. For now, it’s a game of wait-and-see. Wait and see if the Tour de France Femmes can keep that momentum going and continue to expand their reach. Wait and see if the teams can continue to pull in the budget to build resources for their women. And wait and see if this new commitment to SD Worx will make them even more unstoppable than they were in 2023.
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