The Economics of Tour De France Breakaways

Andrew Leonard finds

a great piece of microeconomic analysis in

the sports pages, of all places, from the NYT’s Edward Wyatt:

It should not be surprising then, that the racers’ strategies and their

sponsors’ goals may coincide. While every sponsor wants to see one of

its riders cross the finish line first, there can only be one winner of each

stage. But there is another, relatively simple way for a sponsor to get hours

of television time: the breakaway…

Most often, a breakaway can look like an exercise in futility — a few

cyclists riding alone for hours, only to be caught by the pack within a mile

or two of the finish. Even when the group makes it alone to the end of the

stage, the charge to the finish inevitably brings disappointment for all but

one of the riders — disappointment that would appear to outweigh the


Not for the sponsors, however.

“It’s just a great advertising board,” said Bradley Wiggins,

a British rider who went on a solo breakaway of 118 miles in the sixth stage.

Wiggins’s effort was particularly appreciated at the offices of his

team’s sponsor, Cofidis, a French company that provides consumer loans.

And there you were, thinking breakaways were just an attempt to win the stage.

How naive. Leonard is not so unhappy, however.

This news is at once enlightening and disconcerting. I’m not sure I wanted

to know the crass motivations underlying the valiant breakaway. Instead of

"win a stage for the Gipper," it’s "stay in front a few hours

before you lose for the Discovery Channel!" Woo hoo!

But upon reflection, I am satisfied by this even deeper truth about

existence. The motivations that drive us are invariably more complex than

a surface glance reveals: every stab for glory provides for cover for less

glittery incentives.

What’s interesting to me is the viewership figures: apparently half of France’s

television audience is tuned in to the Tour. I guess the absence of stars and

the ubiquity of doping scandals has done nothing to dampen the sport’s popularity

in its spiritual home.

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