Armstrong's 'Tour' Run Boosts TV Ratings

Lance Armstrong is once again in the driver's seat as cyclists race toward Sunday's conclusion of the Tour de France. The American TV audience for the competition has grown substantially as Armstrong has pedaled to six straight Tour victories. But it could drop once he retires. Wall Street Journal sportswriter Stefan Fatsis discusses the business of the Tour with Robert Siegel.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

With just two days to go, Lance Armstrong looks to be guaranteed a seventh consecutive victory in the Tour de France. On a hilly ride through the massive Saint Carl Mountains(ph) today, he stayed two minutes and 46 seconds ahead of his closest challenger. Stefan Fatsis of The Wall Street Journal is with us, as he is most Fridays.

Welcome back, Stefan.

Mr. STEFAN FATSIS (The Wall Street Journal): Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: And what does Lance still have to do to win?

Mr. FATSIS: Not fall off his bicycle. And even if he does fall off his bicycle, actually...

SIEGEL: He can still win.

Mr. FATSIS: ...he can still win, because two minutes and 46 seconds is a lot of time in bike racing. Tomorrow, there is an individual time trial, and that means all of the riders race against the clock. Armstrong historically has been very good in these events. Then on Sunday, the remaining 150 or so racers go into Paris, and the tradition is that if the leader has a decent lead, there will be no major challenges, so this will be more of a coronation than anything else.

SIEGEL: Now Lance Armstrong, of course, has announced that he is retiring after this race, and he's pretty much transformed interest in this sport here in the US, especially on cable television.

Mr. FATSIS: Yeah, the Outdoor Life Network started carrying the Tour de France in 2001, after Armstrong had already won the race twice. But even though he had already beaten cancer, and he had already been the subject of a big best seller, he still wasn't this transcendent superhero, the guy that he is now. So in 2001 and 2002, the audience on the Outdoor Life Network was quite small, mostly cycling enthusiasts. But when Armstrong went for his record-tying fifth straight Tour de France win, the audience more than doubled. And this year, even with Armstrong a virtual lock for the last few days, OLN has drawn around 1.6 million viewers a day, up around 30 percent over last year.

SIEGEL: Thirty percent over last year. Well, certainly, a lot of these viewers are new fans of cycling, fans who have probably been created by Lance Armstrong. Are they going to tune back in next year, or is the sport likely to face a post-Lance Armstrong depression?

Mr. FATSIS: I don't think anyone in the cycling industry thinks that there won't be a big drop-off. This is sort of like after Michael Jordan retired, there was a natural decline in interest in the NBA; or when Tiger Woods isn't leading or close to leading a golf tournament, fans...

SIEGEL: Or not playing in a golf tournament.

Mr. FATSIS: ...or not playing in a golf tournament--people just don't tune in. These new fans of cycling just aren't enough. OLN stopped covering two other big European races because the audience it was getting was miniscule, something like 50,000 people. OLN is committed to the Tour de France for several more years, so this year, they've made an effort to do more than just follow Lance around France. Prime time coverage has been geared to casual riders and fans, not just spokeheads. OLN has kept tabs on other American riders. They've tried to create some name recognition. And they're also trying to make the telecast more appealing. On Sunday, as they race around the Champs Elysees, there are going to be tiny cameras on the backs of the seats of some of the riders.

SIEGEL: Well, the post-Lance Armstrong era, I guess, starting on Monday is also critical to Armstrong's team sponsor, the Discovery Channel. How does Discovery keep its investment relevant without its star, Lance Armstrong?

Mr. FATSIS: Well, they just keep him around. Discovery is paying 10 or $15 million a year for three years, but the company knew that Lance was likely to retire before this deal ended. Now the guy is an icon, and Discovery doesn't necessarily need him to be on the bike in order to succeed and draw the attention that it wants from this sponsorship. So Lance likely will be a commentator on sporting events on Discovery. There are plans for him to develop and host health-related programming on some of Discovery's channels. And he'll be the face of Discovery's cycling team even if he's not leading it on the road.

SIEGEL: But somebody will have to lead the team on the road, and it seems part of the problem here is how many of those new cycling fans know the names of any other cyclists other than Lance Armstrong?

Mr. FATSIS: Well, Lance does know the names, and Lance will be front and center in picking the new leader of the Discovery Team. So presumably, that's going to carry a lot of weight with cycling fans. And casual fans are going to continue watching Lance. There are a few Americans on Discovery who are potential candidates: George Hincapie, who's a close friend of Armstrong's, he's in 17th place right now. There's a Ukrainian named Yaroslav Popovych who's in 13th place. There's a younger rider named Tom Danielson who is highly touted, but he missed this year's Tour de France because of an injury. Or Discovery could recruit someone off of another team to replace Armstrong.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Stefan.

Mr. FATSIS: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: Stefan Fatsis, sportswriter for The Wall Street Journal, who talks with us Fridays about sports and the business of sports.

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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