Lance Armstrong Ponders Buying the Tour de France

Yeah … this one isn’t an April Fool’s joke … from the Wall Street Journal, March 27, 2009.

Lance Armstrong Ponders Buying the Tour de France in Bid to Run Pro Cycling –

Lance’s Plan for France — Off the Bike
Seeking to Overhaul Cycling, Armstrong Played a Part in Talks to Buy the Tour

Lance Armstrong’s broken collarbone may not improve his chances of winning the Tour de France this year. But his aspirations for the race have gone farther than a record eighth victory.

In 2006, Mr. Armstrong embarked on an effort to overhaul professional cycling that, in some scenarios, would involve him owning a stake in cycling’s most prestigious race. The race is owned by a family-run French company that says it has been approached by numerous entities looking to buy the race over the years. It says the Tour de France is not for sale.

According to his agent, Bill Stapleton, Mr. Armstrong has discussed the idea of buying the Tour with investors and remains interested in creating an organization that would run professional cycling and include the Tour. There is no current effort underway to buy the Tour, he said.

It is highly unusual for an athlete to attempt to own a sporting event he has dominated. Mr. Armstrong’s ambitions reflect the unusually powerful position he holds in cycling. Mr. Armstrong and his associates see an opening in the disarray of professional cycling, a sport that has been stung by doping scandals and feuding rival race organizers.

The Tour de France, founded in 1903, is owned by Éditions Philippe Amaury, a family-run company outside of Paris. It’s unclear whether the French government, which has blocked foreign takeovers of companies it deems “national champions,” would allow a sale of the Tour.

“People have been trying to put together a deal here for a long time. Lance has got to be in the middle of any of that or else it doesn’t work. He is such a magnet,” says Thomas Weisel, an investment banker who helped Mr. Armstrong round up potential investors. Mr. Weisel owned Mr. Armstrong’s first professional cycling team as well as the team that Mr. Armstrong competed on when he won seven Tours de France.

Mr. Armstrong, 37, came out of retirement this year and plans to compete in the Tour de France this summer. He had surgery this week to repair a broken collarbone, and Mr. Stapleton commented on his behalf.

Professional cycling could use a bailout. It lacks a central organizing body, like the National Football League or National Basketball Association. Individual races compete for sponsors and don’t have bargaining power in deals for broadcast rights; they don’t centrally negotiate. Union Cycliste Internationale, or UCI, in Aigle, Switzerland, is the governing body for the sport but it doesn’t control any races.

UCI and Amaury Sport Organisation, the arm of French media conglomerate Éditions Philippe Amaury which organizes the Tour, say they have feuded for years over issues from sponsorship to race calendars. The intensely private French company has been run by Marie Odile Amaury since the death of her husband, Philippe, in 2006. Cycling’s lowest point came when the 2006 Tour winner was dethroned for failing a drug test after the race.

Mr. Armstrong “has the clout as an athlete and a champion and he has the right ability to steer a model and steer a business and the right people that can help him do that,” Mr. Stapleton says.

Mr. Armstrong, in a well-known comeback tale, was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1996, just as his career was taking off. After recovering, he won the 1999 Tour de France and proceeded to win it six more times in a row, becoming the world’s highest-paid cyclist and helping usher in a new era of sponsorship money and media attention for the sport. He eventually commanded an annual salary in the $3.5 million to $4 million range, while some of his teammates made as little as $15,000 a year. Mr. Armstrong has faced a number of doping accusations during his career, which he has denied. He has never been sanctioned. He retired in 2005, after winning his seventh Tour de France.

In fall 2006, at a Manhattan bar, Mr. Armstrong, his agent Mr. Stapleton, and hedge-fund manager David “Tiger” Williams, along with actor Jake Gyllenhaal, discussed how cycling could benefit from central ownership. Mr. Armstrong said no new organization could succeed unless it controlled the Tour de France, say Mr. Stapleton and others familiar with the discussion.

Afterward, Mr. Armstrong rounded up a number of wealthy cycling enthusiasts willing to help fund a potential acquisition of the Tour de France, say Messrs. Stapleton and Weisel. It would have cost about $1.5 billion at the time to buy the Tour, people familiar with the matter say.

Others were also looking. In July 2007, Messrs. Armstrong and Stapleton entertained another prospective plan to reorganize cycling from Wouter Vandenhaute, a Belgian television executive and former sportscaster, who has a plan he calls the “World Tour.” At the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris, Mr. Vandenhaute proposed a series of races with the Tour de France as the de facto Super Bowl of the season.

Mr. Vandenhaute was talking with Luxembourg-based private-equity firm CVC Capital Partners. CVC remains interested in a deal, though any deal is probably a long way off, a person familiar with the matter said. Mr. Stapleton says the idea could still pick up steam.

The global economic crisis has quelled deal making. Meanwhile, in cycling, the two main bodies — Tour de France owner Amaury and UCI — say their long-time feuding is abating. Pat McQuaid, president of UCI, says the sport is in a “healing phase.”

“We want peace,” said Tour de France general director Christian Prudhomme in a November interview.

That said, even with a truce, Mr. Stapleton and Mr. Armstrong believe the sport’s fundamental problems — the lack of a strong central organization — aren’t fixed, making a deal attractive. “Until there is an economic incentive that’s based on television rights and unified ownership,” Mr. Stapleton said, “the issue won’t be solved.”

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