Television broadcast company Sky will end its sponsorship of Team Sky at the end of 2019. The split will conclude what must surely be one of the most successful collaborations in cycling of all time. Sky has sponsored the outfit since it was founded in 2010 with the goal of cultivating the first-ever British winner of the Tour de France, and the team has won the race six times since with three Britons, Bradley Wiggins (2012), Chris Froome (2013, 2015, 2016, and 2017), and Geraint Thomas (2018).
“We came into cycling with the aim of using elite success to inspire greater participation at all levels,” says Jeremy Darroch, Sky Group’s chief executive. “After more than a decade of involvement, I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve achieved. But the end of 2019 is the right time for us to move on as we open a new chapter in Sky’s story and turn our focus to different initiatives.”
In an open letter to fans Wednesday morning, team manager David Brailsford explained that the departure was a function of changes at the television company, not the cycling team. “There has been a lot of change at Sky recently. It is the start of a new chapter for the company,” Brailsford wrote. Following Disney’s acquisition last summer of Rupert Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox, the company relinquished its stake in Sky. That meant the departure of James Murdoch, the main benefactor of the team, leading to speculation that the team could be on the chopping block. Team Sky denied those rumors at the time.
The news is an end cap to what has already been a tumultuous few years for Team Sky. In 2016, the team’s first Tour de France winner, Bradley Wiggins, was embroiled in scandal when it was revealed that he was given Therapeutic Use Exemptions for the banned steroid triamcinolone ahead of his 2012 Tour de France victory. In September 2017, Chris Froome failed a drug test for the asthma medication salbutamol on his way to his first Vuelta a España title. The UCI eventually cleared Froome, though no explanation of the decision was made, and it came only after months of uncertainty that tarnished the first half of the 2018 season. And while the team was fending off those accusations, a British government agency published a report that accused Sky of system abuses and ethical lapses.
Consensus in the industry is that Sky’s departure isn’t a reaction to the scandal but simply an inevitable progression based on business, as Brailsford said. “It’s no surprise, given Sky have been in the peloton since 2010, that they are quitting,” retired pro racer Alberto Contador told Cyclingnews. “Most title sponsors come in, become a familiar part of the peloton and then, after five years or so, they’re gone and try another sport. I wish all the sponsors lasted nine or ten years [like Sky].”
Despite all the recent scandals, Sky has continued to win, scoring victories at both the 2018 Giro d’Italia with Froome and the 2018 Tour de France with Geraint Thomas. Perhaps bolstered by the ongoing success, Brailsford was upbeat about both 2019, as well as the prospects for the future—even without Sky as title sponsor. “Nothing changes for next year. Sky are fully committed to the end of 2019 and we have ambitious goals for the season,” he wrote. Since the news, Chris Froome has announced he will target a record-tying fifth win at this year’s Tour de France.
Brailsford also said he’s hopeful that he will be able to find a replacement sponsor to allow the team to continue forward. That won’t be an easy task, given Team Sky’s astronomical budget—estimated to be between $40 million and $50 million annually. On the other hand, Brailsford’s history of stunning success should make the search easier. Indeed, bike sponsor Pinarello has committed to supporting Sky beyond 2019, and the team already seems to have at least one possible suitor in the form a new Chinese WorldTour team. Brailsford set the 2019 Tour de France as a deadline for deciding on the fate of the team, leaving himself just six months to secure a new sponsor.
Said Brailsford, “Rest assured, we are not done yet by any means.”