The Prize Money Paradox

by Amy Jones

Words by Amy Jones | Photo by SWpix.com


When at last the women’s race season started at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, discussion centered around how SD Worx (formerly, Boels Dolmans) had deployed their trademark team tactics to pull off yet another win. It wasn’t long after the race, however, that the conversation took a different turn; to that of prize money.

In the following days after the race the figures €900 and €16,000 bounced around cycling Twitter —  boosted by a pie chart from the group Internationelles —  held up to show that Anna van der Breggen’s win was worth (in financial terms) 5% of Davide Ballerini’s.

Such is the nature of online debate that a binary argument emerged, with one side advocating for equal prize money, no questions asked, and the other cautioning that there are much bigger fish to fry — namely live TV coverage.

Tomas van den Spiegel, the CEO of Flanders Classics — the group that owns the race — came to his organisation’s defence saying he was “quite disappointed” with the backlash after “all the financial investments we have made into women’s cycling for years now.”

Van den Spiegel pointed to an equality-driven initiative from Flanders Classics dubbed ‘Closing the Gap’ launched in early 2020, within which they have set several goals. They claim to be working towards full equality by 2023, including upgrading the level of one women’s race each season (Omloop Het Nieuwsblad went from 1.1 in 2020 to 1.Pro in 2021) and equal prize money.

How are we supposed to show investors, stakeholders and even would-be fans that women’s cycling is worth just as much as the men’s when figures like that show in real terms that it is not?

Elsewhere on social media, many appeared to assert that instead of challenging inequalities we must instead celebrate — and be thankful for — incremental change as it comes. But while it is true that of course we should celebrate the wins and progress, applauding progress and campaigning for further change do not need to be mutually exclusive.

Lizzy Banks of Ceratizit-WNT told CyclingNews last Thursday: “The topic of prize money is a difficult one, and there is no magic answer, but it’s a conversation that needs to be had and it’s all part of creating an environment where women feel valued.”

Ultimately, to treat this as an ‘either-or’ situation is to miss the overarching reality that in order to drive forward change people need to buy in, both ideologically and literally. How are we supposed to show investors, stakeholders and even would-be fans that women’s cycling is worth just as much as the men’s when figures like that show in real terms that it is not? And what of the UCI’s responsibility in this? In the wake of the debate and the stark visuals illustrating the discrepancy many were questioning why topping up the women’s prize pot from the men’s couldn’t be the answer. It’s a fair question, especially when the men who would benefit from it are unlikely to miss it. The road block in this instance is none other than the governing body itself, who mandate a lower limit for prize money on men’s WorldTour events. Ironically, for the last five years the UCI have themselves had equal prize money in their world title events, such as the recent world cyclo cross championships.

In the end, fans of women’s cycling quite literally put their money where their mouths were after a GoFundMe was launched by Cem Tanyeri in an attempt to supplement the women’s prize money ahead of Strade. The final total stood at around €22,000,surpassing the men’s prize pot. Of course, the paradox of starting a GoFundMe to top up prize money is that — while it illustrates the appetite and support for women’s cycling — it also removes responsibility from both the organisers and the UCI. 

As the GoFundMe gathered traction, a new camp emerged; arguing that campaigning for more prize money only benefits a small portion of the upper-echelons of the women’s peloton who barely need it, and therefore doesn’t advance the cause. Of course, by the same token, the men’s peloton shouldn’t need to be awarded prize money at all.

Ultimately, prize money probably isn’t the hill to die on when it comes to pushing women’s cycling forward, but rather something that will surely come organically off the back of more important structural changes such as increased live tv coverage and provisions for teams.

The response to the disparity has been an emotional one that speaks to the symbolism of such unequal prize funds rather than one that is rooted in practicalities. And that is fine, because what this debate has achieved is to highlight how far there is to go, and, in a round-about way, it has actually united those with womens’ cycling’s best interests at heart reigniting debates around the inequalities and injustices that the women’s peloton face. For most of those on either side of this issue, parity is the collective end goal. The reality is, however, that there is more than one road to reach it.

Photo: Equal prize money at world championships, such as the recent cross World’s, has been the norm since 2016

If you enjoyed this, why not try our review of the 2020 season
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