Commentary: Does a cycling team really equal success for some sponsors?

In July I am captivated by bicycle racing, specifically the Tour de France.

I am in awe of athletes who can perform at that level in a three-week endurance test over more than 3,000 kilometers, and I have come to appreciate the strategy, planning and subtle skills demanded by a sport where individuals excel but can't win without their team.

Competing in the Tour de France has been compared to running 20 marathons in 20 days. If the Tour is not the most grueling, most demanding athletic event in the world, what is?

On top of which, the saga of Lance Armstrong is one of the most incredible and thrilling stories in all of sports and perhaps in all of life. Armstrong, who is on the verge of winning his fourth consecutive Tour de France, recovered from a metastasized cancer that kills two-thirds of patients within a year to become probably the greatest bicycle racer ever.

But there is one thing I don't understand: How come the U.S. Postal Service (that is, the Post Office) sponsors a pro bicycle racing team?

This is an outfit that lost $1.6 billion last year, that has accumulated debts of $13 billion, that will receive more than $76 million from the U.S. Treasury in 2002 and that expects still greater losses this year despite having just raised the price of a first-class stamp from 34 to 37 cents. And they have the money to sponsor a pro bicycle team?

One might also wonder about Deutsche Telekom, which also sponsors a team in the Tour de France despite having lost gobs of money for six consecutive quarters and being $67 billion in debt.

Hans Ehnert, a spokesman for Deutsche Telekom in Bonn, declined to say how much the company spends on its pro bicycling sponsorship but said it promoted the "Team Telekom" idea both inside the company and to the world at large.

"We took that team idea from the cycling team to all over the company," he said, adding: "The name of our company linked with cycling is one of the best-known sponsorships in Germany. Our ads and everything are signed Team Telekom. We are presenting ourselves as a team."

He said that marketing research showed that its sports sponsorships were very successful and added, "It's absolutely nonsense asking 'Why are you doing that and having losses?'"

Deutsche Telekom used to be owned by the German government, but it is now a private company in which the government is the largest shareholder, with 43 percent of the stock.

The U.S. Postal Service, on the other hand, is a quasi-independent agency that Congress set up in 1971 to run as a private business. But it is wholly owned by the U.S. government that is, the taxpayers (of which I am one).

Despite its public nature, the Postal Service will not disclose how much it spends on the pro bicycling team, its reasons for undertaking the sponsorship and what benefits it derives. Repeated phone messages to the Postal Service in Washington asking these questions were not returned.

That appears to be its policy, as The Indianapolis Star has filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act to force the Postal Service to make the figures public.

This much is known: In 2001 the Postal Service signed a three-year deal to continue sponsoring the team. According to a press release last September from the Postal Service's Office of Inspector General, which identifies wasteful spending, up till then it had spent $20 million on the bicycling sponsorship, and it is committed to spending $25 million more.

The bicycling team is actually owned and managed by Tailwind Sports, a sports-marketing company in Sausalito, Calif., and it has 45 employees, nine of whom, including Armstrong, ride in the Tour de France.

Armstrong's salary is more than $1 million a year, which makes him, by my count, the highest-paid public or quasi-public employee in the United States. (George W. Bush's salary is $400,000 a year.)

Though the Postal Service won't talk about it, others have said that it undertook the sponsorship for the global publicity that it brings, since it has to compete with private companies such as Federal Express, UPS and DHL for delivery business around the world.

Armstrong and the other riders have "U.S. Postal Service" plastered all over them, and that is supposed to help drum up business.

Whether it does or not, or how much it does, we don't know. But the inspector general is skeptical.

Speaking of the bicycling team and other sponsorships, the inspector general's press release said, "We plan to determine to what extent these programs contribute to the core business strategy for growing new revenue."

Of course, most people around the world couldn't use the U.S. Postal Service even if they wanted to, as its primary job is to deliver domestic mail in the United States.

The team's success is also supposed to help boost morale among the Postal Service's 800,000 employees.

If the Postal Service has a spare $45 million to spend on marketing, it could do itself and its customers a bigger favor by spending it on improving mail service and maybe doing something about the scandalous additional charges paid by people overseas who receive packages mailed from the United States.

If it wants to be involved with bicycles, it should give them to letter carriers to use on their appointed rounds.

And don't worry about Lance Armstrong. Plenty of other teams would be delighted to have him, and we will continue to see him race. He has survived much bigger problems.

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