Australia’s most generous cycling benefactor, Gerry Ryan, maintains his usual optimism at a time of uncertainty. Many of his business ventures are affected by the pandemic: from Broadway productions to the Tour de France. He spoke to RIDE Media about theatre, football, bike racing… and COVID-19.
To understand the impact of the pandemic on Gerry Ryan’s various investments, I begin our interview by asking about his theatre productions on Broadway, including the hugely successful staging of Moulin Rouge! The Musical, which came to a halt in March when 15 cast members tested positive to the virus.
He also talks about his co-ownership of the Melbourne Storm NRL team and, of course, his main cycling investment, the Mitchelton-Scott teams.
In January, Ryan did an extended video interview with RIDE Media in which he stated that his funding for the WorldTour cycling teams is part of an ongoing proposition, that he was prepared to continue backing the sport for a few more years yet. A lot has changed since, so I asked again – at the end of April 2020 – if that was still the case.
“Yes, it is,” he replied yesterday. “But when is the team going to be out on the road? Who knows?”
Mitchelton-Scott has been proactive with fans, the media, its staff and riders since racing came to a halt in March. There have been virtual races on Zwift and a litany of different initiatives, including a fantastic YouTube series, What It Takes, about the team’s reigning world champion Annemiek van Vleuten.
The team created cycling’s original backstage pass, a videos series offering an insider’s perspective of the machinations of a pro cycling outfit and there is a wealth of content on offer for fans around the world.
Ryan offered an adamant, rapid reply to a question about the possibility of doing screen adaptations of his theatrical productions: “No. No. No. Live theatre is live theatre.” And so, we could assume, he also takes the same view with sport: nothing is better than the live spectacle!
It has been a difficult, confusing, costly few months for the entrepreneur but he retains his interest in cycling (and his many other passions) and continues to have a close involvement in the day-to-day running of his various business ventures.
Find out more about how he is approaching what comes next, read RIDE Media’s interview.
– Below is the verbatim transcript of RIDE Media’s Q&A with Gerry Ryan –
RIDE Media: I’m talking with Gerry Ryan. It’s the last day of April in an extraordinary 2020. We caught up in January and had a chat about how we’d catch up at the start of the Tour de France at the end of June. We know now that that is not going to happen [as the Tour has been postponed and is now due to start on 29 August instead of 27 June]. I thought we might just revisit a few themes and see how you’re coping as a businessman and a sports lover in the time of COVID-19.
Gerry Ryan: “Well, it certainly is a different world, and will continue to be a different world in the future; from sport, business, how we socialise… it has been a very tough time for everyone financially, but also mentally. That has been the biggest issue.
“Especially in Australia, we’ve been very fortunate that our government has done a fantastic job, at a federal and state level, to control the virus.”
RIDE Media: Your business empire stretches far and wide. Can you give us a little overview about how some of your investments are progressing because, for example, Broadway is entirely shut down; you had a fair production going on there. You’ve got no audience any longer. What do you do in times like this?
Gerry Ryan: “Moulin Rouge has gone from full houses to no one sitting in the theatres.
“We’ve had to stand people down and we had around 15 of the cast test positive, so we won’t reopen until we’ve been given the green light by the governor, which hopefully – maybe – they’re saying July 1. But, if not, August.”
RIDE Media: I hope those 15 cast members are all okay.
Gerry Ryan: “All okay. They’re all healthy again. So, they’re all just anxiously waiting to get back on stage.”
RIDE Media: You sound like you are basically prepared to sit it out and wait until the door might reopen, but if we look at it from a realistic point of view – during a pandemic like we’ve not known – do you think that it’ll open again by August? I’m not asking for your medical insights but I’m curious if, as a businessman, you just play an optimistic game.
Gerry Ryan: “Well, the thing is that people are not going to be travelling as much; certainly, we’re going to miss out on the international visitor. And Americans are probably not going to travel as far.
“New York is going to come away damaged as a tourist destination.
“But we’re also planning to open two more shows: one in Chicago in December and one in Melbourne in June next year and, in March, one in West End. So, there is hope out there for shows.”
RIDE Media: When there are stage productions, do you look at options like adapting them for screen – or something like that…?
Gerry Ryan: “No. No. No.
“Live theatre is live theatre.”
RIDE Media: And horse racing, another passion of yours, continues but I don’t have one skerrick of knowledge of horse racing – so, if it’s alright, I’ll pass on that topic.
The NRL is in a state of flux. Have you still got ownership of the Melbourne Storm?
Gerry Ryan: “Yes, we have.
“It’s going to be a big task, but they are committed to making it work and May 28 is when they’re going to kick off. And the AFL is going to be a few weeks behind the NRL.”
RIDE Media: From your position as a team owner, have you had a lot of communication during this reestablishment of the season process?
Gerry Ryan: “Oh, very much so. We are on weekly board meetings.
“We’re not going to see anyone attend games this season. It’s over.
“We won’t see attendance at sporting events before December 1. Unfortunately, I’m going to miss out on going to the Melbourne Cup and some Grand Finals but if it’s for the sake of health, we have to be very cautious and realise what the government is trying to do – and go with it, go with the flow.”
RIDE Media: Ordinarily, you’d be basically packing your bags around about now, getting ready to go and watch some bike racing. So, can we cut to the chase and ask how things are tracking with Mitchelton-Scott? You know that’s the main thing I’d like to talk about. There’s a future for the team? We talked about it in January [and Gerry said ‘Yes’], is that still the case in April?
Gerry Ryan: “Yes, it is. But when is the team going to be out on the road? Who knows?
“I know that the Tour de France has got a new date but I can’t see – because they’re travelling from town to town, or village to village each night – how you can quarantine riders… the riders might be quarantined, but what about the people running hotels and the kitchens of where riders stay?
“Then you’ve got media. You’ve got officials.
“I find it very difficult to understand that the government will allow that to happen just yet.
“I know horse racing is going to start in France in a few weeks but there won’t be any attendance.
“Horse racing here in Australia has been very good at keeping everyone quarantined but the Tour de France is a little bit different.
“If they were located in one area, you could isolate people, but I think it’s going to be very difficult.”
RIDE Media: And, you seem quite calm, if I might say… because that’s sort of been the end-goal of this major project since 2011. And you’re coming into it with riders who won lots of stages last year and Adam [Yates] actually got one of the few stage-race victories in 2020. What goes through your mind when you consider the state of pro cycling this year?
Gerry Ryan: “Well, I think that it will be written off.
“We’re still hopeful.
“We’ve been working with a couple of potential sponsors that are still very interested, still very keen to get involved. But what can you sell them this year?
“You can’t offer anything. It’s just uncertain.
“It’s not just cycling.
“The women’s basketball team I’ve got, we had a meeting today – a Zoom meeting, by the way – and I said, ‘Guys, we need to know when the season starts. We can’t go out and sell [sponsorship]. I know we won’t have crowds, but we normally start in October…’ They’re talking about December. Well, we need some direction.
“And the same with cycling. People are still interested in getting involved with cycling on a sponsorship level but, at this stage, there are no guarantees what will happen.”
RIDE Media: So, it has sort of come this full cycle because you told me that you got into sponsorship because you’re actually passionate about cycling. And if we see one benefit of the extreme measures that have been undertaken in Australia, we understand that people are now reaching for the bike – maybe pulling one out of the shed or even going to the bike shop and getting a new one. Do you see that, somehow, you can capitalise on the reach that you’ve got with professional cycling and turn this emerging cycling audience into regular bike riders? Do you see where I’m going with this question?
Gerry Ryan: “Yes, I certainly do. And, as you know, I’m the major shareholder with BikeExchange and we’ve had the busiest month ever. We’ve doubled our business of bikes being sold… and various kinds of bikes. So, we’re hopeful that cycling will grow, and continue to grow.
“But I think that, next year, [racing] will have to come back in a different form… but there are wiser people than myself working on that. The UCI, here’s potentially the opportunity to alter some Tours… so we’ll wait and see what the outcome is.”
RIDE Media: You’re a cycling fan, a sports fan, an ‘entertainment’ fan. Do you think that pro sport will just re-emerge into what it had been before? Or is there going to be a whole new shake-up? Pro surfing is saying they are aiming to take over the mantle of the most-watched sport. Could something like that happen, where traditional sports fall by the wayside?
Gerry Ryan: “No. I don’t think so, no. It won’t.
“Once again, with us all being locked up, everyone is looking for content.
“Sport is so popular and that’s why they need to get football back on TV, keep people entertained. But football is going to be different.
“Here is an opportunity to realign some of our costs.
“No doubt, the organisation – football clubs, and I mean both codes [in Australia, NRL and AFL] – won’t have as big a budget as before. And, probably, the players’ salary will be capped or even more capped than it has been. So, it’s going to be certainly changed.”
RIDE Media: I’m sorry to keep you so long but if we could just go back to GreenEdge (ie. the original title of the team, the holding company responsible for the Mitchelton-Scott teams, men and women). We know that there have been pay cuts and riders are aware that this season is heavily compromised – you can’t not be aware. But are you in contact with the sports directors? Are you understanding what the athletes are doing? Are you putting in any special requests? How do you manage that show as a team owner?
Gerry Ryan: “I’m dealing with Shayne [Bannan, the team’s general manager] every third night. First of all, we talk about the welfare of the team and team staff as well.
“We’re constantly keeping an eye on everyone and sending out messages.
“Shayne is doing a wonderful job keeping everyone informed. It’s all about communication and trying to take the fear out. You know: ‘What’s tomorrow…?’
“I’ve been around several companies that I own, and I’ve been telling people: ‘I don’t have a crystal ball, but it will recover and here’s an opportunity to be ready.’
“When the starter’s gun does go off, we’re ready to go again.”
RIDE Media: It could just be that it is the Tour de France that gets things going again on an international sporting scale. We have to watch with interest what happens in the next couple of weeks. My thoughts are with you because I know it must be an incredibly stressful time; it is for everyone, but you have to consider the wellbeing of many others on your payroll. So, thanks for having a chat. Is there something else that you’d like to add…?
Gerry Ryan: “I just think that we’ve got to stay positive, make sure you’re close to your family and friends and employees, if you have any.
“It just is a difficult time. In Australia there’s probably more suicides than people dying of COVID-19, the virus. So mental health is so critical, and I think the government must realise that they’ve got to let the restrictions ease up a little bit because people need to start mixing again.”
– Interview by Rob Arnold