There has been a considerable reaction to the news from Robbie McEwen that he will no longer be part of the SBS cycling commentary team. As a public broadcaster, it seems appropriate that the network considers the public, but don’t expect that to happen if you’re a cycling fan…
– A blog and video by Rob Arnold
It’s possible that the kafuffle that has grown because of a couple of tweets by Robbie McEwen will blow over and, when the dust has settled and there’s bike racing back on SBS TV, fans of the sport will have forgotten all about it. This seems to be how the network is treating the news that became public after the Australian road cycling championships on the weekend.
McEwen explained his grievances after having been told that his services would no longer be required for SBS’s cycling broadcasts. He has been in the role six year and in that time proven to be quite a commentator.
Great #roadnats22 National Champs road races. Congrats to the riders who gave us the spectacle. You’ll no longer hear me on comms on any @sbs cycling broadcast. They have axed me from the team to “deliver their broadcast differently”. 🤷🏽♂️
— Robbie McEwen AM (@mcewenrobbie) January 16, 2022
The reaction from the public since news of his “axing” has been vocal, so much so that McEwen followed up his original tweet by asking those who have reacted to exercise restraint and, particularly, to refrain from pouring scorn on the commentators who remain involved with the cycling commentary.
As much as I appreciate the groundswell of support over the last 24hrs re my axing from @SBSSport, it’s not about throwing shade on anyone who remains on the broadcast team. It’s not ok to abuse them online. Please stay focussed on who is actually responsible for the decision. 🙏🏼
— Robbie McEwen AM (@mcewenrobbie) January 17, 2022
Still, three days after Mcewen explained his removal from the commentary team, SBS remains silent about the matter. It would seem that the management believes that the new approach to the cycling broadcast – due to be revealed when racing returns to our screens later in the 2022 season – will appease the angst, and that the network will continue to showcase a sport that it has long embraced and nurtured.
Cycling has been good for SBS Sport’s ratings for many years and there is change afoot. Until we see what the new direction is it’s premature to offer comment. Still, in the days following McEwen’s explosive tweets, I’ve had some surprising dialogue with people involved with SBS’s cycling broadcasts. I have not, however, heard back from the Executive Producer of Sport despite numerous approaches – and so I cannot shed any light on the network’s intentions for its cycling assets in the future.
I have spoken to someone in the senior management structure at SBS and one sentence stands out to me as a summary of how the public broadcaster sees the vocal fans of the sport who have added to the commentary about commentary over the years.
“In the end,” it was said, “who gives a shit about what a few hundred cycling fans think?”
Pause. Consider. Reflect. It’s pretty harsh, but the sentiment suggests that SBS believes the reaction to McEwen’s axing that has filled social media portals – including numerous threads on SBS’s own ‘Cycling Central’ feed (even without any post relating to the news about McEwen) – is essentially little more than a vocal minority.
Of course, the network understands its audience and knows more about where the viewers are, when they tune in, and what they respond well to. There are analytical tools that help explain the ratings and allow management to fine-tune the broadcasts accordingly. And so, it would seem from the statement quoted above, although there are disgruntled cycling fans, there are also many others who will continue to tune in despite the pending changes to the commentary team.
Over the many years that I’ve been dealing with SBS because of our mutual links with the cycling realm, I’ve had many post-race discussions with management at the network to find out how the racing rated. And the continued growth in interest of the Tour de France, for example, suggests that there’s an strong public appetite for race coverage on TV (or whatever media option you use in 2022 to watch sport).
Year after year, I’ve been told, the ratings continue to grow and interest remains high for the Tour and other cycling programming on SBS. The network prides itself on catering to the cycling market, but not so much that it believes that the opinion of “a few hundred cycling fans” is something it really needs to be concerned about.
I’m confident to say that anyone reading this column has an example of another regular reaction that emerges when bike racing – and the TDF in particular – is on our screens. I’ve heard it thousands of times and I’m aware of the sentiment. Paraphrased, it goes like this: ‘I love to watch the cycling because of the scenery…’
There are many variations, but the point is that people also tune in to bike racing for the escapism that the images of racing in beautiful locations can offer.
You might be holed up in lockdown in the dark hours of an early winter morning in Australia, but when there’s footage of physical activity, sporting prowess, and gorgeous scenery on our screens, life doesn’t seem quite so miserable and cold.
There is a legion of fans who do tune in for more than just the sporting aspect of what’s shown during cycling coverage. And, it would seem, that is the audience that matters more to SBS. Why else would they not be interested in the opinion of a few hundred cycling fans?
There’s much more to say on this topic but I’ve already been outspoken about the approach taken by SBS in recent times and I’d prefer to talk about the good things that have come from the network’s long relationship with cycling.
For over 20 years, I have been supportive of SBS and proactive with my commentary, thanking the network regularly for the many contributions it has made to growing the cycling audience / cycling market in Australia. I have no doubt that many reading this are doing so because they first discovered cycling – and the many beautiful things that come as part of the wonderful sporting package bike riding delivers – through broadcasts on SBS.
There would be many viewers in Australia who have been inspired to ride a bike because of SBS and the coverage it has provided over a span of three decades and counting. This is a huge positive legacy, one the network should be proud of. Cycling is a great thing to watch, and it’s a wonderful thing to do. And usually, in this community, it does seem as though we’re all in this together – so considerable credit should go to SBS for taking the chance with cycling that it did way back when, and for continuing to support a sport that had been neglected by the mainstream Australian media for many years.
The news from Robbie McEwen highlights the love that many people have for cycling and for all that SBS has done over the years, but it has also caused quite a stir with many expressing frustration at the pending changes to the broadcast team.
Maybe it is only a few hundred cycling fans who have expressed their views and it’s possible that there will still be many who tune in for the scenery… and much more. Bike racing will be back on our TV screens again in 2022 and I know I’ll be watching – it’s what I’ve always done, because I’m a fan of cycling. That doesn’t make my opinion less relevant and I don’t understand why SBS believes it is beyond reproach when it comes to decisions about who speaks about something that many others have come to enjoy.
– By Rob Arnold