There are few commentators who can offer the insights about bike racing that Robbie McEwen can. After retiring from racing, he quickly settled into a new career in the commentary booth. Yesterday the Australian public broadcaster, SBS – the so-called ‘Cycling Network’ – ended its relationship with McEwen.
Two tweets by Robbie McEwen a few hours after the Australian road cycling nationals concluded initiated a wave of feedback for SBS, a network which has long prided itself on being ‘the cycling network’. And yet, even when he began explaining that he would no longer call the action for races like the Tour de France, McEwen held his calm.
“Great #roadnats22 National Champs road races,” he wrote on Twitter.
“Congrats to the riders who gave us the spectacle.”
First came some positivity, some support of the bike racers who put on a good show and entertained viewers during the live coverage of the action from Buninyong on a hot Sunday afternoon. But that was padding for the real kicker from McEwen, a couple of sentences that have set into motion a groundswell of negative commentary about SBS’s approach to one of the best cycling commentators in the world.
“You’ll no longer hear me on comms on any @sbs cycling broadcast,” explained McEwen in his first tweet late on Sunday afternoon. “They have axed me from the team to ‘deliver their broadcast differently’.”
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
It was a tweet that prompted much confusion because, quite simply, McEwen was the voice in the commentary team that added credibility and experience, as well as insight and even humour. He was a great bike rider and he is an excellent commentator. But SBS has, once again, made a decision about the ‘talent’ without any explanation.
McEwen’s voice doesn’t come cheaply but it has proven to be a good investment for the network. He educates the viewers, attracts them to the broadcast even, and provides a soundtrack to races that makes it easy to watch cycling hour after hour.
Beyond what he has to say, it’s how he says it that makes him the complete package. He has a good tone of voice, a great understanding of the language of cycling, and his accent for foreign names has been complimented by viewers around the world. He is a pleasure to listen to and he is able to work with a wide range of co-commentators, easily juggling a mix of personalities and varying degrees of cycling knowledge.
McEwen really started this commentary caper the year after he stopped racing. He stood alongside Paul Sherwen for several seasons at the Tour Down Under. Two former riders, both comfortable in front of the camera, both with a suitcase of anecdotes that they could unpack at any time… but Robbie refrained more often than Paul ever did, even though the Australian’s conquests on the bike were far greater.
Only occasionally does McEwen offer some tidbit of information about his riding days, and when he does it’s not indulgent or ego-driven, he simply says something about his racing career because it seems relevant to the images that are displayed on our screens.
Together with Matt Keenan he would form the backbone of the commentary team for the international feed from the Tour de France before the pandemic forced a change of plans in what was clearly shaping up to be a long career behind the microphone. Still, even when calling the action from afar – in a studio in Sydney, while co-commentators like Matthew Keeenan and Bridie O’Donnell were in Melbourne – he never missed a beat. That was the case for the TDF of 2020, when SBS couldn’t send a team to France and adjustments had to be made because of travel restrictions.
A year later, in July 2021, McEwen teamed up with others in the cycling commentary team to add insight into the racing from Le Tour and the ratings suggest that the network had a winning formula despite the challenges.
There was a rhythm to SBS’s cycling broadcasts, some of it fantastic, other elements that were prone to negative feedback… but all combined, it satiated an audience of enthusiasts and actually helped grow the ratings for cycling on the network.
There was ‘Tommo’ on the lounge with ‘Macca’ and Kate Bates or other guests. They would later throw to ‘Keeno’ and Bridie… and Robbie who called the action live. At the end of the race we’d know a little more about bike racing – frankly, with most of the insight coming from what McEwen had to say.
Making things better is the reality that McEwen loved his job. And he says so in a second tweet after yesterday’s nationals, one posted a couple of hours after the first, shocking statement about being axed.
“I didn’t get a valid explanation and I’m assuming someone is pushing their own agenda in axing me,” he explained in the second tweet, adding: “I loved doing it & I’m really disappointed.”
Exactly who is pushing their agenda isn’t made clear but considering his follow-up line – “Direct your opinions to @CyclingCentral @SBSSport & attn to the executive producer if you’d like to let them know how you feel about it” – we can assume that Catherine Whelan has played a hand in what’s happening.
I didn’t get a valid explanation and I’m assuming someone is pushing their own agenda in axing me. I loved doing it & I’m really disappointed. Direct your opinions to @CyclingCentral @SBSSport & attn to the executive producer if you’d like to let them know how you feel about it
— Robbie McEwen AM (@mcewenrobbie) January 16, 2022
Whelan has been managing the complicated task of producing the cycling coverage for SBS for several years. She was also a regular in France for the TDF until the pandemic halted that regular trip to Europe. In recent years she has been promoted to ‘Executive Producer Sport’. That’s the title as it appears on her Twitter feed, so the assumption is less of a guess than you might otherwise believe.
Exactly what is happening at SBS remains unclear but RIDE Media has approached Whelan and others involved to find out more. For now, with the news relatively fresh – and only having been delivered by McEwen in a couple of tweets – there’s little more to add.
In the meantime, the axing raises more questions about the intentions of SBS and its cycling assets. The network has been pivotal in bringing cycling to the mainstream for over 30 years. It has boasted coverage of a sport that was long neglected on TV screens in Australia, and it turned events like the Tour de France into compelling viewing, enjoyed by many no matter what hour it was being broadcast. But right now, there is a legion of fans asking the obvious question about Robbie McEwen’s axing from the commentary team. Why?
This is an evolving story and there will be more to add when more comes to light about why SBS has decided to axe Robbie McEwen from the cycling commentary team. Going on recent history, however, it seems unlikely that any statement will be issued by the network. Still, the audience of this public broadcaster deserves an explanation of some kind.
McEwen was a valuable asset to the network and it’s a great shame to learn that he has been moved on. He will be missed by many who have come to love cycling because of the coverage offered by SBS.
– By Rob Arnold