The Tour may seem a successful French product, and it has attracted significant revenues from other countries on the Continent, in particular Spain and Italy. But in a world where advertisers and television networks want to reach global audiences, the Tour has a problem: the biggest pool of money is not in France. Or Spain, or Italy. In world terms, the Tour is poor.
The sports industry differs from the other two main branches of the entertainment industry, films and pop music, in that it is not dominated by Anglo-Saxons. Naturally the US is extremely important in several segments of the market: in athletics, for instance, where it consistently tops Olympic medal tables, and in tennis, where it trains virtually all world-class players. But its football and baseball industries are domestic; they have never sought to develop an export base - the home market is so big there is no need.
You can see this clearly in motor racing: the Indy car business generates much greater revenues than Formula One, but until the arrival of a few Europeans, such as Nigel Mansell, it never attracted interest outside the US. (It does, however, use British technology, rather in the same way that the American film industry uses British talent.)
But if US sport does not need to look abroad, the reverse is not true: the US is potentially such a rich market for foreign businesses that they have at least to contemplate entering it.
That is what soccer has sought to do with the World Cup. The progression of association football from a British game to a world industry has been one of the great 20th-century commercial phenomena. If one sees soccer as the nearest thing in sport to a world industry, it is odd that it should have failed to establish a firm base in the world's richest market.
It still hasn't. World Cup television ratings in the US, the most important determinant of future revenues, may be running at double the expectations, but they are only a bit ahead of ratings for Wimbledon or the US Open Golf Championship. That is nice niche business, but not mass market.
Now look at the Tour de France. You can see the relatively narrow revenue base by looking at the adverts plastered over the cyclists' kit: most are from continental European enterprises. There are few Japanese names, not many Americans - aside from Coca-Cola - and virtually no British ones. It may seem a bit of a relief to see a new set of brand names, but in commercial terms it is bad news, for it means that there is little financial contribution from two of the big three economic zones: North America and East Asia.
There are two possible responses to this. One could say that by its very nature the Tour will always be a continental European product. It might be able to add a bit of Anglo-Saxon interest by having British or American stars, such as Chris Boardman or the great Greg LeMond. It can, as it does now, duck into contiguous countries such as Switzerland, Germany, Italy and Spain for the odd section. But it will not attract the revenues of, say, motor racing or golf. And Chris Boardman will never become as rich as Nigel Mansell or Ian Woosnam.
Or one could say that the French have an exportable product with an enormous potential international appeal. Cycling combines the image of out-of-doors clean living with concern for the environment: a rare congruence between yuppiedom and greenery. Like other sports it suffers from periodic drug scandals, but the positive image should be strong enough for it to be able to build an international business from the Tour's French roots.
In that sense the Tour is rather like Perrier. It may seem irrational to ship the entire entourage to the US, or to Japan for a couple of stages. But with cheap air travel it is no less practical than shipping it to the UK, or shipping fizzy water across the Atlantic. In fact there was apparently a plan some years back to have a stage in the US, but nothing came of it.
Seen in this context, this year's UK stages are a low- risk way of judging the real economic potential of extending the Tour, and therefore broadening the revenue base.
There is a bigger question here: to what extent will the sports industry become even more of a world business, like films or financial services, and to what extent will cultural barriers keep large parts of it, such as sumo wrestling, within national boundaries?
The answer to this question will tell us something about the way the world will develop. For two generations, the whole trend has been towards internationalisation. It is not just that most large industries are run by multinational corporations, or that wherever the World Cup happens to be staged it will appear instantly on television screens around the world. There has also been a process of cultural harmonisation, at least within the developed world.
We do not just watch the same films or use the same credit cards. We increasingly behave more and more in the same way. You can see this in the statistics of social behaviour, for example, on marriage break-up. But you can also see it in the way football crowds cheer and chant, or even in the way those British bystanders applaud the cyclists with exactly the same mannerisms as the French.
My guess is that the process of cultural harmonisation still has some way to run. Quintessentially French products such as the Tour will be successfully exported over the next decade and will be a modest counterbalance to the cultural dominance by the Anglo-Saxon world of the other parts of the entertainment business.
But we should also be expecting to see increasing signs of resistance. That would be a danger signal, a warning that ancient rivalries were beginning to re- emerge. Many people deride the economic forces that have turned national sporting events into mere items on an international commercial circuit. But this is really a sign of health; we should worry if and when this process goes into retreat.Reuse content