By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - World Tour cycling teams should become franchises with guaranteed entry into the sport's top races to avoid financial meltdowns, according to Cannondale EF Education First-Drapac chief Jonathan Vaughters.
American former professional Vaughters fought a desperate battle to stop his Cannondale-Drapac team folding in September after a seven-million-dollar funding shortfall in their 2018 budget.
A deal was finally struck with EF Education with the team 'hours away' from disappearing and Vaughters believes a franchise-based system, together with greater financial fairness, would ensure stability and create more fan appeal.
"Over the past four, five years there has always been at least one or two World Tour teams that have collapsed. It's something that cycling, as a sport, needs to address," Vaughters told Reuters at the Rouleur Classic cycling exhibition in London after the launch of the team's new kit.
"Structurally there is a problem that needs to be corrected. Fans of Manchester United or the Denver Broncos don't worry about them just going away. It's not something that fans are used to or can understand.
"There are a number of different ways to go about it. One is cost control, or financial fairness, which is what I call it. The other is creating a structure where franchises are guaranteed the biggest races such as the Tour de France.
"If there is a guaranteed entry into those races in the lifetime of the business, then at that point you have created a limited market, you have created scarcity and when you create scarcity sponsors come in and gravitate towards that scarcity."
"What we have now is if you come up with 20 million pounds you can start your own team, there is no scarcity of the commodity," added Vaughters. "It's just a matter of who can scrounge up the money, whether they come up from a very disreputable source or a reputable source, it doesn't matter."
Things became so desperate for Cannondale-Drapac that Vaughters Tweeted in August: "At the risk of colossal spam, if anyone out there has a lead on some financial support for our team, email: email@example.com."
Riders, including Tour de France runner-up Rigoberto Uran, were told they were being released from their contracts and were free to find new teams for the 2018 season.
A crowd-funding effort raised one million dollars before international education company EF Education stepped in.
Vaughters said cycling governance must "fundamentally change" to avoid a repeat of their narrow escape.
"The governance of the sport needs to say these are the 18, 20 or 22 teams that do the Tour de France and these are the ones that have the rights for the foreseeable future," he said. "That way you have sponsors fighting for limited positions in the market, instead of the inverse."
Vaughters is not a fan of salary caps for riders despite Team Sky's huge financial muscle allowing it to win five of the last six Tours de France.
"Salary caps are not the core issue," he said. "The core issue is total budget caps. If you say every team is allowed, say $20 million, then you are playing chess and everyone is playing chess with an equal number of pieces.
"Everyone has one queen, two bishops, two rooks. Right now we have a situation with some teams having four queens and five rooks and others have one king and 18 pawns.
"That is not sustainable and in the long-term will dissuade sponsors from entering the sport."
The future at least looks brighter for Vaughters and his team with Colombian Uran, who could have taken his pick of other interested teams, staying loyal.
"If Rigo had decided to leave we wouldn't have survived," Vaughters said. "What he did was incredibly generous and he allowed us to go out and find new sponsors."
(Editing by Clare Fallon)