Posted by: Joe English | September 10, 2008

Commentary: Lance takes a step back up onto the marketing heap

Coach Joe English

Coach Joe English

As Lance Armstrong yesterday made his shocking announcement that he will return from retirement to rejoin professional cycling all I could think of was one person: Michael Jordan.

Let us remember Michael.

Michael Jordan was perhaps the greatest basketball player of a generation – or maybe of all time. He was amazing. He was unbelievable. He was rich, marketable and highly branded. He was huge – no pun intended.

Then he retired from basketball. He went out for professional baseball instead. He did OK. Nothing great. At least we got to see a giant man in a baseball uniform, right? But after seeing that he wasn’t going to do to baseball what he had done for basketball, it was back to the court. Back to what he did best. Back to the sport in which he had been so dominate.

Sound familiar?

Lance Armstrong was perhaps the greatest cyclist of a generation – or maybe of all time. He was amazing. He was unbelievable. He was rich, marketable and highly branded. Sure, my pun about not being huge may not physically apply – but he was certainly huge in other ways.

Lance had something larger than his athletic career however. His story, which is so griping to most people, was that he was a cancer survivor and he became a maverick cancer crusader during his athletic ascendancy. When Lance left cycling, he continued his fight to secure mega-funding for cancer research and that has been his primary occupation over the last few years.

When Lance left cycling, he took up running. But again, the primary goal of his running aspirations seemed to be to keep his LiveStrong Army rallying toward cancer research fundraising. In other words, his marathon running was a way to stay in the spotlight and help achieve his main goal, which was to raise money for cancer. This may be how Lance and Michael differ. While it was never really clear why Michael Jordon thought he could play baseball, Lance did seem to have a purpose for his highly publicized runs at the New York City Marathon in 2006 and 2007 and at the Boston Marathon in 2008.

I saw Lance at an appearance the day before the Boston Marathon this year. He spent half and hour taking questions from press and fans – and there was only one question about the marathon (“what did he think his time would be?”). The rest of the questions and answers all had to do with fundraising to find cures for cancer. In fact, he was joined on the stage by a cancer researcher.

So perhaps the maverick fundraiser in Lance has led him to the conclusion that he can harness the power of his bicycling brand to take him further toward the charge for cancer research fundraising. Lance on a bike – the huge, dominant, successful, powerful, one with the griping story – is just a bigger brand than the Lance in running shoes.

At least he has a good reason.

We’ll have to wait and see where this goes. Lance Armstrong is an amazing athlete and certainly has shown the drive and discipline to do anything he sets his mind toward. Whether he will be a champion again we can not say – he’ll be racing against younger cyclists that have continued racing these past few years – we’ll just have to wait and see.

Personally, I would have liked Lance to have gone after the Ironman World Championship instead of returning to cycling. That would have been something new and he certainly could have struck fears into even the world’s top pro triathletes on the bike – and he’s turned into a pretty good marathon runner too. But in the end, although that would have been new, it probably wouldn’t have had the marketing oomph that he was looking for. In the end, if his goal is to elevate himself back to the top of the marketing heap, returning to cycling is probably the right choice for him.

Joe English
Managing Editor, Running Advice and News



  1. As someone who is a big fan of Lance Armstrong and as someone who last Sunday volunteered @ the finish line of Ironman Wisconsin, I agree that would be incredible. Plus more Americans would get a chance to see him compete. But it would not raise world wide awareness, where as the TdF likely will, plus I think he would like to prove to the French once and for all that he can do it.

  2. There’s another great question: could the French ever be convinced that Lance Armstrong fairly won his titles?

    Doubtful at best. The French press –in particular– has been pretty relentless in their pursuit to prove him to be a cheat, when (in my view at least) they have had nothing to go on.

    On the lighter side of things, perhaps Lance thinks that now that there are less drugs in the sport, he’ll be able to win even bigger than before. Since he’s always been clean — what’s a couple more years under his belt — so long as the other guys aren’t using anymore. 🙂


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