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Lance Armstrong’s return to public – and corporate – favor

CNBC logo CNBC 7/22/2018 William Edwards

Babes for Boobs Live Auction Benefiting Susan G. Koman LA (#BBAUCTION): Lance Armstrong© Provided by CNBC Lance Armstrong Lance Armstrong is once again tackling a feat some would have considered impossible.

He has been building a media and event organizing brand over the last two years, and corporate sponsors are starting to take notice. Growing awareness of the widespread issue of doping in cycling may have helped shift attitudes, but Armstrong's charm has also helped win back fans.

It’s a significant shift from recent years. The disgraced cyclist's world came crashing down after he admitted in a 2013 interview with Oprah Winfrey to using performance-enhancing drugs during his career. The admission cost him tens of millions in endorsement deals and came after he was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. He was banned from competitive cycling events for life, but he is now beginning to move forward as litigation from former sponsors winds down.

Armstrong’s company, called WEDU, hosts two podcasts — The Move and The Forward — puts on bike races in Texas and Colorado, sells merchandise through an online store, and offers a $60 subscription service. Subscribers gain access to exclusive content, including a live version of his podcasts and the ability to send questions to Armstrong and his guests on the show.

The Move podcast, which provides analysis of stages of the Tour de France and other cycling races, is currently ranked in the top 10 in the sports and recreation category on Apple's iTunes. Armstrong and his co-host, JB Hager, started the podcast, then called Stages, during last year’s Tour, and it averaged 80,000 listeners a day and accumulated more than 5 million downloads, according to WEDU.This year’s show is on pace to match or potentially surpass those numbers, although the numbers aren't fully comparable due to a change in how they are calculated, WEDU said.

The popularity of the podcast has caught the attention of multiple companies, including title sponsor Patron, High Brew Coffee, Helix and Onnit, which are paying for airtime on the show.

Armstrong told CNBC last week in a phone interview that between advertising, merchandise and subscription sales, he expects the podcast will bring in between $700,000 and $1 million over the course of this year’s three-week Tour de France.

“In five days we’ve exceeded what we sold the entire three weeks last summer in merchandise,” he said at the time.

Armstrong once carried the marketing clout that made Trek Bicycle a billion-dollar brand and earned him multimillion dollar deals with companies like Nike and Anheuser-Busch. The high listenership, and in turn sponsorship, that The Move is attracting may suggest a rebound in his public image.

“I think the endorsements he’s been getting is a reflection of his journey,” said James Bale, an endurance sports writer based in the U.K. who listens to The Move. “With films like ‘Icarus’ coming out, the more people realize how much of a widespread problem doping has been, the less of an individual pariah he becomes.”

Carol Vails, a salesperson at the Atlanta Cycling bike shop and a listener of The Move, said she thinks Armstrong’s personality on the podcast has helped his image and boosted his audience numbers.

“It seems like there’s less vitriol towards him, I think that because he’s so entertaining and they see him more as a human, you know with his family, he has children he’s very proud of,” she said. “So maybe they see him more as a human being now, a guy that they would like to go have a beer with.”

Armstrong said he thinks his first podcast, The Forward — a non-cycling-focused show which profiles personalities from a range of occupations and explores overcoming hardship — started to change perceptions of him.

“I can’t even tell you how many emails we get where people are like, ‘Look, I was your biggest fan, I was devastated, I hated you, I started listening to The Forward, and I’m back,” he said.

Despite any potential improvement in his image, however, Armstrong still remains a controversial figure in the greater public’s eye, and the niche nature of The Move podcast mirrors the audience-tailored endorsement deals it has scored.

“High Brew Coffee has always been a brand ‘for those who do’ and we believe that the cyclists and triathletes listening to The Move are some of the world's biggest ‘do-ers,’” said Mari Johnson, High Brew Coffee’s chief marketing officer.

Sponsors of the show were also hesitant to directly address questions regarding Armstrong’s image in relation to their partnerships with the podcast.

“Lance approached us with the idea of calling out the ‘Patron’ in every stage of the race as part of his wildly popular podcast, and we thought it was a fun and interesting play on the phrase, recognizing the outstanding rider of the day,” said Lee Applbaum, global chief marketing officer Patron Spirits. “Lance is an avid tequila fan and supporter of our brand in an organic capacity, and this is a clever extension of it. Nothing more and nothing less.”

In the Tour de France preview show of The Move, Armstrong acknowledged the growing sponsorship interest this year compared to in 2017.

“This wasn’t just a new show, it was a controversial show because it was my show. And so we couldn’t get support,” he said in front of a live audience in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “For me it was really humbling that it was almost a validation. I mean you had a show that had 5 million downloads in three weeks. People paid attention to that, and so for me personally, just the arc of this story — I understand where we all have lived and sat with this story through the years — and to have people lean back in is again such an honor and super humbling.”

Armstrong said his team built the WEDU site in-house, and has complete control over subscriptions and merchandise sales.

Down the line, Armstrong said he does not intend on expanding the event side of the business, but will continue to focus on growing its media side.

“The media side, obviously we can monetize that through shows, the merch we can monetize, the membership we can monetize,” he said. “But we’re also not trying to — nobody here is trying to be the next Google. We’re kind of happy, we’re having fun with this and life’s pretty comfortable.”

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