German broadcasters pull Tour coverage


COLOGNE, Germany -- Germany's public broadcasters have pulled the plug on live coverage of the Tour de France after yet another doping scandal at cycling's premiere event.

In an unprecedented move, public channels ARD and ZDF on Wednesday canceled live coverage of the Tour. In its place, the channels aired a special one-hour report on doping in sports before returning to regular, nonsports programming.

German cycling fans aren't being completely cut off -- niche cable channel Eurosport will continue to air live coverage -- but the move is certain to be a major blow to the Tour's ratings in Germany and therefore to its sponsors.

The decision to drop the Tour de France came after cyclist Patrik Sinkewitz, who rides for Germany's T-Mobile team, tested positive for a banned supplement.

ZDF editor in chief Nikolaus Brender said the move was "a yellow card for the Tour," referring to the warning card a soccer referee waves at a player after calling a foul.

If Sinkewitz fails a second doping test, Brender said the Tour will "get the red card" -- an all-out ban from German public television.

A ban would be a disaster for the sport of cycling in Germany. ARD and ZDF combined have a 30% market share of the German audience. Eurosport has less than 1%. Sponsorship money is certain to dry up if the Tour loses the backing of a major German network.

"It is a major blow. We have to think very hard about our sponsoring agreements," T-Mobile spokesman Christian Frommert said in reaction to the Sinkewitz scandal and the TV ban. "We are dismayed, disappointed and shocked (at Sinkewitz's test result). There are hard days ahead."

ARD and ZDF last year inserted anti-doping clauses into all their sports rights contracts following a series of scandals that included 2006 Tour de France winner Floyd Landis being stripped of his title and top sprinters Justin Gatlin and Marion Jones testing positive for banned substances.

The clause applies to 32 contracts ARD/ZDF have with sporting associations -- everything from Olympic disciplines such as cycling, weight lifting, rowing and speed skating to more niche events including bowling and karate.

Speaking on a ZDF talk show Wednesday, Brender said that halting broadcasting of the Tour was the only way to "clear the decks" and pressure Tour de France organizers and cycling's governing bodies to clean up the sport.

Michael Konken, chairman of Germany's journalists association welcomed the ARD/ZDF decision.

"This is a logical and resolute decision on the part of the broadcasters," Konken said. "Doped sports are a farce and do not justify daily hours-long live coverage on tax-financed television."