Founded in 2005 under the name Team Type 1, Team Novo Nordisk is now on the road for 16 years, raising awareness about diabetes and giving tremendous visibility to its sponsors. Phil Southerland and Joe Eldridge initially created the team to inspire people living with diabetes and they do so by showing that elite sports performance is possible for diabetic athletes.
Since 2013, Danish pharmaceutical company, Novo Nordisk is a title sponsor and only diabetic riders are on the team roster. Novo Nordisk has acknowledged that raising fan awareness and sensitivity to social issues require a new approach to CSR. Making an investment into elite sport, while keeping the emphasis on an issue affecting millions of lives could just be the next great thing in sport sponsorship.
Looking at the team from a sports business perspective, the numbers are striking. On social media they outpower all WorldTour teams by far. They have more than 8 million followers on Facebook, which is 8 times more than the next professional cycling team INEOS Grenadiers. #changingdiabetes is by far the most popular in pro cycling. The top 20 posts by social media value this season are all from the Team Novo Nordisk Facebook account. Their approach is a prime example of connecting elite sport sponsorship with CSR and gaining a huge followership while doing so.
Their PR performance is outstanding apart from social media as well. Fans could meet the team before the races, where riders are approachable and interact with the audience in a professional manner. They are also the only cycling team with an official mascot, ´Jakob the Bull´. In addition, they have their own cookbook and regularly share training tips for diabetic athletes.
Now of course, this sounds like an investor´s dream, however the situation is somewhat more complicated. Media value of professional cycling teams is still largely determined by TV and OTT viewership, meaning that without Grand Tour presences Team Novo Nordisk is still lagging behind its WorldTour competitors.
They have been successful in receiving wild cards to enter some of the most prestigious WorldTour races, such as Milan-San Remo this year, however it remains to be seen, whether they can make the next step to actually become a WorldTour Team. Team Novo Nordisk needs to get even better results and collect more points in ProTour to be able to apply for a WorldTour license.
According to the team management, the challenge is rider recruitment rather than performing at an elite level while diabetic. One factor is that there are – luckily - fewer people living with diabetes than without, meaning that the pool of talent is smaller. Also, due to the misconceptions around Type 1 diabetes, the proportion of athletes – and cyclists - is sadly lower.
To tackle this challenge the team has its own talent pipeline that has no match in cycling and could be compared to that of professional football. There are training camps where the most promising teenagers are invited, who could progress into the junior (U19) team. From there they could get selected to the development team (UCI Continental), and eventually to Team Novo Nordisk (UCI ProTour). “We do have this great pipeline but it's a long way before you bring a rider from point one to point two -- point two being a professional cycling team. We need to find riders, we need to create them, and we need to guide them to the top level." – said Vassili Davidenko General Manager in an interview with CNN this year.
Overall, the way to success is long and full of challenges, but we can argue that the vision behind Team Novo Nordisk and their way of leveraging it on social media could be identified as a best practice in sports marketing.
Hood, Edmond. 2021. “Team Novo Nordisk Boss Phil Southerland Gets PEZ’d!” Pezcyclingnews.
Ramsay, George. 2021. “‘No Team Changes Lives like Our Team.’ How Cycling’s Team Novo Nordisk
Turned Type 1 Diabetes into Its ‘Greatest Strength.’" ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Zoltán Lengyel has been working with IRIS in Digital Marketing topics this year. He is a Masters Student of the German Sport University in Cologne and a cyclist in RV Komet Delia 09 e.V.