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By Keith Weir
LONDON, Jan 18 (Reuters) - Lance Armstrong's televised confession must be followed by proof that cycling is serious about tackling its doping problems to ensure that big companies fund the sport, a current sponsor said on Friday.
Dutch Rabobank and Japanese carmaker Nissan dropped their title sponsorship of professional road racing teams late last year after Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles for doping.
The sport's dark past was exposed again on Thursday when Armstrong finally admitted that he used performance-enhancing drugs en route to his Tour triumphs.
"Sponsors are terrified," said Jaimie Fuller, chairman of the SKINS sports clothing company that sponsors several teams and national federations.
"There are plenty (of sponsors) who will come back if it's clean and it's managed properly," he told Reuters in a telephone interview.
SKINS has filed a $2 million damages claim in Switzerland against the International Cycling Union (UCI), accusing the sport's Swiss-based governing body of mismanaging the Armstrong case.
Fuller, who has coordinated the "Change Cycling Now" lobby group, said Armstrong's confession must be followed by a purge of the UCI leadership and a truth and reconciliation process to expose the sport's doping problems.
Cycling is yet to feel the full impact of the anti-Armstrong backlash. Rabobank and Nissan are still helping to fund teams to honour expiring contracts, even though those teams are no longer using their brands.
Cycling attracts big television audiences across Europe and sports marketing experts believe that the Armstrong affair could be a watershed.
"The Armstrong saga is a huge opportunity for the sport of cycling to start from zero, to relaunch the sport," said Ulrich Lacher of IFM Sports, part of sports marketing research company REPUCOM.
However, Lacher said the sport needed to reform if it were to fully exploit its commercial potential.
"There also needs to be a more professional structure across all stakeholders of the sport as, at present, there are too many stakeholders with differing interests, from the race organisers and teams to the UCI and the broadcasters," he added.
"If there's not a clear, structured concept, cycling has a problem that even the end of the doping culture won't solve." (Editing by Alison Wildey)