It's common knowledge that finding sponsors for MotoGP is a difficult proposition, despite the sport's immense appeal and excellent demographic profile. Indeed, a lack of sponsorship is the biggest threat currently facing MotoGP in today's financial climate, a threat which has led Dorna and the Grand Prix Commission to introduce a range of proposals aimed at cutting costs - though the jury is still very much out on the effectiveness of those proposals.
While most teams aim at securing a big name as a single title sponsor - Marlboro, Repsol, Fiat and Rizla supporting factory Ducati, Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki efforts respectively, while San Carlo supports the Gresini Honda team and Monster Energy are due to be unveiled as the Tech 3 Yamaha sponsors - that has been beyond the reach of some teams. Over the past two years, Lucio Cecchinello's LCR Honda team have had a novel strategy for dealing with this problem, securing a string of smaller title sponsorship deals for individual races, featuring companies such as GIVI, Eurobet and Lee Jeans. This has been a successful if risky way of funding the team, making it easier to persuade companies to fork over smaller amounts of money, but leaving the team's finances less predictable over the course of a year.
Now, though, Cecchinello is also close to securing a title sponsorship deal for his eponymous team. Sources in Italy are saying that Playboy Magazine will be sponsoring LCR Honda for the 2009 MotoGP season. The story was uncovered by the Italian motorcycling website motocorse.com, who revealed that Cecchinello had been spotted at the same restaurant in Florence as Hugh Hefner, founder and Chief Creative Officer of Playboy Enterprises Inc. Cecchinello later admitted to GPOne.com that he was in talks with Playboy about title sponsorship, and he was about 70% certain of closing the deal.
The main problem facing LCR Honda was the refusal of the organizers of the MotoGP season opener at Qatar to allow the team to run with Playboy sponsorship. Though generally considered a liberal country by Middle Eastern standards, Qatar is still very much part of the Arabian peninsula, and subject to the same cultural sensitivity about all things sexual. According to GPOne.com, Cecchinello has been working with Dorna to secure the deal, and believes it will be finalized some time in May, once the MotoGP circus hits the more easy-going atmosphere of Europe.
The deal with Playboy also marks a few pointers for other teams searching for sponsorship. The deal follows a realignment at Playboy Enterprises, after the company announced huge losses of $157 million for 2008 on a turnover of $292 million. From public statements on the results, it looks like PEI is trying to focus once more on its core audience, and for any business trying to harnass the purchasing power of young adult males, MotoGP is a highly effective vehicle. If Lucio Cecchinello does attract an outside sponsor of the near-iconic status of Playboy, it could help other teams find similar sponsors seeking to reach the same audience demographic as Playboy.
While a sponsor of the stature of Playboy should be welcomed into the MotoGP paddock, the company's arrival would continue a long tradition of ethically debatable funding for motorcycle racing. Tobacco, a legal product which has helped to kill millions of its consumers every year, was long a mainstay of motorcycle racing. Now that tobacco sponsorship has been outlawed in most countries around the world, its place is being taken by the energy drink industry, which has developed a reputation for combining water, sugar and caffeine into a highly profitable, multi-billion dollar business model. Money from the Adult Entertainment sector could hardly be regarded as bringing down the tone of the place.
For whatever you feel about the Adult Entertainment industry, or even global tobacco, in 2009, MotoGP has welcomed sponsorship promoting tourism to one of the world's worst dictatorships, in the shape of Sete Gibernau's Equatorial Guinea-sponsored Ducati. Compared to a country which is both one of the ten most corrupt nations in the world, as well as being at the top of the human rights abuse league table, a few naked ladies barely register on the morality index.