The Dutch TT at the legendary Assen circuit could be facing major changes over the next few years. Falling spectator numbers are forcing the board of the TT Circuit Assen to take a long look at the event to try and turn the tide. The organizers have even gone so far as to put the day of the race up for discussion, and move the event from Saturday to Sunday in future years. Moving race day from Saturday to Sunday is just one of the changes under consideration for the oldest event on the MotoGP calendar - the race has been held near the Dutch city of Assen since 1925, and has been on the Grand Prix calendar since 1949, the year the series was formally inaugurated.
At the heart of the problem lies falling spectator numbers, a problem faced by races throughout Europe. Where over 200,000 spectators attended over the three days of the event back in 1990, in 2011 that number fell to under 100,000 for the first time. According to reports in the regional paper Dagblad van het Noorden, the board of the TT Circuit Assen have considered a number of measures to reverse that trend, and get more paying customers through the doors. A flying display by the Dutch F16 Demoteam was one of the attractions suggested, but organizational problems meant that this idea had to be dropped. Other measures, including an expansion of the Assen TT Festival, the cultural events surrounding the race including live concerts by rock bands, across multiple locations in the city, and adding high profile names to the bill. A delegation from the circuit visited the Le Mans GP in May, and were impressed by the scale of events that take place at that event.
The idea of switching the race from Saturday to Sunday would be part of those plans. At the moment, most of the activities happen on Friday night, making it harder for some fans to attend. If the race was moved to a Sunday, then the "Nacht van Assen", the major festival surrounding the race, could be moved to Saturday night and draw a bigger crowd. The original rationale for the race being held on a Saturday has disappeared; in 1925, when the race was first held, local churchgoers, members of the very strict Calvinist sect that dominated the area, decreed that no sporting events should be held on Sunday. The process of secularization that has continued as the 20th century has progressed has seen the numbers of people opposed to sporting events being held on a Sunday dwindle to almost nothing, opening the door to a switch for the Dutch round of MotoGP. The idea has come from the Assen TT organization themselves, the circuit's managing director Peter Oosterbaan told Dutch news service ANP, and had not been forced upon them by Dorna, the organization which runs MotoGP, though Dorna had responded positively to the idea of moving the date.
One idea which would need cooperation from Dorna would be to be able to appoint the title sponsor of the event themselves. Currently, Dorna arranges contracts with a number of sponsors and allocates title sponsorship along lines agreed with those sponsors. That, the Assen TT board said, left them with sponsors with no local investment and little chance to expand the scope of the event. The TT Circuit Assen is negotiating with Dutch beer brewer Bavaria to take on the role of title sponsor, a proposal which Dorna is currently considering. Though the circuit sees none of the sponsorship fee paid by the title sponsor, having a strong local brand like Bavaria would be a major boost for the event. Bavaria sponsors several other major events in the Netherlands, and would probably contribute significantly to the marketing and promotion of the race and the surrounding events. They would be likely to host their own major hospitality efforts at the event, contributing both directly and indirectly to the circuit. Having a strong local sponsor would boost the profile of the event in the region, create stronger ties to the local market and help raise spectator attendances.
There is no immediate threat to the continuity of the race at the moment, however. Rather the contrary: the circuit is hoping to break open the current contract that runs until the end of 2016 and extend it until 2021. That contract is worth US $3 million a year to Dorna, with the sanctioning fee indexed to a rise of 5% every year. Breaking open the contract early would almost certainly mean that the track would have to pay more to Dorna to organize the race, but having a contract in place until 2021 would allow the circuit to start long-term plans to expand the reach of the event and reverse the trend of falling visitor numbers. The TT Circuit may have to turn to the local government for support: though the facility has been entirely self-funding so far, expansion plans may require a financial contribution from the city of Assen and the regional authorities. A recent study showed that the Dutch TT at Assen had economic benefits for the region of around 100 million euros in 2010, and kept some 2100 people in full-time employment annually.
At the moment, everything is up for discussion, however, and nothing is settled. The main priority of the circuit is to increase spectator numbers without raising ticket prices. Their task is currently made more difficult locally as the MotoGP series is currently only being broadcast on the Pay-Per-View sports channel Sport1, previous Free-To-Air broadcaster RTL having lost the rights at the end of 2009. Though the MotoGP race is still widely available - the extremely high level of cable saturation means that almost every Dutch household can see the BBC coverage of the MotoGP race for free, though it is not in Dutch and the BBC do not cover the support classes on the FTA broadcast - the drop in the numbers of spectators willing to pay for a ticket to attend the Dutch round of MotoGP at Assen underlines the importance of TV coverage in local markets.