The Editor's Opinion: How Heroes And Villains Can Help Save World Superbikes

Sunday was a pretty good day for British motorcycle racing fans. The first four finishers in both World Superbike races were British riders, and wildcard Kyle Ryde rode a thrilling and aggressive race to finish on the podium in his first ever World Supersport race. And yet less than 16,000 spectators turned up to Donington Park to watch the action. When you factor in the creative mathematics which goes into generating spectator numbers at sporting events (motorcycle racing is not alone in this), and then take a wild stab at the number of attendees on some form of freebie or other, then the actual quantity of punters who handed over cold, hard cash for a ticket is likely to be disappointingly low.

Once upon a time, British fans flocked to Brands Hatch to watch WSBK. Though the claims of 100,000 at the Kent track are almost certainly a wild exaggeration, there is no doubt that the circuit was packed. Fans thronged at every fence, filling every open patch of ground to watch their heroes in combat. So what went wrong?

If only World Superbikes were racing at Brands again, British fans say. Frankly, I think the fond memories of Brands were colored in large part by the fact that WSBK visited Brands in August, when the chances of a hot, sunny summer day are much better than the Midlands in the middle of May. Good weather is a proven draw for any outdoors sporting event, and motorcycle racing is no different.

But a spot of sunshine and a few degrees of temperature can't explain the massive drop in attendance over the past fifteen years. There has always been a very strong British presence in World Superbikes, and the Brit contingent is now stronger than ever. But still the crowds stay away. The racing is excellent: fans often compare the WSBK races favorably to MotoGP, in terms of close battles and unpredictable winners. So that can't be it either. The bikes are perhaps not as trick as they were ten years ago, the formula simplified in pursuit of cost-cutting. Justifiably so: this is supposed to be production racing, after all, and not prototypes in disguise. The balance is pretty good, though. Five of the series' eight manufacturers got on the podium last year, four of them racking up wins.

Great racing, great riders, home talent to cheer for, and yet the stands are only sparsely filled. BSB, the series where most of the current crop of World Superbike riders came from, races less sophisticated bikes, held its round back in April, when the weather is even less dependable, yet drew twice as many fans to the track as WSBK did. What is their secret? How come BSB is thriving while WSBK is in the doldrums?

The answer is simple. Entertainment. BSB director Stuart Higgs understands that what he is running is primarily a show, put on to fill the leisure time of fans. They have many entertainment products competing for their time and money, so to persuade them to spend their time and money on racing, the show has to be worth it.

The ugly truth, one which the racing purists do not like to face, is that professional motorcycle racing, just like every other form of professional sport, is an entertainment product. As boxing promoter Barry Hearn puts it, "Sport is soap opera for men." It is unscripted drama based on a competitive activity, with the drama consisting of the outcome of the contest being unknown. It is a freeform narrative, the story being told second by second, lap by lap as the race unfolds. We only find out how the story ends once the checkered flag falls, though with some races the plot can seem pretty much set in stone as soon as the lights go out. And the best thing about racing is that two weeks later, they repeat the whole thing all over again. Each individual story is part of a larger tale, which leads to the championship, which in turn becomes a much bigger collection of stories, concerning titles, rivalries and legacies.

To be interesting, though, stories need characters. Without someone to root for, or, more importantly, to root against, there is no reason to take an interest in who wins and who loses. A purist will say that choosing a rider to support should be based on a belief in their talent. That, of course, is nonsense. Judging the talent of a rider is something which is incredibly hard. Look at how many riders have been written off after a bad season, or riders who have gone unnoticed until they turned up in a better team and on a better bike. Even the so-called experts get it wrong: many of us wrote Valentino Rossi off as being over the hill. That would be the Valentino Rossi currently leading the championship.

So riders gain support (or the opposite) based on the perceptions of their personalities, gleaned from fleeting glances on TV, and even briefer glimpses at public events. In real life, we might spend an evening chatting to someone and think, "they seem like a nice sort of person." But it takes only a 15-second slot on TV to decide that we either adore or loathe the stars of the sport we follow.

Successful sports series either exploit this by design, or just get lucky with the characters involved in the sport. For the most part, motorcycle racing has fallen into the latter camp, with star riders who understood their own role, and how to create and manage their own stardom. Giacomo Agostini, but especially Barry Sheene understood this very well. Both exceptionally talented riders, but known and loved far beyond the sport because they had character, and knew how to appeal to a larger audience.

In recent years, Valentino Rossi proved to be the master of media management, and a worthy successor to Barry Sheene. Rossi came to the premier class knowing not just that he needed to be loved, but that his fans needed someone to hate. Loyalty to a clan is all the fiercer when it has hatred of "The Other" to reinforce it. Rossi forced Max Biaggi into that role, without Biaggi understanding what had happened to him. Sete Gibernau followed, to a lesser extent, and then came the arch rival who truly made Rossi. Casey Stoner was everything which Rossi wasn't: irascible, plain-speaking, media shy. He was also fast enough to beat Rossi, making his value as a rival even greater.

The Rossi-Stoner rivalry was a case study in how creating off-track drama. There were plenty of incidents to help stoke the fires, but my own abiding memory of it was at Aragon in 2010. Rossi and Stoner, knowing they were moving on to different manufacturers, traded insults in the media. Rossi accused Stoner of not trying hard enough, explaining his results. Stoner said Rossi should watch his words, as he was being beaten by his teammate. We, the assembled media, rushed from the Ducati hospitality to the Yamaha hospitality like children eager to start a schoolyard fight. "Valentino just said this," we told Stoner. "Casey just said this," we told Rossi. Many column inches were filled that weekend.

Once upon a time, World Superbikes had its own master of the media. Carl Fogarty was a massive star, with huge pulling power. He was famous not just for winning races and championships, of which he had plenty, but also for creating rivalries, generating friction, giving his fans someone to hate, as well as letting the fans of his rivals hate him. The supposed 100,000 fans who came to Brands Hatch to watch World Superbikes were really there to see Foggy. If not to watch him win, then at least in the hope of seeing him fail. The high point of the era was the incident at Assen, when Frankie Chili had fallen at the final chicane, behind Fogarty, an error he blamed squarely on the Englishman. While Fogarty was giving the press conference, in stormed Chili wearing just his dressing gown, accusing Foggy of every vile crime under the sun. It is a moment which lives on in the memories of WSBK fans to this day.

Conversely, Grand Prix racing (500 GPs, the precursor to MotoGP) was suffering through a dark patch in that period, with interest waning during Mick Doohan's age of domination. Doohan was clearly one of the greatest riders ever to have slung a leg over a racing motorcycle – his results in 1992, when he took on and beat the likes of Wayne Rainey, Kevin Schwantz, Wayne Gardner, Eddie Lawson, speak for themselves – but watching Doohan take dour victory after dour victory brought no joy to anyone other than Doohan and his team. He rode bikes which others couldn't, and his crew chief Jerry Burgess made those bikes work where others failed. Yet fans disappeared in droves. Attendance at the Donington Grand Prix in the late '90s was similar to the figures for World Superbikes last weekend.

That reversal of fortunes points the way forward for the World Superbike series. If Dorna can build up the characters of the riders, promote them and manage them, then that can generate more interest. WSBK's top men have plenty of character already, but it does not come through on TV and in the press. Jonathan Rea is a quiet but intense man. Chaz Davies has a razor sharp intelligence combined with a quirky wit. Leon Haslam has a dark, brooding quality. Sylvain Guintoli is a chirpy Frenchman who always seems to find something to be cheerful about.

The trouble with WSBK is that these characters have nothing to contrast themselves to. Almost every rider on the grid is likable in one way or another. There are no antiheroes, no riders for the fans to hate, no one to serve as a communal focus for the fans of other riders. The nearest WSBK has is Kenan Sofuoglu, whose rivalry with Jules Cluzel is growing to one of legendary proportions. The recriminations and the anger is real enough, and certainly entertaining, but World Supersport is too unknown and unloved to serve as a surrogate for WSBK. As fascinating as support series are, they are just that: subsidiaries to the big boys, the main class where fans know everybody's name and their personal frailties and shortcomings.

What World Superbikes needs is not a hero, but an antihero. The fans need someone to root against, someone fast enough that the others, potential heroes, need to stretch themselves to beat. Creating an antihero may be easier than creating a hero, but it is still not an easy job. They need to be capable of rubbing people up the wrong way, of saying the wrong thing, of antagonizing the fans and the other riders. Fans should automatically interpret their words and actions in the worst possible way, however they were meant when delivered. That requires a certain type of personality. Max Biaggi had it, but he is now retired. Marco Melandri nearly had it, but is now circulating in MotoGP so far behind the field as to be irrelevant.

Can you create characters from professional sportsmen and women? Of course you can, if managed properly. Barry Hearn took darts and snooker, two of the most intensely tedious sports to watch as a spectator, and turned them into massive, multi-million dollar businesses. He took men who looked like accountants, who practiced sports which move at a glacial pace, and created a TV audience which numbers in the millions in countries around the world. Overweight, physically unappealing darts players are mobbed by fans wherever they go. Without questioning the extreme skill they have in their chosen art, the hysteria which surrounds them was created almost out of thin air, and created by design.

It is, of course, much easier to control the cast of characters in a sport when you control all of the championship. When individual competitors do not require millions of dollars of equipment and support staff just to make it to the start of the contest. The corporate interests involved make it much harder to create controversy, to generate talking points. Sponsors – with a few honorable exceptions, such as Monster – want riders who are famous, rather than notorious. They want someone they can present to their business partners without fear of them saying something unpalatable.

A thousand times worse than sponsors are the manufacturers. Factory teams fear controversy more than anything, forcing riders to adhere to media codes and radically limiting what they can say. Criticism is prohibited, and that prohibition enforced by large fines. Say the wrong thing as a rider and you can kiss a painfully large part of your salary goodbye.

Fortunately for World Superbikes, the manufacturers have a little less to say. Teams can go racing without factory support, or with only indirect support, and Dorna could, should they so wish, create more controversy among the riders and teams. They could create heroes and villains, highlight one side of a rider's character, and contrast that with others. They could, in short, give the fans reason to love one rider, and hate another. Both riders would benefit, as even the rider who is supposed to be hated will grow their fan base. There are always fans who want to root for the bad guy. The Raiders fans, the Millwall fans, the fans who hate the establishment and want to back their guy against it.

Is this artificial? It certainly is. Will such artificiality ruin the integrity of the sport? Not necessarily. The integrity of the sport is about what happens on track: as long as there is a level playing field and a neutral judge – in the case of World Superbikes, race direction and the technical director, ensuring fair play and relative parity among the bikes – then the sporting side will be just fine. There is no need to intervene in the actual racing, other than to ensure it is seen to be scrupulously fair. What matters is off the track: in the media, among the fans, via social media.

With some thought, and a bit of ingenuity, Dorna could grow World Superbikes again by telling a better story, creating brighter characters than what we see today. Doing so would not impact MotoGP, but would help bolster it, perhaps even boost it. The very rivalry between the two series could be leveraged to generate interest: there have always been WSBK fans and MotoGP fans, so why not pit those fans against each other, via some proxy contest between the riders?

Of course, if it was that easy, I would have already done this and would be sitting in my mansion counting my millions. But that doesn't mean Dorna shouldn't try.

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Good analysis & opinion as usual, Mr E.

Part of the issue you highlight is that all the WSBK riders seem to be genuinely pleasant, civilised sportsmen who respect each other on and off track. Many are, how can we put it, mature and experienced racers with children, wives and pleasant homes in leafy counties. They're more likely to invite their rivals for dinner than elbow them into the gravel, which is nice but not what the fans go to see.

It's all a bit too much of a mates' club, and part of that is due to the number of British and British-based (like Guintoli) riders. Many of the entertainingly wild-eyed crazies of past Superbike series have been from the USA or Australia (e.g. Bayliss, Bostrom, Slight, Crafar – and let's not forget Gobert). So maybe some sort of feeder series in Aus and America should be part of the long-term plan. And where are the fast Japanese riders these days?

World Superbike, as it was once known, needs to go back to its global roots and cast its net wider to find an edgier, more international set of stars. Then the characters will emerge naturally, as they once did. Both Aussies and Yanks are not exactly known for their tact and shy, retiring nature. Let's get a few more loud-mouthed nutters and hooligans involved, then stand well back.

"Both Aussies and Yanks are not exactly known for their tact and shy, retiring nature. Let's get a few more loud-mouthed nutters and hooligans involved, then stand well back."

hey!! I resemble that :-)

As a dedicated Harley and Triumph rider who's flown colors in three M/C's over the past twenty-five years, I definitely resemble that remark. And yeah, we need more Yanks in the series. Hopefully, within a couple of years we'll have them, if MotoAmerica can build on what they started.

And we definitely need Foggy back. Or a twenty year old clone with his talent. He definitely made World Superbike worth following back in the day. And I can still remember a story or two from Ben Bostrum in his rookie year teamed with Foggy.

I totally buy into what you're saying. So now I'm thinking that Motoamerica needs to export two riders into WSBK. Two riders who have a bitter rivalry that starts here and continues overseas. But American corporate culture doesn't like controversy either. The post-race conferences are so predictable and boring "110%, one race at a time, blah, blah". Maybe the two need to be on the same team so they can counter the bad guy with the good. Imagine if Mladin wasn't such a b*&%h and went over at the same time as Ben Spies. The fans would have gone nuts!

LOL! You are right about the statements made after the races. Imagining Mladin and Spies in WSBK would have been a great thing. Mladin was the enemy of enemies. The things he said about other riders were right up there with Fogarty, and worse sometimes.

. . . . . in America, that his departure is the one thing we'll give the France's credit for when they took over the series. He wouldn't go away on his own, so they drove him away. Pity that's the last thing they did right.

And a lot of that hatred towards the guy was because we knew he was good enough for World Superbike, but wouldn't go. He was the ultimate sandbagger.

It's funny, I was having these same thoughts about the plight of F1 at the weekend. Sure there are problems with the racing spectacle but half the problem is I don't REALLY care who wins or loses. I like Jenson Button but...

MotoGP on the other hand - If one of the riders I really follow has a bad weekend it takes me days to properly get over it. That applies to riders in Moto2 and Moto3 too.

Basically you need to feel invested in the sport to give up your free time and money to it. That connection just isn't there with WSB and F1 for me at least.

as an avid motogp fan in America I just don't care about WSBK and the only times I did were because of Collin Edwards and Ben Spies. Things were a little bit interesting when Biaggi was there but for the most part there isn't a cast of characters I care about. Crutchlow is a smart one for getting out of there ASAP

The day after the patriotic binge of Memorial Day, it seems appropriate to ask why Americans appear congenitally unable to enjoy a sport unless one of their fellow countrymen is world champion.

You talk like Nationalism is an awful thing. If you have ever watched racing in america on TV, you would know it is a complete JOKE. 2 laps then commercial, 2 laps then commercial. Having someone in the series you know to get your foot in the door to watch and enjoy is part of the calculation. Do you watch NBA, MLB, NHL or NFL or NASCAR? Those sports are shoved down our throats until you like them. I am an american and watch both series, hell I even download the BSB races. I love motorcycle racing. But the coverage on TV here is terrible.

Nationalism has been responsible for a lot of nastiness - I do think it's pretty awful.
Altho' I'm a British alien residing in the US, I can happily root for an Italian, Australian, Spaniard or Czech - but then I do have desmodromic valves beating where my heart should be.
So far I've managed to resist the dubious charms of NASCAR etc, but I agree US TV is even worse than nationalism. When I seize power here, I'm going to make their coverage of bike racing a capital crime.

Looking at the attendance figures for last weekend, it seems like the UK is having trouble supporting this sport even with their riders dominating this season's results.

David is spot on- while I have had a MotoGP subscription for several years, this is my first AND likely last subscription to WorldSBK. Moto3 by itself is much more entertaining.

Getting away at the front and holding on for the win may be a racer's dream but something that looks more like a time trial than a close race doesn't hold my interest very long. I actually was fast-forwarding through parts of the 2nd half of Sunday's race #2.

plenty of Americans that watch and cheer for non Americans in the sport. we may have a soft spot in are hearts for Nicky but we still enjoy the racing. also try watching something pretaining to moto gp over here!

Thanks for this David. An angle we don't often consider.

We have been running tours to SBK for 5 years now, the last 3 as sponsors and partners of factory Kawasaki. We can't get any higher on the tree. Yet every event we stand around -- usually with a couple of lucky/discerning customers -- pondering why more people don't attend SBK? Brilliant experience, tons of racing, some really exciting events (did you watch Kyle's duel for the podium in WSS?), superb value for money (a weekend as a VIP guest of Kawasaki is about 1/3rd the cost of a similar experience with a MotoGP team -- and that is before you get to taste the champagne of Tom and Johnny!)

Looking back to the early 2000s, Brands Hatch with over 140,000 race day spectators, we know there COULD be interest. But even more than the lack of heroes and villains, I suspect the lack of main stream terrestrial TV coverage has a lot to do with it.

Dorna needs to stop keeping this a secret. Of course to those that DO attend, they'd probably prefer it that way!

Excellent article and analysis.
This is one of the many reasons Marco Simoncelli's death was such a big loss to bike racing. He was a flamboyant personality both on and off the track.
Apart from extrovert character, nationality can play a large part in villainy. It's a problem there isn't a wider representation on the front rows of the grid.
If Marc Marquez had not been handed the best machine from the get-go, he could have played a similar role to Simoncelli. Lorenzo used to be pretty villainous when he raced the 250s but mellowed somewhat when he arrived at MotoGP. I never saw Stoner as irascible - just spikey.
Personally I found Melandri entertaining, but can understand why others disliked him. I always enjoyed Bayliss. As for Biaggi, I came to admire him at the end of his career.
It's a great shame Sofoglu has been content to stay in Supersport - I've very much enjoyed his dust-ups with Lowes and Cluzel.

WSB needs the wildcards back. Rule balance / parity with the major national championships was key to WSB's early success, its been downhill ever since the wildcards disappeared.

This should be a major part of Scott Smart's role as the series technical guru.

Interesting article. I've attended UK rounds of WSBK both Donington and Silverstone but not this year as I was spent out after Jerez. I am one of those head shakers myself but whilst I think personality counts I don't think it is necessary to have a villain but it would be fun. I'd argue that BSB has no villains really to worry about yet it still gets more crowds.

What BSB does have is open paddock access and this does give a better 'show' and plenty of time for people to get to see and find out about riders. WSBK seems a bit more stuck up, the paid paddock means both the riders and the paying public seem a little more stand offish, rushed and less friendly. I don't think you can argue safety or a need to let people get on with the job because BSB has a bigger paddock, more races and a bigger public yet pulls it off brilliantly. As a punter it makes for a much more personal experience.

In the UK the TV hasn't helped much recently, cutting away from the grid, adverts during the warm ups etc seems to break the rhythm of the whole thing. Again this doesn't happen during BSB so I just don't get it.

Finally as a UK resident I actually think there are perhaps too many Brits in WSBK. Sometimes it feels like the BSB I can only attend once a year. Just a thought.

This thread makes me smile at double standards;

Cal Crutchlow gets pilloried all over the internet for shooting from the hip and saying what he thinks then we all lay into the bad factories for turning riders into PR clones.....

I prefer the free thinking free speaking madman type of rider. 20 Critchlow-esque pilots on the grid please.

I'd like to thank for making this post possible, they were fantastic today. I'd also like to thank Bridgelop for the amazing tyres, our title sponsor 'Off your head' Energy Drink and the whole team at here at Yamdacati for making such a fantastic motorcycle.

Cal Crutchlow gets pilloried all over the internet

So what? Its far better to be talked about than the opposite.
One of the smartest things you can ever do as a celebrity is create controversy. It keeps your name in the news and you stay relevant. Bad press can be better than no press if you're smart enough to know how to use it.

Good chap actually, was great with the fans when I met him at WSBK in 2010, had a laugh & a joke (unlike rather aloof Toseland).

Yes, he shoots from the hip, it's welcomed by me, and he gets podiums to back it up.

It's hard to create rivalries if those in the press booth treat every rider like a god. Think back to MotoGP at Indianapolis 2007, when Dani Pedrosa was introduced, he was loudly booed by the crowd. I only saw that reported through one outlet, an online one at that. And every reporter who interviewed him either ignored or danced around why Pedrosa earned that level of derision.

If there's going to be good guys and bad guys, it's up to the press to tell who's a bad guy, and why. If someone commented here that rider X lacks the brains that god gave geese because of what he did to rider Y, would you let it stand or remove it out of fear of being denied access to rider X?

I have never, nor will I ever, not write something or delete a comment for fear of losing access to a team or a rider. I can do my job with or without access.

If someone writes that rider X does not have the intelligence to think himself out of a paper bag, then whether that remark stands or not depends on whether that rider does or does not possess the intelligence to think himself out of a paper bag.

I think all the explanations here are contributory factors, just like any 'soap'. WSBK somehow lacks character (and characters) at the moment and has done for a while. But part of that has to be because there's been very little opportunity, here in the UK at least, to hook into the 'storyline'; the only free tv access has been a pitifully poor 30 minute highlight programme on channel 4 a week or so after the race weekend, which equates to 2 x 10 minutes of race coverage padded out by inane pit lane/presenter chatter and adverts. While BSB also has a highlights version that's 1 hour, long enough for the commentators to do their stuff and paint a more detailed picture. It's telling, for me, that I've started to take more interest in WSBK now that I can see full races on Eurosport, though like I say it still doesn't have the pull of MotoGP.

Dorna would be well advised to ensure that TV coverage is offered - which is not the case here in Canada. In the past I have subscribed to Dorna's live streaming but this year only for MotoGP. Also in years past I would ride (4 long days each way) to Laguna Seca for MotoGP and last year for the WSBK round but this year chose to ride to Austin for the MotoGP (10,000km return) but for the cost of those trips I can fly to Europe and having not been overly impressed by Donnington Park - either weather, facilities or cost, it will be Italy or Spain again. Those two countries are pretty hard to beat by any measure.
I repeat - To gain fans, TV coverage is absolutely essential. Dorna do not seem to "get it"!

I agree with more characters needed in WSBK. I also agree with anteater pointing out that BSB is plent of fun without the villains. But the one thing that BSB has that WSBK is lacking on a consistant basis is close racing until the last lap almost every race. BSB is the most satisfying series to watch right now because you never know what is going to happen at the end. They do promote BSB mercilessly too, but the racing is fun to watch. Those guys may not be as fast as the World level races as a whole, but who cares when it is something happening every race. WSBK is fun to watch for diehards, (like myself.), but I can see the normal person getting bored watching it. Personal rivalries do help get a deeper interest.

Fogarty used to fire up his fans and haters alike with every statement and every middle finger he put up. The man was so much of a master of creating a buzz, no one knocked him for not racing hard at tracks he did not like. Haters were happy he lost, fans did not say anything. Bayliss was as mellow as a surfer that just got through smoking weed when interviewed, but was a mad man on the track. I don't know who was more fun to watch, him or Haga. Right now there are no riders in WSBK that on track look like mad men, and there personalities are all very nice and cordial so off the track there is really not much to grab onto for drama. You have to be an avid fan to know little things like Kawasaki's Rea just joined the team and in the first year out is dominating which is rare for someone changing teams. The rules changed so the Kawasaki is different from last year and Rea's teammate who just won Sykes is taking longer to catch on. Who will come out on top... People who do not follow the technical side and riders stats do not care. But when Fogarty after the end of a race after beating calls 2nd place Kocinsky, "a little cock from Arkansas." people want to find out what is going on.

It will be interesting to know how SBK TV viewership worldwide has fared over the past 5 years or so. My guess is that it is also in decline.
The racing is at the same level it always has been, but the lustre of the spectacle is gone.
I do agree that the sport lacks some winning hero/villain rivalry to ignite the spark again.
Then again, all it would take is for Guigliano to injudiciously take out one of the established title contenders in any particular race and become a regular contender for wins everywhere, and voila, game on again.
Then there is the manufacturer and race fan relationship. The mere fact that these bikes are closely based on what you and I can ride on the street brings its own brand of rivalry to SBK. Part of the love/hate side of SBK in the past also revolved around the twin vs four and capacity issue. To be more specific, Japanese 4's vs Ducati. Back then when Ducati were championship contenders there existed another dimension which made up for any lack of rider hero/villain bias.
Take Carlos Checa. One the most loved racer's the world over. When he switched to Ducati and won the title, I'm sure lot of fans who were not biased this way or that way either rooted for Checa or could not wait to see him beaten, merely by virtue of the bike he was riding.
Hopefully Yamaha will get back into the mix with some some top riders from abroad.
The game needs a sort of Ben Spies injection.

Thanks, David.

I fully agree. People buy stories with characters, not just the action. For the action to entertain you need the action hero and villain.

I covered two race weekends this year in WSBK, at PI and Chang. At PI, I was asked by Craig Johnston, the Clerk of the Course - if I could also cover the marshal's event where the track marshals get some recognition for all their work. Apart from the fun, they also invite some of the riders to be part of it. This year, Craig managed to get Rea, Haslam, Sykes, Davies and of course, Bayliss.

All absolutely lovely blokes. Leon also had his little toddlers in their nappies wandering around. Fantastic family event. All everything normal and family beautiful. That is the image of reality, but one that is created and amplified by the sponsors and the team marketers.

The issue is the marketing of the characters is primarily in the hands of the teams and their sponsors and marketers. Not in the hands of of Dorna, which is marketing the sport itself. Until you have a rider who comes along to position himself - for whatever disenfranchised childhood reason - as a devil, you don't have a god to market. Only a pantheon of lovely saints.

Thanks again.

Were there ever two characters like that? You could love and hate both of them at the same time. RIP Barry and God bless Kenny Roberts

from the UK perhaps? It is possibly like going to a BSB round, only more boring due to Kawasaki's utter dominance this season.

I agree with some here, WSBK needs more American, Australian, Spanish and Italian riders or any other nationality-surely there has to be a good contingent of contenders from these nations who can compete given the right package.

And get rid of the stupid headlight stickers!!!!

Great article, and I applause for the attention you're giving to WSBK.
I think that, now with MotoGP enjoying a new lease of life (popularity wise), it's the time to focus a little on WSBK (and Moto2) which seem to be the most "in decline" series in the worldwide scene.
Maybe more indepth articles "touching the wounds" wouldn't be a bad idea.

The popularity "peak" of WSBK in the 1990s had to do with a lot of particularly relevant factors, and among them:

1) - When WSBK was introduced, the GrandPrixs were ruled by 2-strokes, which were a very "particular flavor" kind of prototype racing (some say the most purposeful for that, but that's another discussion).
GrandPrix bikes had even less resemblance to what we would see in the road back then (aside from the odd 125cc and 250cc road production sportbike), which means it left all the space and margin for WSBK to be introduced and rise as the true 4-stroke road racing world championship - even if production based.

2) - Both GP and WSBK were two completely different flavours that complemented the sport, the fans and the business needs in a healthy, non-clashing way.
Once MotoGP 4-strokes were introduced, it was predicted that it would kill two series in one strike - the extinction of 2-strokes, and the slow "dumbing down" of WSBK, to become more "SuperStock" (aka STK).

3) - The popularity "peak" of WSBK happens at the same time that 500cc Grand Prix seemed to reach a stagnation in development.
But I would add another reason, in Mick Doohan's (boring) domination, year after year, and with popular superstars (Rainey, Schwanz, Lawson, etc) no longer being there, what also made fans look elsewhere.

4) - WSBK race machines were a focus of admiration and exhilarating for the curious during that period (and related to point #1 above).
First, because most were based on very limited production, purposed made motorcycles made (barely) legal for the road. They were, matter of fact, true race bred exhotic machinery (optional race-parts kit available from factory) - from Japan inclusively.
Imagine a Honda RCV213v for the road - that's what the Honda RC30 and RC45 were equivalent to back then.
Second, because they were then tuned to the extreme - economically unpractical, for sure, but it creates curiosity, awe and admiration, to factories, teams and machines. So, not just the riders.

5) - WSBK was a true world championship with riders from all over the world.
Many of them were either established superstars or rising stars, of all nationalities, coming from all over Europe, USA, Australia and New Zealand, Japan, etc, etc.
We've noticed how GrandPrixs were "Spanish biased to the extreme" for years on a string (still is to some extent), but WSBK today is looking just as biased, extremely British or British-based.


Unfortunately, I think "heroes and villains" would not be enough to help bringing the status and popularity to WSBK that it once had through the 1990s and early 2000s.

For example, look at WSS, where you have Cluzel vs Sofuoglu. That's probably the most intense clash of riders in that class since the early 2000s.
Yeah, that helps, but WSS popularity is still not what it once was (for other reasons, maybe because 600cc sportbikes are no longer the most popular on the road, and barely evolved during this last decade).

We're simply living in a much harsher economic climate than we were in the late 80s, through the 90s and early 2000s.

Here's some food for thought... many of us reading this are in their 30s and 40s.
If you were a young kid today, would you be able to watch MotoGP or WSBK in public television as you could then?
Sure, the world has changed immensely since then (etc, etc), and it may look like a minor thing initially but, I would defend the case THAT was one of the major factors for a lot of kids, to grow up as avid motorcycle racing fans, and later as a riders on the street. Simply because you would be introduced to it almost by chance, in the most natural and random situation.
Youngsters (and not only) today seem to resort to pirate transmissions or torrents to watch the races regardless, but you would have to be looking for it.
It's no doubt that broadcast (GP or WSBK) is a lot more restricted to wider (and younger) public audiences.

Also, I honestly don't think DORNA taking control of WSBK was the best idea, even if necessary for these series on the short term, as some defend.
They will easily sacrifice WSBK and WSS to favor GrandPrix classes, if and when necessary.
The Flammini brothers may not have been spectacular as rulers of WSBK, but at least a separate and completely detached organization would (presumably?) always fight for WSBK and WSS sustain and progress, regardless of conditions and problems, being their own standalone project and business.

Hey, nice heading Luc ; )

And great post, lots of valid points there. I lived through all of that as a GP fan (first race I attended was 500GP at Eastern Creek, 1992) and you've summed it up very well.

#4 is the most important aspect, imo.

Differentiating the race bikes and production bikes is critical, but this task has been made more difficult by the 1000cc machines. To contain costs and maintain some differentiation between WSBK and GP performance, Superbikes run relatively mild power output. Mild power output blurs the line between Superbikes and stock machines. This is the same disease in GT racing. Fans like the cars, and they want to learn more. Inevitably they learn that the GT3 machines are actually detuned versions of their favorite production cars. Kryptonite. Superbike isn't quite as bad, but the stock machines generate nearly as much power as the racebikes these days.

However, the situation is much different in WSS. The stock machines only produce about 100-110hp, but the race bikes push around 150hp....well, they did before the engine restriction rules. Smaller reciprocating internals and stratospheric rpm (in race trim) allow WSS machines to have 50% more power than their stock counterparts, which raises the profile of the machines.

I think homologation specials and intriguing race bikes are both tied to smaller displacement engines.

"Fans like the cars, and they want to learn more. Inevitably they learn that the GT3 machines are actually detuned versions of their favorite production cars. Kryptonite."

I keep hearing this argument about the crucial necessity of power. I don't buy it. Before these fans start sneering, perhaps they should recall an aphorism from an ever-popular indoor sport: "It's not what you've got, but what you do with it".
I suspect many of these fans on their 1200cc 4-cylinder sports-bikes would have a hard time keeping up with the Moto3 sixteen-year-olds on their single cylinder 250cc machines.
They might also want to remember most passes are made under braking.

Race cars/bikes are much faster than stock machines, and professional driver/riders are much faster than their amateur compatriots, but those truths are not related to the merits of the technical regulations. Detuning GT cars with air-restrictors or, in some cases, bespoke detuned engines, undermines the spectacle and stated purpose of motorsport (going as fast as possible). Detuning race vehicles leads people to believe that racing is fundamentally flawed. Upon further examination, they will ultimately confirm their assumptions. Horsepower limitations, mainly in car racing, is kryptonite. It kills powertrain innovation/variety and turns motorsport into a silly BoP circus without any meaning.

Thankfully, bike racing does not suffer from the same affliction as GT cars, but the narrowing horsepower gap between street bikes and superbikes is not helping the spectacle. It is in everyone's best interest to have a large horsepower and performance gap between stock equipment and racing equipment.

Detuning can definitely go too far, but is done to provide both a degree of equalisation and also ensure the the machinery doesn't outgrow the circuits either in safety terms (if you're getting that much faster, there comes a point where the barriers get too close for comfort) or for creating a racing spectacle on the tarmac you have.

At the 1996 British Grand Prix at Donington, the fastest lap was a 1:33.5. On Sunday, the fastest lap in the National Superstock 600 race - a 7 lap sprint - was half a second quicker than that (I know the Foggy Eases have opened out a bit since, just indulge me this one cos the point still stands). Mason Law on a 2015 stock Kawasaki ZX6 would beat Mick Doohan in his prime on a 1996 Honda NSR500. I don't think you can say that racing attendance has suffered from dumbing down when today's stock 600 machinery is faster than a Grand Prix beast from 20 years ago.

(I know that doesn't really answer your point per se, but is worth mentioning)

Here in Australia the 2013 WSB round drew 61,500 people over three days, while the 2013 MotoGP race drew 77,200 over three days - and that was a drop on the usual figures, because no Casey.

So it's still fairly healthy over here, but there are reasons.

1. Our domestic series is a pile of crap, people go - I'm one of them - but attendance is pretty poor. So the BSB state of affairs is for sure a thorn in WSB's side when it comes to rivalry. No such problem here.
Solution - introduce some infighting, confusion, and plain old incompetence to BSB, like the AMA and ASBK series have 'enjoyed' over the last 5-10 years. Problem solved.

2. WSB at the Island beats MotoGP hands down, because it's a lot more relaxed. You can ride your bike into the circuit grounds and park it at your favoured viewing position, later on ride to another spot for a bit, etc. MotoGP - park and walk a few km, then spend 45 minutes searching for your bike after the race. Perhaps there's some room to move there, for the Donnington organisers.

3. It's a pilgrimage - most of Australia's best bike roads lie in the 1,000km-odd of distance between Sydney and PI. Melbourne is only two hours away - lucky sods - but tens of thousands of riders head south each year for a fang in the mountains, with WSB the cherry on top. Riding to Donnington might not be quite as fun...

I daresay the IoM might also be stealing a few circuit racing fans of late - its star is on the rise as far as popularity goes, and I have to say that if my choice was the British WSB round or a week at the TT - well, that decision is no decision at all : )

Characters are an important aspect of the sport, but they are as meaningful/meaningless as the sport in which they participate. Games like darts, snooker, poker, and bowling might seem meaningless, but they are accessible and popular amongst amateurs. The Pro-Amateur competitions also help make for interesting story lines, and the purses are usually quite lucrative (prize money is meaningful). Plus, the wider the field, the easier it is to find characters, especially amongst amateurs. In general, scripted drama is less interesting to men because it rarely has any relevance or meaning.

Motorcycle racing once had the competitive dynamism and relevance of games like poker or darts, but the sport has become increasingly insular, inbred, and closed-off to the public as paranoia grips the GPC since Bridgepoint acquired a majority stake in Dorna. Once upon a time, wild-cards turned up regularly because the manufacturers sold race bikes to the public via homologation specials. Furthermore, rules were relatively close across the international and national championships so riders could wild card or run partial schedules in various series for grins. The electronics were simpler and the tire strategies were more influential so individual riders had more control of the sport, as well. The wide field of superbike riders with differing international backgrounds helped feed characters into the WSBK and GP circuses. Now, GP is limited to 24 riders, and it doesn't sound like Dorna had the foresight to leave a few spots for qualifiers. SBK has no common rules set, and the manufacturers are still too lazy to build homologation specials for turnkey (almost) competition, and WSBK is planted firmly in the shadow of MotoGP (1000cc).

They'll probably get it sorted round about the same time everyone stops caring.

As a comercal rights holder surprisingly they provide zero marketing of their product. Rather they relly solely on the teams and their sponsors to make the marketing for them.

You see it in MotoGP, the trouble is it won't fly in production racing to push this on manufactures who would rather market their own products than the series.

Case in point a bike like the Aprilla RSV has buckets loads of wins and several championships in the same time that Ducati's Panigalie has finally managed their first race win.

Yet the Ducati has been out selling the Aprilla by orders of magnitude and kicking butt on the showroom.

Basically Dorna need to invest in promoting WSBK and not leave it to its own devices.

I thought this was an excellent piece, highlighting how difficult it is to put your finger on the magic "X" factor that makes a series popular or not.

If you look at BSB, last year they marketed it as the "War for Four" in the showdown between Shakey Byrne and Kiyo for who could get their 4th BSB title first, and it made for a fascinating narrative that helped frame the whole championship. It had a purpose, it meant something, it had passion.

The problem with WSBK now is that it is in a kind of no-mans land. It isn't the premier championship in the world (not that it ever was) and MotoGP has now found itself with some brilliant riders producing brilliant racing all going for the ultimate motorcycle prize.

The underlying narrative of the GOAT Rossi trying to re-assert his authority over the upstart Marquez, with a resurgent Lorenzo on their tail and a turn around of the Ducati factory. Lots of inter-mingling stories making each race interesting for different reasons. And depending on where you stand an obvious hero pitted against his nemesis (Rossi the hero for me, Marquez the anti-hero). More passionate riders you couldn't come across. (Except Pedrosa, he's just dull)

WSBK is now full of very quick riders who aren't really going anywhere, either long term SBK stalwarts or MotoGP rejects. There is no wild-card excitement, there are few surprises, all the riders are so nice as to be boring, a total lack of visible passion to the viewer.

So my buzzword from all of this is "passion". Where is the passion in WSBK? It used to be plucky Brit Foggy v the rest of the world, and we all felt passionately, it used to be wild man Gobert slipping and sliding, and we all felt the passion, it was Russell, Haga, Edwards, Chilli, Kockinski even, all with passion etched on them. Now it's difficult to see it, is it even there?

I thought the most passion shown in last year's WSBK was the final round in Qatar where Sykes was fuming about Baz ignoring the team order, but that was the one incident in a long year. If only Baz had been in the championship this year we would have had something to focus on.

Hopefully there will be some crazy Yanks or cool Aussies along soon to shake it all up and make us passionate again!

Good analysis. I think the problem with the hero/villain characters across paddocks these days can be summarized in two words: political correctness.

While I understand the need of respect, I think it has been taken too far, rendering most riders plastic, in terms of character. you always have to be careful of what you want to say and what you do. Any little thing that seems out of line gets blown way out of proportion. Take for example, Lewis Hamilton champagne spraygate in China. Everybody and their mother wanted a piece of him and frankly, it was blown way out of proportion, despite the fact the 'victim', writing in her weibo account, didn't see too much wrong and actually said it was taken too far by the media. Judging by their tone, you might have been forgiven to think that Hamilton had thrown her off the podium

We need an environment where riders can express themselves a bit more without worrying about losing sponsorship from company X and being bombed like a chechen rebel from every quota . The media need to bit more provocative, flame up that 'heat in the moment' even further (granted, there haven't been many of that this year) rather than asking the same ABCD questions.

staying on that political correctness note, I also like the grid girls the way they are. no problem with their 'skimpy' dresses, heels. They make me happy. Please don't banish them like WEC :-)

Great article & +1 to what everyone else has said !

I recently went to the BSB round at Oulton Park & it was a great carnival atmosphere with bike racing also happening as well !

Personally, I make no investment in any particular rider doing well or badly, life's too short to place my emotional stability in the hands of some random rider I've never met. Being depressed because MY rider, football team, or whatever lost, forget that !!!

Stuart Higgs is trying to do a Barry Hearn by owning the series & most of the tracks, by doing this he is taking ownership of the series & investing in it accordingly.
Dorna don't appear interested in WSBK & it shows!

Btw, the racing was great at Oulton Park & saw Tommy Bridewell take his first BSB win! I used to enjoy reading his Brothers column in fast bikes magazine many moons ago!

about the whole "Heroes vs Villains" thing. I can see why it turns some people's tyres but it's no fun watching a villain win. Seeing Sofuoglu head butt Foret and escape with what I thought was a paltry penalty, along with a slew of other incidents, turned me right off Supersport and I can't stand watching the guy now. The only solace was seeing him underwhelm in his attempt at the big banger class. Likewise Fogarty, he may have been a hero in the UK but he was close to the Anti-Christ for many of us.

I like David's quote about "sport is soap opera for men". However unlike soap opera's on the box, in reality there is no contrived happy ending after a cliff hanger finale and watching arrogant or yappy or just plain "bad" people win gives me no joy no matter how great their skill. While the prospect of "good triumphing over evil" is always a good seller, I'd be concerned that the opposite can also be detrimental to the sport: everyone loves a fairytale ending and nobody likes to see the hero vanquished.

I have no problem seeing blokes getting along on and off the track, and I love that there is still good sportsmanship and respect amongst elite competitors. Unlike many I don't see why you have to hate your rivals just to perform. Seeing two guys obviously excited, shaking hands and slapping each other on the back after an enjoyable battle is what sport, even at World Championship level, SHOULD be about. You can keep all your boxing type trash talk and disrespect, I don't want any part of that rubbish.

Lack of TV coverage is obviously the elephant in the room, but I can only hope that DORNA have done their sums and figured that the money they make from monopolising the 'net coverage counteracts the loss of local ticket sales. Only time will tell I guess as the current supporters who grew up watching both trackside and on free-to-air TV slip away. It will be interesting to see if they are replaced under the current promotional (or lack of) model. You can't sell a secret and at the moment it's difficult to see how the word is going to get out to bring in new fans.

One explanation for the current downturn could be the bikes. It used to be a series of "Production Exotica", but although the current bikes are unbelievably well developed there is a certain yawn factor when many of the bikes are so damn old and uncompetitive. Hell, the newest bikes (ZX10R and Panigale) are 4 years old. The CBR is basically twice that with the GSXR of similar vintage.

The series is also supposed to be a Production class, so all this underseat tank malarkey and modified frames was a turn off (for me anyway). Where was the relevance?

They can't compete with the glamour of a resurgent MotoGP so they need to go for better on track action. Get the bikes sideways, get 'em on the back wheel, get 'em laying rubber out of corners. So my ideal WSB bike would be low tech with heaps of grunt, which coincidentally would allow the local wild card riders to have a fair old crack at it, a la that brilliant effort by Kyle Ryde on the weekend. I vividly recall the anticipation I felt as the WSB regulars had to front up to Mladin, Reynolds and co. Imagine the crowds if the WSB boys had to front up to Byrne, Brookes and co at Donnington on similar spec bikes, or Hayes and Baubier in the US.

Like you, I doubt this hero-villain plot-line is going to work.
The recipe for success lies in your final paragraph. I could care less about technological innovations on a race track, and suspect much of the expensive electronic exotica has actually diluted the competition and spectacle.

We need to remember what every third-rate screenwriter learns on the first day at film school - that plot is everything. A race only gets called 'great' when tension and action continue until the last lap, and the riders are seen pushing their machines to the limit.
Despite the presence of British riders at the sharp end, I suspect the low crowds at Donnington are a consequence of the championship result already being a foregone conclusion.
There was no drama and no new characters - which adds up to very poor plot construction.

It's a pity that you provide such a shallow approach to that matter David.
My story would be a bit different:
The interest around WSBK has decreased as a result of Dorna's plan, as it was conceived to be growing against motogp.
When everybody was comparing WSBK top times against the prototypes and how Carlos Checa would qualify on the second row of a motogp race on his 1198r Duc, Dorna did not like that buzz and decided that the WSBK rules should be changed significantly, lowering the SBK specs.
Moreover, all that, was taking place while the Rossi - Stoner rivalry was going on.
Having a WSBK bike with stickers that look like lights, has been intimidating both for the bikes and for the race fans as well.

I am not arguing that what you are saying is wrong, it is just a part of the story though.
I understand that the organizers want to expand their audiences. Technically creating buzz is the easiest way for them. But at least for us -true race fans- the racing is that matters the most.
TV coverage is also an issue off course. WSBK used to be free to stream directly from the organizers site some years ago. Now you need to pay for the lower spec product. That makes a difference as well.

It's not the whole story, but there would be far more intrigue and excitement with an injection of fresh characters. I suspect there would be considerable buzz over the WSBK narrative arc - especially in the US - if Nicky Hayden was aboard one of the ZX-10Rs.
He'd certainly be doing far more for bike racing than trotting along near the back of the posse eating the dust thrown up by the MotoGP leads.

Unfortunately we all love a nitch sport. There are going to be peaks and valleys in interest. Manufacturing heros and villains would be no better than NASCAR. The drop in sportbike sales here in the US isn't helping which I think is why the factories no longer regularly update their 600 and 1000 machines. Without factory interest WSBK is going to struggle. JMHO.

Well, Ducati used to be a sort of villan. Small european factory, building V2, racing and beating the japanese, with " favorable" rules, factory team and star riders. Nowdays, there is no competitive Ducati, and no real stars. Not so long ago, Checa/Biaggi fight sold a lot of tickets.

I think Dorna are happy with the current state of SBK. The loyalist will stay but the casual fan will end up at Motogp.

I say this because I believe there are riders out available who could fit the bill in WSB but are out of a ride or don't have the funds to make the leap to the next level.

I have had a WSB subcription for the past 3 years and have been following since 1988. Who has the charater of a young Haga, Gobert or the flare of Russell? Does anyone remember that Mr. Nice guy Corser told Haga at Laguna,Pay backs a bitch? Hodgson & Slight getting into it in Japan (forgot the track). It's not the fighting. Its the passion the leads up to the fight.

I am not an insider on any level to know but maybe the hunger to be champion is not the same or the worth of a WSBK title is not as great .

A year or two ago you wanted to put the Moto GP pilots into boy bands.
Now you want to make WSBK pilots into WWE faces and heels.
Ha ha ha!

I think the boy band article you're referencing was more to do with the Moto3 guys being young guys who are attracting a young female fanbase.

I blame the British motorcycle race fans. I have two cases to make my point that its not the TV coverage, or bitter rivalries, or lack of characters.

Anybody remember how the Thai fans turned out for WSBK, and how they reacted when Thai rider; Ratthapark Wilairot moved his way up to 1st place in the WSS race.

Remember how Thailand celebrated when he won the race. I have friends in Thailand, and still haven't come down from win.

In 2013, SuperCross came to Minnesota and raced in the MetroDome.

Home state boy Ryan Dungey caught and passed Ryan Villopoto to win the race in dramatic fashion.
At one point Ryan Dungey had a 5 second lead. Dungey slowly chipped away at that lead, and By the time he got within 1 second of Villopoto, the cheers from the crowd where following them around the track. The last 5 laps of the race everybody was standing and cheering.

Couple of point to consider. Brits dominate WSBK. But 15,000 fans turned out for the race.
We should consider that Motorcycle racing is not popular in England and no amount of rivalries, drama or spectacle will change that fact.

In the coming years, a vast majority of WSBK races will be held in Thailand, India, China, Malaysia, South America, Spain and Italy. These are Countries where fans turn out for the races.

England (GB) you missing out on something you will never see again. An international sport where Brits dominate.

Motorcycle racing IS British last I checked. Several things seem to going on, and WSBK spectator turnout in several venues has taken a nose dive to the tune of 2/3rds of the folks staying home.

Some interesting comments and discussion is popping up here. David makes A good point, amongst many. Free TV coverage declining seems relevant. The global economy dwindling racing down to a trickle of what it had been just turned the corner of recovery a short while ago and the swell will take longer than the decline. Just the fact that there are plentiful gripes bubbling up like this one re rivalries and exposure of intrigue, Moto2 needing a revamp, an outdated generation of bikes (that I love btw...careful what you wish for, here come the R1m robo-bikes), struggles to grab slices of developing track/market pies, et al can be a sign of the times. Promising!

We have story lines developing and evolving. Some of the "good old days" in WSBK weren't so wonderful too. The Ducati dominant era had a snooze fest in it for instance. And some solid intrigue has had little to do with villain/hero tension. Ben Spies was rather Zen in his WSBK time and had me HOOKED.

Oh, and I have found lots of the media manipulation of good guy and bad guy really tedious and distasteful. Look at all the "fan boy" drivel and personal attack that we have to try to swipe past on Motomatters. I enjoyed the Rossi - Stoner rivalry on track quite a lot. Watching Stoner have to get his eyes poked out by the media unnecessarily? Disliked entirely.

But ok, if I must, I will acknowledge that I liked to dislike some of the antagonists we have mentioned. Not just riders though...Puig, HRC fuel and engine limit rules, whomever at HRC thought their computer had better throttle control than Stoner, those at Honda that value engineers over riders in general, the Suzuki and Aprilia 990 electronics demons, Pedrosa taking out Hayden, Italian twins getting favorable rules, Italian twins getting big restrictor plates, Tilkefied F1 tracks, early Lorenzo attitude, so on and so forth. And there are non-rider heroes too.

"We should consider that Motorcycle racing is not popular in England and no amount of rivalries, drama or spectacle will change that fact."

You haven't been following motorcycle racing for very long, right?


In the immortal words of Malcolm Tucker; "don't ever call me ^&*%$@ English again"


Motorcycle racing is a minority sport in all Western Countries though, its only Italy and Spain that buck the trend and even then its small fry compared to football (round ball football)

Not just WSBK, MotoGP will concentrate on emerging and big Eastern Markets - just as F1 is doing.

Anyway, never mind England; they invented Cricket and don't even dominate their own game! Scotland however, is pretty good at Curling ;)

As Jared succinctly put it in his tweet on Sunday.

Great article David. What I don't understand is the very rapid decline in support:

WSBK Silverstone 2010 65000 (Cal won both races) nice sunny day and a great weekend
WSBK Silverstone 2011 64000 (Checa won both races) nice sunny day and a great weekend
WSBK Silverstone 2012 48000 (event right in middle of London Olympics and it was wet)
WSBK Silverstone 2013 30000 - or thereabouts, but dry day I think

Last couple of years at Donington 15000

So massive and sudden slump, so I agree with your article, but is it that all down to Biaggi retiring?

Not so long ago WSBK had a number of former MotoGP riders adding glamor to the grid, and the real contenders had an international flavor. None of that is true any more.
Since 2010 the retirements of Checa, Haga and Biaggi, plus the recent departures of Laverty, Baz and Melandri haven't exactly made the series more attractive.
IMO Giugliano is currently the most charismatic foreign rider, and he's hardly a household name.

Definitely a lot of factors at play and hard to isolate what the defining ones are.

The global problem is WSB attendance declining in general. The more mystifying problem is why WSB was trounced by BSB at the same track six weeks apart, because we should be able to isolate some of the factors.

Certainly in other countries, poor TV coverage is important for poor attendances - but in the UK we have excellent coverage which has been on the same channel since 2004 during a period when satellite TV takeup has grown (ie the channel has more potential viewers) and hence doesn't explain the spectator drop in the last three years. WSB and BSB are on the same channel, for at least the last five years. The fact that the race has moved to Donington doesn't explain it alone, as BSB got twice as many at Donington six weeks ago. The date change from August to May doesn't explain it, as it was still on a Bank Holiday weekend (as was the BSB round held in a colder month). As I said in another thread, the ticket prices for WSB are more than for BSB...but again, that has always been true and the amount by which they are higher has remained similar. BSB and its teams and riders have a much stronger brand presence with the merchandise stands selling lots of their kit but very little WSB team stuff (only Crescent, a British team, get much of a look-in) - but that has been the case for longer than the three years where we've seen the decline. Sportsbike sales may be declining, but BSB track attendance seems unaffected and MotoGP is in very good health.

Most of the WSB rounds have moved to an earlier time in the day than is traditional but Donington didn't. (at present, sometimes the European Superstock 1000 race does feel like the feature race as it concludes the day with the best action of the WSB card).

Star riders? Not sure - Melandri was there last year and attendance was poor, ditto Baz, Laverty, Guintoli etc. Cal moved a few years ago, but at the time he was in WSB he wasn't a GP rider and all his contemporaries from the British paddock stuck around. The attendance drop doesn't correspond with Troy Bayliss or Nori Haga's retirements (or Frankie Chili's or James Toseland's). Do we REALLY think that fans of Max Biaggi and Carlos Checa accounted for two-thirds of the attendees at Silverstone? (Surely not)

I suspect the answer isn't one which could be answered by logic attempted by dedicated race fans - it is likely to lie with how the series is marketed to the casual viewer.

Snoozerbike. Sadly, I don't think it will change much in the near future.
I liken it to Moto2 these days, a sort of intermediate lacklustre class.
I for one make a point of following WSTK. Maybe Dorna should dumb down
the WSBK championship to the same level of kit and bring it even closer to production bikes and combine it into a 'run what you brung' series, with qualifying determining grid size limit. Cut costs and let the poor man in.
No, I don't have a magic wand solution for SBK current, nor Moto2.
As I emphasised on a previous post re Moto2 tenders, this is a 600 4 cylinder class that needs a radical re-think.
250 singles M3, 500 twins M2, 1000 4's GP1. 81mm bore. Open it up to all manufacturer's. I have no beef with Honda, but they do tend to shy away from a level playing field.
Hell, they had no problem beating Ducati with their L2 SP2 Honda back in the day with CE2.
I guess the reason the VTR was abandoned was because it thrust production costs into Ducati realm to keep it competitive. Hence, filtration down to consumer of L-Twin sport bikes. At the price, SP2 VS CBRR was a no brainer.
I reckon SBK should be dumbed down further to the level of SSTK.
Hey, Dorna! Cut costs and create a bigger spectacle. 1000cc 4's vs 1150 triples vs 1300 twins would be about the right ratio all things considered.
That way, we may see EBR and Triumph in the mix.
At the end of day, this should be 'race on Sunday, buy on Monday' series.
The heroes and villains will come to the fore on any Sunday, but first Dorna need to facillitate the opportunity governed by the current nonsensical SBK/M2/GP rule book.
The only one I do like is M3. Were I a spin doctor, the first race on Sunday in Mugello would be billed as the main event.
For me, it will be anyway. That sport, M3, is so hardcore and non-political. I never miss it.
Anyway, each to his own.

I think that David Emmet's analysis for the fall of superbikes from grace is quite on the dot, but there maybe more reasons for it rather than the one that he has concentrated upon - characters and rivalries. That most certainly is an issue. The likes of Tom Sykes, Jonathan Rea and Sylvain Guintoli maybe talented riders but they are definitely lacking in charisma and since charisma is a chimerical quality let us not even try to understand why. But one thing that is striking about the WSBK paddock as mentioned by someone is that it resembles some kind of an old boys club. And here you can take the meaning of old literally as well. At one time the riders resembled the members of the band Jethro Tull, what with all of them looking like they were playing the roles of ancient mariners in some movie of the 1960s. Only there was no Ian Anderson.

WSBK also brings back the days when all auto/moto racing was the preserve of rich and famous gentleman who brought the ladies, the butlers and their grandchildren to drive around in their Wolseleys, Morgans, and if you were lucky maybe a Ferrari, the kind of thing that Nick Mason does today. I am not sure if I want to go and see Nick Mason driving; in fact I am not sure if I want to see him drumming even though I am a Floyd Fan. The only thing worse than seeing Mason driving would perhaps be seeing Roger Waters dancing to Leaving Beirut. Anyway way too many things have contributed to WSBK becoming number 2 in a world of 2.

But while bashing WSBK let us not forget MotoGP is in no great shape either. The disappearance cigarette sponsorship is also symbolic of the loss of the desire for the living on the edge kind of lifestyle. Aldous Huxley's brave new world is beginning to set in and we are all increasingly secure that we are going to be taken care of. The world is full of nerds and geeks now, they do not even want to learn how to ride a cycle. For them sport is video games. Gaming is more popular than playing real games. And so in the increasing reliance on the virtual and the preference for it over the real, it is only a matter of time before these real sports disappear. F1 wanting to go green, Formula E (yuck), all these are symptomatic of the slow drying up of testosterone and the increasing of estrogen among men, which is slowly making the human species a unisex species and the only soap operas that matter are the real soap operas. Racing be damned.

Another gem, you really should be writing on your own site (assuming you aren't already doing so). Like David, you have a way with words.

I am humbled by your compliments. I used to write sometime ago, the site is still there and I have been considering writing for it again. If I can get myself out of this inertia and start writing again, I shall leave the URL so that if you feel like it, you can have a read. Thank you very much, again.

Gentleman racing is simply becoming less and less relevant. They can market it as "high tech" but it doesn't really matter.

How do you explain the rapid ascension of commercial rights for sports leagues? Sports, including violent sports like American football, are the go to investments for media companies and private equity. The value of traditional sports have all seen unprecedented prosperity, while virtually the entire racing industry has imploded and withered away, excluding NASCAR and F1, which have stagnated after rapid growth. MotoGP is also stagnant.

The sports entertainment industry evolved. Motorsport missed the memo. Decline is attributable to the incompetence of the people in charge.

about your impressions, mine are largely the opposite. I think back to earlier times and I think of guys of very limited means sleeping in the back of their van, maintaining their own machine, desperate for start money else they could not continue. This was how the race organisers were able to ignore the demands for increased safety for so long because the riders largely relied on what they won or earned as start money to fund their campaigns. While their were some wealthy competitors my impression is less silver spoons and more dirt ingrained under fingernails. WSB and even GP racing has never really had the air or privilege that surrounds the highest levels of car racing.

Charisma? I'm not even sure that applies, we don't watch motor racing for the off track coverage, surely. I mean who really has charisma? Very few have over the's only when these guys are doing superhuman things ON a bike that we can't take our eyes off them, not when they are chatting in the pits off it. Freddie Spencer was so laid back he was nearly falling over, as was Troy Bayliss. Corser in his prime gave absolutely nothing away, with Rainey and Lawson similarly stone faced. Lorenzo and Pedrosa haven't got it, even Marquez just looks like a kid enjoying himself and wouldn't draw a curious gaze if you didn't know how amazing his talent was. So this "charisma" attribute is neither here nor there in explaining the current situation.

And far from people retreating to gaming vs the real thing, the more people in todays society are squeezed into lifestyles dominated by health and safety and governmental cotton wool, the more people seem to be reaching for extreme sports. Witness the rise of IOM TT, X-games, Supercross, Crusty Demons, BASE jumping, snowboarding, wing suits, pretty much anything with risk that is seen as "counter-culture". In this age of noise restrictions and speed camera's around every corner what could be more counter culture than a howling MotoGP or WSB bike doing +300kph and nothing between you and the track except a thin layer of cow or kangaroo hide? But instead DORNA seem content to rely on a largely older group of die-hard fans that are inevitably dwindling away. The riders are largely youths themselves, from as young as 16, yet where is the marketing to this age group? Who as a teenager is going to pay for an online subscription? I'm afraid it's all symptomatic of management completely out of touch with their ideal fanbase.

The potential market is there, they are just completely unable to connect with them.

Sometime in the late-seventies, I turned up for a race meeting at Brands Hatch. Kenny Roberts was riding his OW31 in a couple of Formula 750 events. I think Barry Sheene was absent. Mick Grant was in the line-up, but it looked like a cakewalk afternoon for King Kenny.
A relatively unknown Australian Greg Hansford was aboard an out-gunned Kawasaki KR750-3. In the first race, Hansford fell early, but remounted and stormed through the field to finish on the podium.
By this time, the crowd was buzzing, waiting impatiently for the second race. Roberts and Hansford went toe to toe for about three-quarters distance, exchanging the lead numerous times, before Hansford dropped the Kwacker again, ending his challenge. After this performance, I always had a soft spot for Australians, and followed Hansford's career in the 250cc - 350cc - Endurance World Championships.
Now that's charisma. This is the real stuff Dorna needs to promote - like the epochal Rossi/Marquez duel in Argentina - not press conference bitching.

I was using the concept of Charisma as described by the sociologist Max Weber. Of course, we are all free to disagree and have our own constructs of what meanings words can have so long as we are able to contextualise them and from then on use the words consistently with the meaning that was established in the process of contextualising.

Max Weber defined charismatic authority as "resting on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him."

We've already established that Rea, Guintoli, Sykes, Haslam are of exemplary character but the WSB scene is lacking a villain as counterpoint. There is no doubting their heroism, their commitment, determination or standards (normative patterns) they consistently set.

So by Max Weber's definition these guys most certainly DO possess charisma. I'm not sure I agree with him, but your reference to him needs to be recontextualised as in it's present state it is incorrect.

In the context of this discussion, it should be fairly obvious charisma is an attractive quality that persuades people to get on their bikes and attend race meetings.
I disagree with your assessment of Rea and Sykes in this area. Circumstances can play their part in enhancing or diluting charismatic value. Johnny Rea is a combative rider who spent many years riding an uncompetitive machine. If he were engaged in a tight tussle with the likes of a Biaggi or Melandri for the championship, the story would have much more drama, and I suspect many more British fans would have bought tickets for Donnington.
With regard to Sykes - a couple of years ago the story was very different. He had just lost by the championship by the slimmest of margins after several years developing the ZR-10X into a contender. When he won it the next year at Magny Cours, the French fans saluted his achievement very warmly.
I think we need to recognize the current WSBK championship situation is a race promoter's nightmare.

and Max Weber. I was merely pointing out the fault in your reference. To use his definition (not mine) as a reference and then disagree with the result when the definition is applied to the riders in question doesn't quite make sense.

"Circumstantial charisma" is also a bit of a misnomer. To my mind charisma is defined as a person drawing attention, not through brash or outlandish behaviour, or circumstances. It is more about having a magnetic pull for reasons you can't quite define.

For example, if you put Rossi in a room full of people who knew nothing of bike racing, people would still think there was "something" about him. Like him or not. Same goes for Colin Edwards or Guy Martin or the irrascible Kenny Roberts Snr. THAT is charisma.

But, bottom-line, you are right, none of the current cream of the WSB crop have quite got it.

Interesting that when there's an actual WSB race report only a handful of people bother to comment on it... I know because I'm one of the handful.

But this article has attracted 60+ comments... why are people here suddenly interested in WSB? How about going to the races rather than just commenting on them? : )

In its heyday, WSBK had the undeniable appeal of a David v Goliath contest. Upstart Ducati vs the enormous Japanese monster mash-up. Fewer than 1% of riders owned a Ducati but at one time it seemed that fully one-third of the bikes in the race-track parking lots were Ducs. But no "David" act lasts forever. Indeed, Ducati is part of the AUDI group, and today no one is surprised when a twin win a race or a championship.

WSBK once appeared to be the feeder to GP for upcoming riders, but that hope evaporated as well. CE2 never won in GP, Bayliss did but only raced once and Ben Spies just couldn't stay healthy. The verdict is still out on Cal Crutchlow. Meanwhile the pipe began flowing the other way as aging GP stars like Biaggi and Checa along with unsuccessful GP pilots like Marco Melandri filled the superbike ranks.

And let's not forget that WSBK once reigned as the supreme literbike battle. Where else could one see 1,000cc four-strokes at maximum tilt? MotoGP put an end to that as well.

Great post, Avatishchandra. Yeah! Most memorable and it applies. 'It was a new day yesterday, but its an old day now'.

I'm not overly interested in the rider side of racing.

I watch for the bikes and tech.

WSBK lost me when they started racing scooters with fake headlights. I'm not interested in cost controls, even fields, smoke and mirror presentation or rider he said/she said BS. I want to see factories in unlimited holy war with each other. Nukes and all. Sadly, I can't even get that in GP these days with their locked motors and spec tires - blah.

WSBK - really - the fake lights are just too much for me to take. Incredibly stupid change to make them look like 'road bikes' to attract some form of idiot I have never met. "I'd watch bike racing if they had headlights like the road bikes I don't give a crap about."

I think those headlight stickers are laughable / silly / pathetic and just plain ridiculous............

For me it's quite easy and has nothing to do with the racing itself or the "good/bad guys theory. For me it's about feeling welcome. If you've ever been to a World Superbike or MotoGP event you feel like a tresspasser who's money is the only thing why he's allowed on the grounds. You pay a lot but are not allowed anywhere, gates and guards are out in full force to prevent you from doing what you want: see the bikes and the riders. In Holland it's not allowed to bring your own drinks to the track, for so called safety reasons. No coolers, no tents, no nothing. The only thing allowed to bring in is your money.

If I pay for a ticket (or to be honest, I don't but stil...) I want to go to an event where I feel I get to see things I can't see at home and feel welcome. In BSB it's like that. I can go in the paddock and maybe get a glimpse of the riders. Security guards are never impolite and for riders and sponsors there's always a kind word or help from the (mostly!) ladies wo work for MSVR, BSB's organisation.

Spot on about feeling welcome and Paddock access. The popularity of BSB might be one of the reasons that WSB doesn't do so well as you can get two for the price of one and more races to boot. It has to be mentioned as well that there are a lot of road racing opportunities as well so if you had the choice of the NW200 the week before or the TT shortly after where would you place your money?

And that's the point to make to the nice chap who said that Brits were wankers. Not knowing what we have got does not equate to one race series. The UK has a similar land mass to Minnesota where the Supercross example was made. In that space we have 11 BSB weekends, MotoGP, WSBK and countless road races including the TT. I haven't mentioned Motocross, Speedway, Club Racing, yada yada yada. We do know how lucky we are but we have choice not limitless budgets.

Another question. I've started viewing the CEV championship which is seen as "the" feeder series for MotoGP and I've looked at Motoamerica. Both looked to me to be fairly empty. Are these well supported like BSB or Supercross? Does anyone have figures? Also has WSBK attendance dropped off everywhere or just the UK?