In its 75th season, the premier class of grand prix motorcycle racing is to introduce something revolutionary. For the first time since Assen moved race day at the Dutch TT to Sunday, MotoGP is to race on a Saturday. 2023 sees the introduction of sprint races, half-distance races to be held at the end of the day on Saturday, in addition to the usual full-length races on Sunday.
If you want to know exactly how this will work, I would refer you to the piece I wrote on Monday, answering most of the questions I have seen on the MotoGP sprint races. But it is worth asking what Dorna hope to achieve by the introduction of sprint races.
The short answer, of course, is to add some excitement to the series, and better value for spectators at the circuits. "It's time to give MotoGP more exposure, not only on television but also to the fans," said FIM president Jorge Viegas at the presentation of the new schedule at the Red Bull Ring in 2022. "We need more fans, we need a better spectacle, and we are going to fill the schedule on Saturdays."
This had been brought into stark contrast last year at some tracks. Attendance at the Portimão round of MotoGP had been mediocre, and Jerez had a little sparse. Mugello was almost deserted, a track where previously the hillsides had been packed. By contrast, Le Mans was sold out, and Assen was not far off being full. The German Grand Prix at the Sachsenring was heaving with fans, back to pre-pandemic levels.
With sanctioning fees – the sum of money a circuit will pay for the right to host a MotoGP round – one of the most important revenue streams for Dorna, it is in their interest for the races to sell out. The more fans at a race, the more money Dorna can ask from a circuit to host a race.
(This logic only applies to circuits which are not subsidized by other means, of course. Qatar hosts a race because the country is engaged in sportswashing. The Termas de Rio Hondo circuit in Argentina hosts a round because the Santiago del Estero province, where the track is located, believe it is important as a way of promoting the region. The same is true for Motorland Aragon.)
A reason to be there
One of the lessons Dorna drew from the difference in spectator attendance between, say, Le Mans and Mugello, is that the fans need to have a reason to attend the race. Mugello was always a celebration of Valentino Rossi, the hillsides packed with a sea of yellow to celebrate the Italian superstar. Once Rossi retired, those crowds went with him.
Le Mans, on the other hand, is a festival. There is entertainment of one sort or another from Thursday night through Sunday afternoon, with the racing during the day, stunt shows and drag race demonstrations in the evenings, bands at night, and the fairground riders running throughout the event. There is so much to do that it is a weekend ticket for the French Grand Prix is some of the best value for money you can get in MotoGP.
(As an aside, the reason there is so much to do at the track is because a couple of decades ago, the promoter was told to keep fans out of the city of Le Mans, after drunken French bike fans had torn the town apart. Since then, the fans are kept entertained and confined to the track, terrorizing only one another, rather than the townsfolk of Le Mans.)
Increasing the spectacle
This, then, is the plan. By having a race on Saturday, Dorna are making it more appealing for fans to turn up on both Saturday and Sunday. It also means a longer day of on-track action on Saturday, with the sprint race happening at 3pm.
This is only part of the strategy, of course. In addition to the added race, room has been made for much more interaction with the fans. There are rider Q&As planned on a fan stage, and Sunday warm up for Moto2 and Moto3 has been dropped in favor of a rider fan parade, and a chance to meet and greet some of the Moto2 and Moto3 riders.
Leaving aside whether reduced practice and increased media activities is good or bad for the riders (I'll let you guess what the riders really think about it), there is no doubt that Dorna have increased the value of actually physically attending a MotoGP round now. The interaction is not quite at the level of WorldSBK, where an open paddock means the top three ride through a wall of fans on the way to parc ferme. But it is much better than it has been.
The elephant in the room
As good as all this is, this doesn't address MotoGP's biggest problems, however. In my view, the real cause for concern in MotoGP is dwindling TV audiences, and shrinking popularity.
At the root of that problem is that Dorna is caught in the trap all modern sports find themselves in. On the one hand, the big money is to be made from signing TV deals with pay-per-view broadcasters. On the other hand, when a sport disappears behind a decoder, it's popularity – or at least its media exposure – plummets. If a sport loses the interest of casual fans because they no longer have access to it, then the value of the broadcasting rights drops too.
The changing nature of broadcasting has also changed the way the companies buying the broadcasting rights to a sport view them. A couple of decades ago, traditional broadcasters were looking at the rights to a sport as a way of selling adverts, or in some cases, as part of the remit of a public service broadcaster.
Now we have companies like DAZN in Spain, BT Sport in the UK, and Ziggo in The Netherlands. DAZN is attempting to build a streaming service around sports, and so is buying up sports to put on its platform to try to grow its audience base. BT Sport and Ziggo are both telecoms giants in their respective countries, who view sports broadcasting rights as a way of selling a much wider range of services, the so-called triple play.
Ziggo will make much more money from someone who switches broadband, telephony, and TV providers than they would earn from broadcasting MotoGP alone. MotoGP goes into a big pile of sports offered as a separate package, where the combined attraction of a wider range of sports can be the decisive factor in choosing to pay extra for the package, and the discount offered on that package in combination with a complete broadband and TV service is enough to persuade someone to switch providers.
While the amounts being paid by DAZN, BT Sport, and Ziggo far exceed what a more traditional broadcaster would pay, audiences have plummeted. Though numbers are hard to track down, DAZN's audiences are in the low hundreds of thousands in Spain, rather than the 3+ million which MotoGP broadcasts used to draw on free-to-air broadcasts. It is a similar story in the UK for BT Sport, and in The Netherlands for Ziggo Sport.
The size of audiences may matter less to Dorna than the size of the broadcasting rights fee, but this is having knock on effects in the paddock. It is getting harder for Moto2 and Moto3 teams, especially, to find sponsors, as the exposure on offer for a brand is now much reduced. Dorna is having to funnel a lot of the additional cash they are receiving from broadcasters back into the teams to support them.
Driving to survive
The way to grow the audience is to increase the buzz around the sport. Doing that is form of alchemy, a mystical and mercurial mixture of factors which are hard to pin down. The shining example is of course F1. Through most of the first two decades of this century, the pinnacle of four-wheeled motorsport was in decline, as the traditional TV deals Bernie Ecclestone had brokered reduced in value, and the image of the sport grew ever more staid.
Then, the takeover by Liberty Media, and the serendipitous collision of the Netflix Drive to Survive series and the Covid-19 pandemic saw F1 explode in popularity. The lingua franca of the F1 paddock is English, making it easily accessible to a global audience. Drive to Survive coincided with an influx of younger, more online drivers with obvious appeal to a younger audience. Those drivers themselves spent more time on racing sim games, engaging and entertaining fans directly. And thanks to the pandemic, an audience was stuck at home with little else to do than binge watch TV.
Liberty Media caught lightning in a bottle with Drive to Survive. F1 has become a massive global phenomenon, with a huge following around the world. Most importantly, F1 finally cracked the lucrative US sports market, and they did so by attracting a much younger audience.
MotoGP attempted to latch onto F1's coattails with its MotoGP Unlimited series, but that failed for a number of reasons. Firstly, and probably most importantly, MotoGP Unlimited was released in the midst of a torrent of sports documentary/reality shows. Each major European soccer team has its own behind-the-scenes documentary, though surprisingly, one of the biggest hits has been one focusing on a small team in a minor league from a modest town on the English/Welsh border. There are behind-the-scenes shows about cycling, about golf, about tennis. Drive to Survive unleashed a torrent of copycat content, of which only the peculiar and unusual made a dent on the public consciousness.
Bringing the kids on board
This, in my opinion, is the most urgent issue which Dorna and MotoGP need to address. Sprint races are a net positive, certainly, and will make attending a grand prix a much more exciting experience. Some of that will rub off on the TV coverage, with more racing available for fans. But actually expanding the fanbase, and growing it among a younger and more diverse demographic is crucial for the future of the sport. Fans in their twenties today will probably still be watching the sport in 30 years time. Fans in their fifties today will probably be dead in 30 years time.
How should Dorna address this? If I knew that, I would be significantly richer than I am. I am not Theodore Roosevelt's Man in the Arena. It is my job to point out how the strong man stumbles. I do so in the hope that the man in the arena will find a way to rectify his mistakes, and emerge triumphant because of it.
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Appealing only to the core fan
...and monetizing that core fan, is short sighted. As you point out. And it's not just Dorna.
Cord cutters must find and pay for streaming services that allow them to watch the sports and teams they want to (have to!) see. RSN's here in the U.S. are going bankrupt or bailing on the local sports broadcast business. None of the sports leagues have a business model based on attracting and keeping a casual fan, just get the next big rights contract...to that sport's long-term loss.
But, I think I will love the Sprint Races. Sorry, I mean the Sprints. So maybe I think short term also.
Dorna can't market, pay John Wick to do it
The only decent way to watch wsbk, motoamerica, and mgp in the states is via subscription. cable/broadband don't show all the races, often show them at weird times, and too often preempt to show something else. they put no effort into advertising the content they do have. and there lies the biggest rub. for mgp to attract new fans their content needs to be advertised to viewers. someone has to entice new viewers to watch, to become fans. mgp assumes the providers will do that. providers see better value in advertising ball sports and wrestling. MotoGP Unlimited was a nice try, but lets be honest the quality wasn't great - it was more fan documentary that excitement, tension, wonder-filled entertainment. i suspect it was difficult for folks who don't know bikes, don't know the series, don't know who the riders are to grasp. Drive to Survive was the opposite to the point of manufactured drama. if mgp wants to grow its audience, it needs to first understand how sports enthusiasts who'd never heard of F1 became fans through Drive to Survive. adding races is 100% not the answer (except to the extent that the news media picks up on the likely increase in spectacular crashes and injuries, which it not the vibe mgp want to send.) the problem is not the racing which is the best in ages. they problem is Dorna hasn't a clue how to market. hire some damn marketers Dorna! One very simple tactic: get jack miller or someone (not mm) with charisma to do the talk show circuit like Hayden did before his passing - Late Night, Sportscenter, Today/GMA - to create some visibility. get or pay Keanu Reeves to join him and talk about why he loves bikes and MGP. millions of John Wick fans will be watching the next race.
In reply to Dorna can't market, pay John Wick to do it by slfish
I can think of two women I…
I can think of two women I know that were “converted” by Drive to Survive. They even tune in religiously for the practice sessions and are becoming knowledgeable beyond the “drama” of the sport. So, it works if done right.
And while it is increasingly fashionable to bag on Rossi or Rossi fans, I’d argue the series would likely face greater challenges now if he’d retired a few years earlier. Not to mention every person in the circus has cashed (and probably still does) a bigger cheque thanks to the Rossi circus.
It's a good time to be a World Champion
Gone are the days of Barry Sheene or Valentino Rossi or Carl Fogarty being household names, being invited as guests onto TV shows, hunted for autographs, hounded at restaurants etc etc. I mean, if I was to put a figure on how many people in Australia/NZ have even heard of Marc Marquez or Johnny Rea, 2 of the best riders in all of motorcycling history, the number would be something pretty abysmal. The likes of Joan Mir, Fabio, Topraq, Alvaro are the definition of invisible.
It is probably a blessing for the riders, but the Golden Goose is being plucked before our eyes. You cannot sell a secret, and David's line re the sport "disappearing behind a decoder" captures the conundrum perfectly.
I didn't think sprint races…
I didn't think sprint races were needed, but I suspect I will come to very much look forward to them.
As an aside, I think they will increase viewership amongst the young for the simple reason that they're shorter. The average attention span these days is going the way of a goldfish's memory.
Personally i hated the idea…
Personally i hated the idea of sprints, mainly because as a fan of the history of the sport i didn't want sprints to count as GP's and affect the history books (like we see in world supers with 3 races per weekend). Normally i just go the British GP on a friday, i truly hate Silverstone for viewing compared to Donington. This year I'm going on the saturday as well just to see the first sprint race!
Regarding growing the sport, the ONLY way for it to grow in my opinion is be free to view. If memory serves roughly 20 years ago it was shown live on BBC 2 and was meant to be pulling in over 2 million (could be wrong on that).
Personally i dont really care anymore, motorcycles are dying and in the long run so will motorcycle racing. I can only really talk about UK but the lack of sportsbike riders compared to 20+ years ago is amazing. Overpowered bikes, speed cameras, average cameras, in fact everyone with a camera in their car grassing you up to the police. Look at the age of people going to the bike shows at the NEC & Excel, all middle aged men like me (I'm 46), all looking at naked bikes (backs can't take sports bikes anymore). Don't even need to talk about the EU want to destroy 'ICE' vehicles.
Personally I'm lucky enough to have caught the end of the Rainey/ Schwantz era, Doohan/Fogarty eras (respective classes) and all of the Rossi phenomenon and probably the two fastest riders i have ever seen in MM and Stoner. If you was on forums in the last ten- fifteen years, everyone knew there was going to be a big downturn when the Rossi muppets/yellow muppets (as they were referred to) left the sport.
Apologies for the long post but enjoy the racing whilst its still here.
Drama attracts personal…
Drama attracts personal interest. Look at the news. Anything to get one's attention off their own waves of inner and outer personal drama. Drama and the relief from drama. That's the cycle. Dorna could package bits of Motogp drama and squirt it into the collective consciousness. How, I dunno.
Motogp riders have been referred to as modern-day gladiators, and every race creates the potential for a tragedy. As much as one does not want to admit it, that is the truth. We hope it does not happen, but that potential, along with the racing action and the glitter of top level motorcycles racing and dueling it out creates tension. The feeling of the tension and the release of it attracts viewer interest.
Dorna has many flaws; however, the secular decline of MotoGP and Superbike is more attributable to the manufacturers who seem to adhere to some bogus melange of 17th-century zero-sum mercantilism with Malthusian subplots. Attempting to grow a market segment by selling $30,000 missiles that endeavor to send 200hp through the cold, credit-card-sized contact patch of a shoddy road tire on subpar pavement? Why? Because if you don't someone else will? Spaniards may have invented Don Quixote, but the Italians brought him to life. Behind every windmill is a conspiracy to make people ride motorcycles that only do 250kph. Meanwhile, the Japanese are just giving up--racing motorcycles in Supersport that they no longer bother to sell in most markets. Suzuki quit completely. I'll give Aprilia a hat tip for the RS 660.
Obviously, the industry in its current condition will not deliver any new fans, which means Dorna must grow the sport with media exclusively. This is surely the onus behind sprint races (improves Saturday for trackside and TV), but far more work would need to be done. F1 streaming services cost half as much as MotoGP, with a time delayed subscription for $27 if fans can't watch live due to time zone differences. This helps attract fans. Superior free-to-air and affordable pay-per-view TV helps, too. The only way for MotoGP to offer the sort of value (imo) is to consolidate the SBK and GP fanbases into a single series. This would also eliminate the cost of an entire TV feed, and the cost of global transport for a series. The grand prix teams who adopted production-based race bikes would probably see their costs slashed, which in turn would alleviate stress on Dorna's pocketbook.
To be clear, I'm not advocating this outcome, particularly since the manufacturers will not actually contain the performance of GP bikes to get a unified series back onto tracks that visually scale with motorcycles. Making all racing motorcycles appear as grains of sand on a Tilkedrome track will never lead to fan growth, even if the cost structure improves for fans and teams alike. Plus, the similarities between MotoGP and SBK would become even more evident in a unified series, and I doubt fans would bother to watch MotoGP's production-based sibling.
Anyway, don't want to get lost in the weeds. The point is that Dorna have a limited number of options. If the manufacturers continue to be unhelpful, Dorna's moves will become increasingly disruptive and desperate. Bridgepoint Capital stock is down 50% since the IPO in July 2021. I wouldn't want to be an underperforming asset in their portfolio these days.
It’s really simple, they…
It’s really simple, they need to reduce the price of VideoPass. It’s extortionate, F1’s version is much cheaper.
And add an even cheaper option for MotoGP quali/races only, no FP, no Moto2/3, no historical races. That will get more casual fans on board who can try it for a month or two, and hopefully get hooked.
If Ducati fill the first 4 spots all season this will be a disaster for MotoGP, but not Ducati who are selling boatloads of bikes.I loathed F1 but love Drive to Survive.
One variable that may throw up some surprises is the fact that every single MotoGP session will now have thick Dunlop rubber laid down from both lower classes preceding the big boys. Moto2 won't be slipped in as an afterthought here and there so teams will have to adjust on the fly (and rather quickly with lost sessions etc). I'm really keen to see if this plays back into the hands of underperforming factories from the tests, even if it's just a tad.
Stop pulling up the flowers and watering the weeds
If Dorna would just read this article and attached comments (as well as other forums popular with fans, i.e. r/motogp, etc) they could fire whoever is leading their marketing and business development divisions (if they even have such people, and family members collecting checks for keeping a seat warm don't count) and use whatever money is available to implement a few ideas with real promise.
I'll toss a couple more into the hat:
-Live radio between rider and team. It's been debated for years, but watching F1 it's undeniable this adds drama to the show.
-Scrap the press conferences (59 minutes of boring with the small chance of 1 minute of mildly amusing). Replace with short post-race trackside interviews, comparable to courtside or sideline reporters in NBA or NFL. Those are usually a goldmine for headline-grabbing soundbites that commentators, managers, fans, everyone discuss and dissect for the next week. Then, if you must have press conferences, let the team manager or principal do it occasionally. They aren't as tied down by sponsorships or PR duties and can speak more freely than a lot of the riders.
-Listen to the riders. They're the stars of the show, the reason most people tune in or buy tickets. But if they don't feel they're being listened to, they're not going to go out of their way to engage or promote. Along these lines, I think they should form a riders association to stick up for themselves/each other. The reason athletes in other sports put up with their press duties is because they mostly understand it is to their mutual benefit (i.e. salaries will increase as fan base increases). But they need to be free to speak their mind, not constantly worrying about offending a sponsor or someone else in the paddock that can kick them to the curb on a whim. With rider representation they would feel more secure and could relax and be themselves more and everyone will benefit.
-More on board and especially shoulder cam shots in the video feed. The new audio sounds amazing. But why aren't more riders wearing shoulder or helmet cams? The butt shot is interesting for rider-fans as it shows their body positioning, but I think is a turnoff for new or casual fans.