Television broadcasting of motorcycle racing in America has encountered some rough waters as of late, with AMA Pro Road Racing, WSBK, and the MotoGP World Championship series finding themselves TV orphans at the conclusion of their respective 2012 seasons. We shouldn't be surprised. In recent years motorcycle roadracing was systematically relegated to misfit status on Speed TV in order to make room for various four-wheel coverage. The most recent slap in the face was when a final round of the 2012 WSBK title chase was abruptly dropped from the schedule in favor of a NASCAR race. But the real zinger — remembered fondly by roadracing aficionados as the equivalent to the day the music died — was several years back when Speed arbitrarily cut into a MotoGP round mid-race to cover NASCAR qualifying. Not a NASCAR race. Qualifying. I knew then the marriage was over. It was merely a matter of waiting for the other shoe to drop.
I'm not at all versed in the situation; perhaps there are disputes hindering the sanctioning bodies from assigning the TV rights package. At present, Fox, which owns Speed TV — roadracing's former home — is reportedly looking to shore up its fortunes by taking the channel to a full-fledged sports line-up to go head-to-head with ESPN. This doesn't bode well for anything two-wheeled. Most likely a network will swoop in and snatch up the broadcasting rights currently afloat in the abyss (if they haven't already by the time this goes to print). Regardless, what intrigues me is why the electrifying and colorful pageantry of motorcycle roadracing continues to struggle to find an audience in America.
Television broadcasting is very simple business; it comes down to market share and how many viewers an advertiser can reach. Viewership numbers dictate ad rates. As a broadcaster, if you want to make money, you run what garners the largest audience. End of story. You can't fault the networks. They're going to air whatever sells advertising slots in order to stay in business. And with regard to motorsports in America the 900-pound gorilla sitting on the couch in the TV room is NASCAR. Pure Americana, NASCAR has its roots in the illegal practice of rum-running during prohibition (evolving from outlaw drivers chasing bragging rights as to who was the best). Until recently the field was populated exclusively with red, white, and blue blood, appealing to the patriotic nature of the fans and in turn drawing phenomenal viewership. This is one reason why F1, WSBK, and MotoGP struggle in America; the fields are comprised of a wide swath of international competitors and have few, if any, Americans. However, this isn't the case with AMA. The series is laced with an array of charismatic, talented, American riders. So, how do we capitalize on this? We need to take a page from NASCAR.
NASCAR made a coordinated effort to take the helmets off their drivers. They appeared on everything from hunting programs to religious talk shows, allowing a wide cross-section of viewers to get to know them. And NASCAR didn't focus on just the winners, but all the drivers on the grid. This is why you see fans supporting drivers who aren't always winning. It was the personality that the fans were cheering for, not just the drivers in the winner's circle.
By attracting the general public NASCAR opened up the marketing and sponsorship floodgates to major corporations peddling everyday products. Companies saw the reach of sponsoring a car and its direct impact on sales at the grocery store. It's reported that All detergent saw a significant jump in sales immediately after its logo first appeared on a car. Ad revenue followed and NASCAR became a heavy hitter because major companies were cross-promoting the sport, incorporating racing personalities into their in-store and television advertisements.
Most people who tune in to watch motorcycle events tend to be riders themselves, which in turn means the ads are going to be motorcycle specific, and therefore severely limit ad revenue potential. If we want motorcycle racing to survive and thrive, we need to broaden the audience. In motorcycle-mad Spain and Italy, roadracing enjoys a major market share. On any MotoGP Sunday you can expect to see four to five hours of coverage on free TV (unfortunately there may be a change in the works as Dorna is looking at a switch to pay TV). On several occasions in Spain I've even watched WSBK Superpole on Saturday TV. It has been reported that a MotoGP race in Italy can earn as much as a 47 percent market share in-country. That's a lot of Italian televisions tuned to racing, and certainly not every one of them is a motorcycle rider.
Naturally, there's a cultural influence here, with these countries having grown up with scooters and motorcycles, making for increased interest and awareness in all things two-wheeled. However, as with NASCAR in the U.S., mainstream European media puts racers in front of the public. Riders regularly appear on the cover of European GQ and Esquire. The day following a MotoGP event the newspapers carry extensive coverage in the main section, not just the sports page. Also, prime time programs featuring rider profiles are common. As a result the general public tends to be as informed and aware as the typical hardcore fan in America.
As proof of Europeans' general interest and knowledge of MotoGP, I once did a photo shoot in Cremona, Italy, using the city's famous violin making workshops as a backdrop for Ducati's Multistrada. After the sun had set and we wrapped for the day I sat down to have a beer with the various luthiers who'd let us shoot in their shops. Perhaps because of the Ducati theme of the photo shoot the conversation quickly turned to MotoGP. These artisans of the violin became engaged in somewhat erudite discussions about the various riders on the grid, the swapping of teams, the new machinery, and made predictions about how the season was going to unfold. When I suggested that they were racing fans they all basically said, “not really.” In another example of the European public being aware of motorcycle racing, a reporter once walked down a main avenue in Warsaw with a picture of Polish speedway racer Tomasz Gollob and asked passersby who it was. Every single person knew his name.
America is, without question, an automotive culture. Our identity is strongly imbedded in four-wheels. Naturally this has helped NASCAR to win over such a large segment of the population. However, I believe that there is potential to grow roadracing as a broadcast entity. To do that we need to make the sport more accessible. When ABC held the rights to the Olympics in the ‘70s they churned out fascinating athlete profiles — regardless of nationality — in a coordinated ramp-up to a particular event that made viewers feel like they knew the various competitors. By the time the event rolled around audiences had a favorite to root for. This is what has to happen if we want to build a large, revenue generating TV audience for motorcycle racing in America. As it is, if a random viewer were curious and decided to sit down and watch an AMA, MotoGP, or WSBK race on TV, there is very little introduction, virtually no pre-race profiles on riders without their helmets on, and no general overview. There's very little to get them emotionally invested. As a result, they turn the channel. SR