I’ve been trying to form a coherent opinion on the plans for a Saturday sprint race in MotoGP, and I’ve failed. The traditionalist in me feels it’s simply not what a Grand Prix should be about, the nerd in me worries about how the results will be integrated with the data on previous races, and then I worry that I’m falling into the trap of opposing change because old folk tend not to like change. Then I tried to work out what this new format what was meant to achieve. All I could discern was that, by some alchemy, it was going to broaden interest and increase viewing figures.
Now in the best part of 30 years working for a variety of TV broadcasters, I have heard that question asked regularly, usually by some management type who hasn’t been involved with bikes before. Now this sort of exec tends to make the not unreasonable assumption that if they do a professional job and put a slick shot on air then the audience will grow. Alas, life is never that simple. Those of us who have been at this game for a while have an understanding of what the average audience will be. We know how many people are likely to pay for the privilege of watching MotoGP on their TV. The truth is that number has pretty much been a constant, no matter what production values are chucked at the programme. Then get it back on free-to-air terrestrial TV say the innocents, ignoring the fact that in the UK at least there is not one complete sporting series you can watch for free in its entirety, with the exception of the Six Nations Rugby. There is a reason for this. Up until the 2008/9 financial crash, Dorna considered that their job was to get the maximum number of viewers’ eyes on the sponsors’ logos on the side of the bikes. After the financial crash, those sponsors were all but extinct. Dorna now understood their job was to find the cash to front up with three credible, competitive grids. The only people putting that sort of money into sports were the satellite TV companies. Fast forward to the present day and the pic sure is complicated even more by the advent of the big streaming services. To cut to the chase, the chances of bike racing getting back on terrestrial TV are zero.
So the question is now how do you grow the audience for a product hidden behind a paywall? That set number of diehard fans will always be there, even if the races were in black-and-white with commentary in an obscure Mongolian dialect. The once-in-a-generation of a transcendental star like Valentino Rossi helps of course. The first time we went to Shanghai, to race in front of a crowd of approximately zero, the earnest young language student acting as translator at the designated press hotel asked me on arrival “Will Mr Rossi be coming here?” That’s what you call cut through. Being able to talk about a competitor as “probably the best we’ve ever seen” helps, too, but he’s been missing for a couple of years.
So what has caused audiences to grow? In my experience there is only one thing that’s guaranteed to do that – a home-town winner. When I worked for Eurosport in the Rossi years, MotoGP programs consistently packed the viewing-figures top-ten. That channel did not make programs, we just talked over the world feed – no added value, no slick presentation. We were only knocked off top spot if Andy Murray (Scottish tennis player) got to the semi-final of a big tournament. If it was a Grand Slam tournament (Eurosport had the UK rights to the Australian Open back then) our figures would be blown out of the water. Carl Fogarty had a similar effect back in the 1990s when satellite TV was new.
Some races are also suffering reduced crowds, but the combination of the Rossi/Marquez effect, Covid, inflation, and terrifying increases in energy prices, all of which affect the traditionally blue-collar motorcycle audience more than other demographics, feed that trend. Silverstone felt the effect of all those things recently, no doubt amplified by the fact that there was no home rider in the top class. Le Mans, by contrast, sold out weeks in advance.
Are sprint races the answer to any of these problems? Well, they could be fun and certainly won’t do any harm to viewing figures. Are they a magic bullet? Obviously not. Frankly, the only conclusion I can come to is that they are activity masquerading as progress.