Yamaha Racing MD Lin Jarvis: On Sponsorship, Vision, and Races Outside of Europe

At the presentation of Yamaha's 2013 MotoGP campaign, where the bike which Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi will ride in the coming season was unveiled, it was clear that there was one thing missing from the bike: this season, as for the last two years, Yamaha's MotoGP team will not have a title sponsor, but will campaign in corporate colors once again. Though the news hardly came as a surprise - the colors being used throughout the winter testing period suggested that Yamaha would be racing without a title sponsor - we were interested to find out whether the current situation is sustainable.

To that end, we cornered Yamaha Racing's Managing Director Lin Jarvis, and put a few questions to him. Firstly, we asked, could Yamaha's MotoGP team manage without a title sponsor, or was the expanded support from non-title sponsors sufficient? The answer to those questions was "yes and yes" Jarvis quipped. "We can manage, because we are a factory team, and so the basic point of us racing is not to make a profit the basic idea is to promote Yamaha's brand image around the world, to generate excitement in our industry and to develop our engineers and our technologies. Certainly, having more income definitely helps us, so we're constantly searching for new sponsorships, new partners."

"What I'm happy about is that we have retained almost all of our sponsors from last year, and some of them have stepped up. IVECO have stepped up, and increased. We've got Monster Energy on board now. They've been with the riders in the past, with Ben, but Monster coming on board has been a real boost, and has enabled us to put both riders together under the same Monster umbrella. That's completed what I call the Monster pyramid, because they support us in so many classes, but they missed that top class of MotoGP with the factory team. Our situation is better than last year in terms of income, but we still are constantly looking and pushing, not only for income, but also for new partners to promote."

But what was lacking, Jarvis said several times, was a vision of the future. Since the start of the financial crisis, too much time had been spent worrying about the next few months, and not enough about the next few years. "The sport needs a little bit of a future vision. At the moment, we've been focusing on trying to survive in the past years, but I think it's time to say, 'this is where we are, where do we want to be in three years, five years time?' and take those steps to make that happen now."

Part of that view towards the future lies in looking beyond MotoGP's current markets, towards South America and Southeast Asia. The cancellation of the race in Argentina had been an unfortunate move, Jarvis said. "We're finally unfortunately not going to South America," Jarvis told us. "We still only have one race in Southeast Asia, and I think we definitely have to change our global footprint. We have too many races in the Latin markets. In the past, that was a strength because a lot of the sponsors came from the passion in Italy and Spain, but right now, that strength has become a real weakness. We have to step away from that."

Moving out of Europe and out of MotoGP's traditional heartland was just one part of the process, Jarvis said. "It's one of the important things we should do. I think we also have to work at making better programming, better use of media, the riders also have to work harder to promote themselves and the sponsors." The rise of new forms of communication such as Twitter and Facebook had been a big help. "The social media trend in the past few years has definitely helped, and our two riders are I think two of the most active riders and two of the best here, this will definitely help us," Jarvis said.

That in itself was not enough, however. "But also we as a team, we have to provide better facilities for our sponsors, better sponsor satisfaction, and we need to take the message further afield, and it's not easy, trust me it's not easy. So what we're doing as a kind of counter-measure right now, we consider ourselves, Yamaha Motor Company to be the title sponsor, so we really really try to use the MotoGP project as Yamaha's number one marketing asset globally. Wherever we go, we try to bring our riders there, bring the sport there, make things happen, use them for TV campaigns, for advertising. This year we did a huge event in Indonesia with Jorge Lorenzo, massive, last week Valentino Rossi went to Brazil, the first time he's been there for a long long time. Carmelo [Ezpeleta, Dorna's CEO - MM] told me we should be going there for 2014 for sure. We hope that this pre-promotion we have done is good for the sport. That's where we should be, we should be in South America."

The massive popularity of MotoGP in Southeast Asia, and especially in Indonesia, was also crucial. Paddock sources have intimated that there could be a race in Indonesia in the near future, but the stumbling block appears to be political support for a race in the country, despite the sport's popularity. How important is it to Yamaha to have a race in Indonesia? "What's important is that the people there remain passionate for the sport because this is helping us promote our brand in Indonesia. The fact that they are so passionate is more important than having a race there, but the way in my opinion to generate even more passion and secure that passion is to bring a race there," Jarvis replied.

"Having the TV there is critical, and I'm always astonished when we go to Indonesia just how incredibly the sport is there, considering they have no heritage and considering we don't go there, it's amazing to me. But we have to keep working there." Indonesia was just one component in the puzzle, Jarvis explained. "India is also a very very important growing market, but also Malaysia's important, Thailand is very very important, Vietnam is important, the Philippines are important. This is the kind of growth area or the area where the motorcycle business is booming, and that's why I think we should be there." 

What about the concentration of races in just a few countries? There are three US rounds of MotoGP to be held this season. "Can we sustain three races in America? I would like to think so, if the US economy starts to recover, and if more finance comes in from US sponsors and partners, maybe we can," Jarvis replied. "There's a huge amount of work still to be done, and I think the sport has so much potential. That's what kind of keeps me here and keeps me motivated, despite it's difficulties since 2008, since the Lehman Brothers crisis we have been in a bit of an economic meltdown in this world, but there is huge potential, so if we can just turn the corner and decide where we want to go and reinvest."

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Having been a teenager when Wayne Gardner brought the sport to the mainstream in Australia, I'd say they need to focus first on having a broader mix of rider nationalities (provided they are good). It was no coincidence that Gardner won the title in 87 and the Phillip Island circuit was rebuilt from total disrepair and hosted the GP less than 2 years later.
If a hot young Indonesian rider starts doing well, then the round in the championship will happen naturally - there's little easier in the world of politics than jumping on a bandwagon of nationalistic sentiment (hell even I was going crazy for Kharrudin in Malaysia!). Much easier if the country in question is beating a path to your door rather than the other way round.

If the sport wants to grow into those markets then they should have some dollars reserved to spot good talent out of Sth America and SE Asia and develop them and see them into decent teams. There's a few out there, but the overwhelming weight of riders still come from Spain and Italy.

3 GPs in USA when TV audience is rumoured to be <70,000 per race locally.

And then just the one token South East Asian race (Malaysia).

If Yamaha, with the World Championship winning rider and Valentino Rossi, can't secure sponsorship, there is a deep seated problem in the sport.

Dorna's attempt to become F1 has failed, and failed badly.

The USA is just not a motorcycling crazed nation and i think 3 gps is unnecessary -we have our fans and our riders, but we just don't have the interest. Perhaps NASCAR allowed their narrative to be so well developed (born of moonshiners and outlaws) that there isn't room for another Motorsport? I just see no appeal in watching a car turn left for 500 laps and don't get why people can't find interest with road courses with fast bikes and leather clad body parts being dragged across the pavement. Crazy.

But then I realize about the success of LIVE NATION and what they've done with Supercross/Arena Cross - their races are packed and it is apparent that the USA just doesn't promote the sport and doesn't seem to make attempts at crossover appeal or at turning out their base. Imagine if one fraction of the effort used to market X GAMES were to be spent on racing. DMG is a complete failure with AMA and what real marketing of motogp, SBK or AMA do you see? Indy a least makes attempts with their interview series, but beyond that, all I get is a reminder via email to buy my ticket. That said, I don't even get a reminder from Laguna and I go there every year too.

I remember basically laughing AT Nick Hayden when he was in People Magazine and then on some morning show for Sexiest Man Alive (feel weird writing that,) years ago, but at least it was some effort to talk broadly about the sport.

Don't get me started on Speed & Fox's coverage of racing. Terrible. But, now we have nothing since Verizon doesn't provide Al Jazeera sports channel in the Mid Atlantiic states.

On the whole dirt vs. roadracing thing, it's important to note that a lot more people in the U.S. ride dirtbikes (off-road only and dual-sport) than ride sportbikes. A quick search showed that Bureau of Transportation Statistics says:

"Between 2005 and 2007, sales of sport bikes (including supersport bikes) increased from 16 to 19 percent of all motorcycle sales." Granted, it's a bit old, but it's a reminder that even in the world of motorcycling, sportbikers are a minority.

Same in Australia - I recall a few years back that 9 of the 10 top selling bikes in Australia were dirtbikes.

I have to say, as an American, the normal distribution plus or minus one standard deviation isn't smart enough to understand motorcycles, grand prix racing, or right turns.

There are a lot of people that turn up to Laguna, myself included (coming all the way from florida each year), but it's just sad because go in to any bike shop, and they are more interested in talking about extended swingarms and stunting than any type of GP racing at all, even though all the local honda dealers have the little repsol livery'd cbr250r up front to sell.

David, Your excellent piece raises interesting points.

The fact that even with Rossi now back on board they can't find a title sponsor speaks volumes about the damage that Valentino has done to his marketability in the last two years and the acute financial state of the European economies.

As an aside, obviously a title sponsor is the one who contributes the largest amount of cash, but what is the difference between a "normal" sponsor and a title one?

The comments about the USA are spot-on in my opinion. They like Harleys and everything else is of minority interest. Arena events are popular due to the amount of different attractions that can be brought together, under cover and for the whole family. If they can fill stadiums with monster trucks and wrestling, dirt bikes and cars are just an extension of the same formula, "thrills and spills".

I follow drag racing and the fans in the US are also bitching about the poor level of coverage from ESPN and the alleged greed of the main sanctioning body, the NHRA, although I understand that the NHRA pay for coverage, not the other way round.

Lin Jarvis is not the first boss who talks about expanding into new territories, but he also can't seem to offer any practical ideas. Supporting individual riders won't do it. Assuming there are suitable tracks in, for example, Indonesia, there needs to be a "cheap" feeder series, such as the Red Bull rookies, to spot the talent in the first place. Always assuming again that the political situations remains calm enough to guarantee everyone's safety.This is a long term commitment, but as long as Dorna are running the show, I don't hold out much hope.

I'm not sure the lack of title sponsor could be put down to brand rossi being dented.

Even Rossi hasn't really been able to bring title sponsors money not focussed on italy/spain: I suspect the economic problems in those markets are the most significant factor.

Expanding to the BRIC economies is an obvious goal - but I wonder how long this will take and how resistant the big H will be. Motorcycle racing is hamstrung by the need for independently profitable privateer racing teams being often directly at odds with keeping the factories happy, and the big H doesnt do quite so well in those markets.

Maybe the target of LJ's comment wasn't the obvious??

It is unlikely that Rossi cannot pull a sponsor. It is more likely, imo, that Dorna and Yamaha are working a deal. Dorna would probably like to have Yamaha for political backing, and Dorna might even be interested in eliminating title sponsorship b/c it fuels disparity. The biggest spenders are often the biggest winners, which brings them a windfall of sponsorship. If MotoGP use F1-revenue-sharing, championships also bring much bigger TV money. This destabilizes the grid. Eliminating sponsorship for factory teams (making the factory the title sponsor, essentially) also makes it easier to keep the corporate board members interested. They understand the advertising and marketing aspects a bit better if the bike says 'Yamaha' on the side. I would imagine Honda are also somewhat receptive to booting title sponsors, but Ducati would probably be less inclined, though they have been purchased by Audi.

Better still, if Dorna are working to eliminate title sponsorship, the riders (Marquez *cough*) cannot use their sponsors (Repsol *cough*) to hold MotoGP hostage until the rules are changed (rookie rule). Pay-for-ride would be impossible on a factory team for all intents and purposes.