The most common question asked of hardcore motorcycle racing fans by their partners is surely this: "Is that the one that Rossi's in?" That deceptively simple question encompasses just about all of the problems and challenges faced by world championship motorcycle racing both at present and into the future: The similarity to the casual observer of the World Superbike and MotoGP championships; the primacy and importance of Valentino Rossi within motorcycle racing; and the fact that both series appear to be fighting over the same core audience.
That battle is part of a greater struggle, an extended Cold War between the two series over which is to be the dominant motorcycle racing series. This cold war is about to hot up, with the new rules for the MotoGP series which are due to take effect from the 2012 season (see our analysis of the 2012 MotoGP rules, for a full explanation). The admission of 1000cc bikes, and more importantly, the dropping of the stipulation that engines must be prototypes, allowing the possibility that teams will be able to enter MotoGP bikes powered by existing, production-based engines such as BMW's S1000RR or Aprilia's RSV1000R, has raised the hackles of Infront Motor Sports (the commercial rights holder for World Superbikes), and put the organization on a war footing.
The FIM, as sanctioning body and partner, and as the party who sold IMS the commercial rights to WSBK, has a very thin line to walk. The FIM has to ensure that both WSBK and MotoGP receive the promotion they need to ensure motorcycle racing has a strong future, while avoiding the appearance of favoritism between the two competing organizations.
That balancing act has been made even more difficult by the effect of the global economic crisis on the MotoGP series. The financial crisis and ensuring global downturn has seen a host of measures rushed through to help cut costs, the most prominent of which include the allowing of production engines in the otherwise prototype series. Moto2 was the first exception, with specially-tuned Honda CBR600 engines being used to replace the former 250s, but the greater sin, in the eyes of Infront Motor Sports, is the allowing of production engines under the 2012 MotoGP rules.
These changes have introduced a lot of tension into the relationship between the FIM and Infront. Both parties are expending a lot of effort on this situation: IMS to ratchet up the pressure and force the FIM to prevent the use of production engines - something which they claim they have an exclusive right to - and the FIM to soothe the troubled waters, and reassure IMS that the MotoGP changes will not encroach on Infront's territory.
One of the signs of this tension has been the issuing by the FIM of a rather strange press release by the FIM, in which they affirm their support for the World Superbike championship and their appreciation of the work that Infront has done in promoting the series. The press release came after a visit by Infront's top brass, including CEO Phillipe Blatter, nephew of the controversial FIFA boss Sepp Blatter, Stephan Herth, and former FGSport owners and IMS CEOs Maurizio and Paolo Flammini. The high-powered delegation were met by FIM representatives of the same caliber: FIM President Vito Ippolito, deputy president Jorge Viegas and CE Guy Maitre, just to name a few.
The meeting apparently resolved nothing concrete, hence the woolly - and rather aptly, warm and fuzzy - wording of the press release, though both parties apparently came away feeling they had gained something from the meeting. The two key passages in the press release allow both sides to claim a victory: IMS got a statement from the FIM affirming that the World Superbike championship's "unique identity" is because it is "the only Road Racing World Series for production motorcycles." The FIM merely affirmed what it has said all along, that WSBK is a series for production motorcycles [my emphasis], and not production components.
What effect this will have on the changes to MotoGP, and whether Infront can prevent the use of production engines from 2012 will be discussed in a new piece of analysis coming shortly on MotoMatters.com. Stay tuned.
Below is the full text of the press release from IMS and the FIM:
FIM & Infront fully aligned to further strengthen the FIM Superbike World Championship
The strong position and unique status of the Championship will be reinforced with joint efforts throughout the next years
On the occasion of a top-level meeting this week, the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM) and Infront Sports & Media expressed once again their joint commitment to further strengthen the unique profile of the FIM Superbike World Championship (SBK) and its position as one of the leading international motor sports series. FIM acknowledges the efforts Infront has taken in enhancing the competition throughout recent years and will continue to support the international sports marketing agency in all its activities for a sustainable development of the FIM Superbike World Championship.
A key property for both partners
Sanctioned by the FIM and promoted by Infront Motor Sports, the annual FIM Superbike World Championship is the only Road Racing World Series for production motorcycles. This uniqueness and its popularity amongst motor sport fans make the championship a key asset for the FIM and a valuable property for Infront, as one of the leading international sports marketing agencies. In addition, the series fulfils a clear market need as it uses the same bikes as millions of passionate motorcycling fans around the globe.
In order to reinforce an aligned approach for the upcoming years, high-ranking FIM representatives – including President Vito Ippolito, Deputy President Jorge Viegas and CEO Guy Maitre as well as other members of FIM management – met with members from the Infront management – including its President & CEO Philippe Blatter, Stephan Herth, Executive Director Summer Sports, as well as the SBK founders Maurizio and Paolo Flammini representing Infront Motor Sports as President and CEO – at the FIM headquarters in Mies, Switzerland.
Fulfilling a clear market need
The participants agreed on the high potential of the FIM Superbike World Championship and both entities are fully committed to support the future development of the series. The aim is to strengthen the profile of the competition and a unique position within the portfolio of FIM sanctioned top series.
Vito Ippolito said: "During the past three years, Infront has invested considerable efforts into promoting the series as well as enhancing it in various fields – be it the brand positioning, the TV coverage, the marketing or the fan interaction. We highly appreciate the significant contribution and comprehensive know-how of the Infront Group and will closely co-operate in ensuring the successful future of the championship. It is clearly a core asset for FIM."
Philippe Blatter added: "This meeting has been extremely valuable and the reinforcement of our joint commitment is a clear sign for the sport itself and all stakeholders of the FIM Superbike World Championship, including manufacturers, sponsors, media and racing circuits. Together with FIM we will further develop the unique identity of Superbike and make sure that it remains its strong position within the motor sports realm. The much increased TV audience in 2010 and the raising popularity among motor sports fans, clearly indicates the potential of this competition. We are prepared to further invest into the property creating more added-value for commercial partners and further excitement for the fans."
Successful development of the series
In May 2007, Infront made a considerable investment in the FGSPORT Group, promoter of the FIM Superbike World Championship. It subsequently re-branded the company as Infront Motor Sport and has since then continuously invested in enhancing the competition – with very positive results. Under Infront's tenure, live coverage has increased by 27% since 2007 and the number of broadcast partners has grown by 40%. Onsite attendance also remains at high levels, with one million fans visiting the circuits.
The FIM Superbike World Championship is today broadcast in approximately 175 countries and the 2010 season saw a TV audience increase of 33% compared to the previous year. With more than 3,000 broadcast hours of coverage, it reached a cumulative audience of 498 million viewers for the series. Following a website re-launch in 2009 and a comprehensive new media strategy, online interaction with fans has also risen. As a result of these developments, sponsors benefit from a much enhanced visibility and brand exposure - even beyond the actual races.