Sponsorship at all levels of motorcycle racing is a difficult proposition, as witnessed by the fact that the factory Yamaha team, home of the reigning MotoGP world champion, is yet to announce a title sponsorship deal, despite the tens of millions of fans that watch each race live on TV. How much more difficult then is it to find funding for the support classes, where a competitive 125cc entry may cost between 1 and 2 million euros a year, and TV coverage is far more restricted geographically?
If you are the Molenaar Racing team, the answer to that question is "nearly impossible". The Molenaar team, which fielded Randy Krummenacher and Luis Salom last season, and is schedule to run Jasper Iwema alongside Salom in 2011, is on the verge of withdrawing from the 2011 season, after several key sponsors pulled out during the past couple of weeks. The reason the sponsors gave for pulling of the project was simple: for the second year running, it looks like the Netherlands - the Molenaar team's home country - will be without TV coverage, as the hoped-for deal between Dorna and the satellite channel Sport 1 (no relation of the German-language sports channel of the same name) has failed to materialize. The withdrawal of Molenaar's sponsors leaves the team short some 350,000 euros for the entire season, meaning the team would just about make it to their home round at Assen, and then forced to pull out if no sponsorship was forthcoming.
This is the second year in a row that a TV deal for Holland has fallen through: last year, Dorna had agreed a contract with another cable channel, Car Channel, which was cancelled at the last moment after Car Channel failed to fulfill its financial obligations. The deal with Sport 1 looked much more promising - the channel has a solid financial foundation, and an extremely reliable reputation - but the deal finally foundered on the same rock that killed off the deal with the previous rights hold, RTL: Cost. Dorna is reported to want some 300,000 euros for the TV rights for the Netherlands, but neither Sport 1 or any of the other candidates believed they could recoup such an investment from the deal, especially as the obligation to fund full, free-to-air coverage of Holland's home MotoGP round (costing around another 300,000 euros) comes on top of the fee for the TV rights from Dorna.
Dorna faces a problem selling TV rights in countries such as the Netherlands: the country has a cable TV coverage of some 97%, and just about every single cable subscriber receives 20+ non-Dutch TV channels at no extra cost. Among those channels is the BBC, and given the near ubiquitous ability of Dutch people to understand English, and the fact that the BBC coverage has no breaks for adverts, competing for Dutch MotoGP fans against the BBC is a very tough sell. Both commercial channels needing to run adverts during the 45-minute MotoGP race, and pay-per-view channels charging an extra subscription fee to watch MotoGP races have a difficult time competing against the BBC, especially given the extensive coverage and high production values the British broadcaster puts into its MotoGP coverage.
The one thing missing from the BBC coverage is coverage of the support classes. The 125cc and Moto2 races are hidden away under the red button, and special access via the digital TV services is not available outside the UK. This means that while the stumbling block for most MotoGP TV deals in the Netherlands is the cost of competing against the BBC, Dorna still loses out if they do not secure a separate TV deal for Holland. While MotoGP's commercial rights holder need not worry about losing much audience for the premier class in Holland without a Dutch TV deal - Dutch fans can watch the races on the BBC, after all - the support classes go completely without coverage in Holland, other than for those fans willing to stump up the 80 or so euros that a season video pass on the MotoGP.com website requires.
And it is in precisely these support classes that the Dutch have an active interest. Dutch riders have competed in the 125cc class - some for the Dutch-based Molenaar team (once home to British rider Danny Webb), some for Spanish and Italian teams - and Dutch engineers, team managers, and a host of support staff have been involved in the series without interruption, almost from the start of the series back in 1949. Jorge Lorenzo's team manager Wilco Zeelenberg is a case in point: the Dutchman was part of a tight group of competitive 250 riders in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and had a large fan following in his home country.
With no TV coverage of the support classes, national media coverage of the Dutch riders in the 125cc classes is vastly reduced. Over the past couple of years, Dutch riders have found it increasingly difficult to raise sponsorship to compete in the series, as the benefits for sponsors in their home market are very limited indeed. Though sponsorship may still be an attractive prospect for Dutch businesses targeting Spanish or Italian customers, their needs are better served by sponsoring a Spanish rider, rather than a rider from their native land.
So the Molenaar team now has until Friday to find 350,000 euros in sponsorship. If they fail, then one of the best-organized and most technically adept teams in the paddock will be forced to pull out. The loss of the Molenaar team will be felt keenly: Hans Spaan, another giant of the 125cc class, will disappear from the paddock, after some 25 years of preparing (and formerly racing) 125cc two-strokes. With the loss of Jasper Iwema, the paddock will lose not just its last Dutch competitor, but also a rider widely expected to regularly break into the top 10 this season. And the loss of Luis Salom means that a rider tipped to compete for podiums in 2011 will be left without a ride. The lack of a TV deal in Holland may end up costing Dorna dearly in the long run.