Motorcycle Racing vs Social Media: How Dorna Could Turn Losing The Battle Into Winning The War
When the news that Dorna would be taking over World Superbikes broke, there was a wave of outrage among fans, expressing the fear that the Spanish company would set about destroying the series they had grown to love. So far, Dorna have been careful not to get involved in debates about the technical regulations which seem to be so close to fans' hearts, their only criteria so far appearing to be a demand that bikes should cost 250,000 euros for an entire season. Yet they have already make one move which has a serious negative impact on the series: they are clamping down on video footage from inside the paddock.
There was some consternation - and there is still some confusion - about the situation at the first round of WSBK at Phillip Island at the end of February. Where previously, teams and journalists had been free to shoot various videos inside the paddock, there were mixed signals coming from Dorna management, with some people told there was an outright and immediate ban, with threats of serious consequences should it be ignored, while others were saying that they had heard nothing on the subject. That Dorna is determined to reduce the amount of free material on Youtube became immediately clear after the race weekend was over: in previous years, brief, two-minute race summaries would appear on the official World Superbike Youtube channel after every weekend. After the first race of 2013, only the post-race interviews were posted on the site. It is a long-standing Dorna policy to try to strictly control what ends up on Youtube and what doesn't. It is their most serious mistake, and one which could end up badly damaging the sport unless it is changed very soon.
This is a battle that has been going on inside Dorna, and many other major companies involved in motorcycle racing. It is about a fundamental change in the media landscape, a shift away from centralized control towards a diffuse and distributed form of media broadcasting, communication strategy and promotion. It is a shift that is permanent, affects the way in which sports are promoted and monetized, and radically alters the balance of power throughout all levels of the sport. The old hierarchies are dead, and trying to maintain them will merely end up crippling motorcycle racing.
At the core of the argument is Dorna's business model. Dorna's three main sources of income are from the sale of TV rights, sanctioning fees from circuits for the right to organize a Grand Prix, and the sale of event sponsorship and advertising signage at races. The sale of TV rights has been the foundation on which Dorna's business was built, with exclusive agreements with various national broadcasters forming the bulk of their TV income. Most of that income came from MotoGP's core countries: the original deal with Spanish broadcaster TVE is believed to have been worth 20 million euros a year, though the switch to Telecinco has seen that amount drop; Italian broadcaster Sky is believed to pay a similar amount; while the BBC is thought to pay somewhere between 2 and 4 million euros per year for the privilege. A lot of money is involved.
Naturally, Dorna want to protect that investment. The contracts they sign now include clauses covering broadcast of MotoGP on the internet, with each broadcaster securing exclusive rights to show the races online - with an exception for the content behind Dorna's paywall, of course - in their geographic area. (Most broadcasters use some kind of geographic IP location system to decide whether you should be allowed to view the content on their website, but this is trivial to circumvent using a proxy. So trivial, there are even instructions on websites such as Lifehacker.) As part of their deal, they police Youtube extremely aggressively, ensuring any parts of the races posted are taken down, usually within a few minutes, using the tools provide for copyright infringement by Google, Youtube's owners. This, also, can be circumvented, as the many clips of NFL games, recorded from a TV using a video camera or phone clearly shows.
The trouble is Dorna are fighting a losing battle, and the way they are fighting it means they are losing out twice. Takedown notices can be efficient at eradicating content, but it has to be done immediately. If an epic moment of racing - say, the last lap at Brno in 2012 between Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa, the last lap at Barcelona in 2009 between Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi, or perhaps Marc Marquez' first lap at Motegi - is up on Youtube for more than 10 minutes, it goes viral, posted by fans on forums, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and whatever may follow in their footsteps. If it is then taken down twenty minutes later, all most people will see is the message from the person who posted the clip, relaying how thrilling it was, and instead of the video, a message from Youtube saying the clip has been removed due to a copyright violation.
This damages Dorna in several ways: firstly, by forcing Dorna to put a lot of effort into content enforcement. Secondly, by making Dorna look bad in the eyes of everyone who sees the original message, and is excited at the prospect of what their friends have shared only to be disappointed by the takedown notice. These, I might add, are unlikely to be people who will sign up for MotoGP.com's video subscription - as excellent as that is - and go searching for the moment in question. Even worse, because of the speed with which content spreads through social networks and forums, and the asynchronous nature in which they are consumed, what goes viral is not the epic moment of racing, which may help to promote the sport, but the message that Dorna is a killjoy and is ruining the excitement, rather than trying to promote it. It is, in the very truest sense of the word, counterproductive.
That damage could so very easily be avoided. If Dorna posted the clips destined to go viral - a good TV director knows which those are, even as he watches them unfold before his eyes - on their own MotoGP Youtube channel, there would be little need for fans to tape and upload the fragments themselves. If Dorna did the sharing of their own accord, they would both have much better control of what is viewed and shared, and also, take away the need for the fan sharing they spend so much time cracking down on. People would rather share something already made for them, than go to the effort of creating and sharing themselves.
And the Youtube crackdown is not even particularly successful. Certainly, Youtube is the largest and most well-known of the video sharing sites, with over 800 million unique visitors a month. But a site like Dailymotion, though not quite as well-known as Youtube, still sees over 100 million visitors every month, and hosts plenty of Dorna-infringing material on its pages. Then there is Vimeo and a host of other websites containing torrents and video clips of uploaded material. Like Hydra, every time one of these sites is taken down, ten or more spring up to take its place.
Perhaps the most ironic part of the whole affair are the illegal live TV streams, showing streams of either the Dorna live coverage, or Spanish, Italian or British TV, as the races are shown. Walk through the media center during any MotoGP race, and you will see a large number of people watching the official MotoGP.com video stream, purchased (yes, we journalists have to pay for it too) legally via subscription, but you will also see plenty of people watching the same footage streamed illegally. These streams are relayed a range of websites hosted in countries with varying laws on copyright infringement, using peer-to-peer technologies. Walk through the media center on Saturday night, and the room is filled with journalists watching soccer games from their home countries via the very same technologies. These, ironically, are the same print journalists who will complain to you about how the internet is killing print publications.
Chasing down Youtube footage of races may be counterproductive, it is at least understandable. What is less understandable is the banning of self-recorded video from inside the paddock, and the posting of such material on Youtube. Once again, the culprit is TV contracts, strictly regulating the recording and broadcasting of material from inside the paddock. While the intent of the regulation is simply to prevent people coming into the paddock on their own and creating their own TV show without having purchased rights from Dorna, the impact it is having is much greater than Dorna ever considered. They took the measure to protect the series financially, but in the next few years, it will probably end up costing them more than it generates in TV income.
For the simple fact is that Youtube, Facebook and Twitter have become a key part of the media communication strategy of a modern motorcycle racing team. Where once upon a time, the role of a press officer was to arrange interviews with TV, newspapers and magazines, sort photos and write and send out press releases, today, they handle media exposure through a vast range of media channels. Increasingly, those channels are moving away from the more managed - and manageable - channels, such as print, TV and radio, and towards social media channels. And not just the new-fangled channels such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, but their older forebears as well: motorcycle racing forums, newsgroups, mailing lists.
Social media has come to play a central role in the communications armory of a motorcycle racing team, especially for teams which are not at the very front of the MotoGP class - which is most of them. Where once they were dependent on the whim of TV directors for a few seconds of TV coverage, with no guarantee that their sponsors' names and logos would be either recognizable or legible, now they can reach their own, highly dedicated and extraordinarily measurable audience through channels beyond the control of traditional media. Posting video on Youtube of an interview with the rider, or a clip of some onboard action, or an idle moment of silliness in the pits, then sharing it through Twitter, Facebook and other social media, and allowing the viral and exponential nature of media sharing to work its magic is creating exposure beyond anything PR managers had previously imagined.
Just how important has this become? The communications expert for one team in a major national championship told me that their return on investment from social media now vastly outweighs their exposure on TV. Photos shared via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, videos posted on Youtube now reach more people, for a longer period of time, and with more measurable interaction than TV ever could. A flash of a few seconds on a TV broadcast may reach a massive audience, but the question is how much of that exposure sticks in the mind of the viewers. An onboard clip on Youtube may reach a fraction of the total numbers of the TV broadcast, but the duration - on average, between one and two minutes - and the engagement - the measurable amount of interaction - is almost infinitely greater.
When they get it right, racing teams can truly reap the benefit of videos going viral. The Pata Honda World Superbike team - among the very best at exploiting social media, along with the Marc VDS Moto2 team, and to a growing extent, the Repsol Media Service - spent a few minutes putting together a Harlem Shake video, jumping on to the latest Internet meme bandwagon. Since they posted it on February 19th, less than four weeks ago as I write this, the video has received over 370,000 views, going viral and appearing on internet websites, racing message boards, Twitter, Facebook pages and countless other outlets all over the internet. The name of their title sponsor, and many of the secondary sponsors, are clearly in view throughout the video.
Take away a team's ability to do this, to use this kind of Youtube footage to help promote their message and the brands which support them, and you seriously hamper their ability to sell themselves to potential sponsors. Companies themselves are making heavy use of social media to help promote their brands, and allowing a tie-in with a racing team makes that team's sponsorship package look massively more attractive. Tie their hands - or at least, tie them unreasonably - and you limit their ability to raise sponsorship. When teams fail to raise revenues for themselves, they have to go cap-in-hand to Dorna, who then have to pay out extra to keep the grid size up to scratch. Allowing teams to use all of the tools at their disposal to generate income is a far more efficient way to run a series, and in the long run, will more than make up for any shortfall from less restrictive TV contracts.
What Dorna fails to see here is that the teams - like the sport's many fans on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social networks yet to take off - are doing their work for them. By promoting their team, they are helping to promote the sport, and more specifically, to keep the buzz surrounding the sport going while there is a break in the racing. If teams are allowed to share video and audio recorded over a race weekend after the fact, that helps stoke the fires of fan enthusiasm, and expand the sport to a wider audience.
The ban on filming inside both the MotoGP and WSBK paddocks is also entirely ineffective, especially now that the Moto2 and Moto3 riders are no longer allowed to park their motorhomes inside the paddock. Moto2 and Moto3 riders now head back to their hotels - the same hotel where the team press officer is staying, usually - where the paddock video ban is neither imposed, nor enforceable were it to be imposed. Teams - Moto2 and Moto3 teams, at least - are free to record whatever they like, and use it as they will. Though onboard footage from official IRTA tests is likely to fall under this Youtube ban, footage from unofficial tests will not. It becomes less attractive for the teams to attend the official tests, and more attractive to organize their own private testing. In fact, an enterprising video start up could even try to organize those private tests for the Moto2 and Moto3 teams, and provide a full video service, including footage from both racetrack and garages to post on video websites, circumventing Dorna's control altogether, and creating a de facto competitor.
To an extent, this is what is happening in the USA. As the AMA continues to struggle with TV coverage - according to numbers on the Superbikeplanet website, AMA rounds receive an average of 87,000 viewers per race. To counteract the restrictions imposed by the Speed network (now part of FOX), several projects have sprung up, including a documentary on the 2012 AMA Superbike series called Road Warriors, and a web series featuring AMA Superbike racer Chris Fillmore, documenting his 2013 season racing a KTM RC8R. Fillmore's two videos posted so far have amassed over 18,000 views. That is far more exposure than he would have gained from US TV coverage.
Ironically, Dorna is actually quite good at social media - with the obvious exception of Youtube. The MotoGP Facebook page has over 4 million fans - and the official MotoGP Twitter account has over 455,000 followers. Information is shared freely, and fans are engaged with, not just via the official account, but also through the accounts of the journalists working for Dorna in one capacity or another. Dorna has done an outstanding job of leveraging Twitter and Facebook for MotoGP, and if it could leverage that same success for World Superbikes - something which the previous owners tended to rather neglect - that will be a gain.
Unfortunately, other companies involved in MotoGP have not taken such a forward-thinking approach. Two companies currently involved at the very highest levels of motorcycle racing (which I hope you will excuse me for not naming, for fear of exposing my sources) appear to be clamping down on the use of social media by their staff. Unsettled by pictures and opinions appearing on social media that do not fall precisely within the confines of the corporate image they want to convey, and incapable of drawing up a sensible policy on what should and should not be communicated, they are attempting to shut them down. In one company, an edict has been issued banning staff from any use of social media, public or private, while traveling for that company (in effect, a blanket ban on all posts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram by their staff throughout an entire race weekend). In another, a policy has been issued which completely bans staff from posting even speculative thoughts on future developments inside racing, whether related to their own jobs or employers, or those of others.
This is truly one of the most short-sighted moves a company can make. The breadth and depth of key figures in the paddock willing to share their thoughts via Facebook and Twitter is a veritable feast for the fans. Instead of having to absorb ideas already predigested by other media outlets, fans have been able to hear directly from those involved, ask them questions, and read their responses. It has been a massive boost to the sport, and hugely increased fan involvement. Though clearly, guidelines should be in place, everyone employed in the MotoGP paddock at the highest level is sensible and intelligent enough to understand what is and what is not permissible. The single fact that PR managers need to impress upon their staff is that anything posted on social media is de facto a public statement, and likely to appear in the media. With that knowledge in mind, team and company staff should be just careful enough about what they post, without feeling restricted to engage in conversations with the many thousands of fans that follow them.
What companies, and especially, PR professionals who grew up in a world before Facebook and Twitter, fear is that they will lose control of their message. What they fail to understand is that this is something that happened a very long time ago. The internet redefined broadcasting, taking away power from a few large media empires, which could be controlled or at least influenced, and put it into the hands of millions upon millions of individuals, beyond the influence of the marketing department. This is an incredibly powerful marketing tool, with networks making it possible to increase reach exponentially, but at the price of sacrificing control over the precise message. As internet access has increased, and as the use of social media of one form or another has expanded, this process has accelerated explosively. An image, a message, a tweet can circle the globe in seconds, and once it has been launched, it cannot be deleted.
While companies may not be able to control the message, that does not mean that they cannot skillfully guide and channel a message to gain maximum benefit from it. The brevity of much social media communication leaves much room for ambiguity, allowing even negative messages to be subverted, appropriated, and turned into positive ones. Turning those messages around requires creativity and skill, but when successful, is far more powerful than merely attempting to quash any form of communication altogether. The hive mind of social media is superb at spotting fakes and fake messages. The kind of insincere marketing guff that PR people used to be able to get away with invariably gets ignored on social media, for failing to pass the social media sniff test. Does this smell like a sponsored message? If it does, then why would I pass it on? If something is truly exciting, compelling, engaging, moving, fascinating, people will share. If it is not, the message withers on the vine.
Companies fighting use of social media and Dorna fighting Youtube videos are engaged in the worst kind of hopeless rearguard actions. The ability and willingness of people to share and communicate on the internet continues to grow without limit, and the tools they have at their disposal get better, smarter, smaller, more discrete, and more powerful every year. I have a new phone since the beginning of this year, which now has a 10MP camera and is capable of recording full HD video. The phone it replaces had a 3MP camera, and could only produce very shaky postage-stamp-sized video. I can film in HD unobtrusively, with no external cues I am doing so, and though the quality is hardly broadcast-standard, it is perfectly adequate for filming interviews, interesting moments in the paddock, chance encounters and the like. I am unable to publish any such video - the terms of my Dorna pass explicitly forbid me doing so, and I have neither the inclination nor the ability to produce such videos - but it is not because of a lack of tools. WiFi, 3G (and now 4G), internet connectivity is becoming ubiquitous, and will only become more so in the future. This is completely beyond the ability of even the most despotic regimes and organizations to restrict, let alone a medium-sized company running a niche sport.
It is time for Dorna, and everyone else inside motorcycle racing, to start to embrace social media and the opportunities they offer. The sport of motorcycle racing has spent the last five years trapped in a vicious cycle of cost-cutting, as traditional forms of sponsorship fall away. This coincides with the collapse of a lot of printed media, with newspapers and magazines closing every year. Sponsors are getting less and less value for money via the old ways of doing things, what is needed is a new approach.
We have spent the past five years discussing what will save MotoGP, and are engaged in similar discussions now over the future of World Superbikes. While controlling costs is clearly a very good idea - the removal of unlimited testing, now replaced by testing limited by the number of tires available, is one sensible way of saving money - it won't be technical regulations which will save MotoGP, or WSBK, or any other form of racing. We can't look to a spec ECU, or price-capped suspension, or limiting the number of engines used to save racing. What is needed is, quite simply, more money. Much more money.
The only way to bring more money into the sport is through innovation in the field of marketing. Greater fan participation, and greater fan access is one huge step forward, as what that does is both broaden the fan base and increase fan engagement. Leveraging that increased fan base and more highly engaged fan base will generate far more money for the sport than any change to the rules ever will. It is not that Twitter will save MotoGP, or Facebook will save World Superbikes - given the history of social networking sites (MySpace, anyone?) those too will pass. But inside the arch conservative halls of motor sport, the understanding that the world has changed irrevocably has to sink in, and we need to start working to exploit the changes which have taken will continue to place. In the future, there will be more sharing, more connectivity, more communication, and less control. That is an immensely powerful tool in the right hands. Now we just have to make sure that the right hands are in motorcycle racing.