Sunday was a pretty good day for British motorcycle racing fans. The first four finishers in both World Superbike races were British riders, and wildcard Kyle Ryde rode a thrilling and aggressive race to finish on the podium in his first ever World Supersport race. And yet less than 16,000 spectators turned up to Donington Park to watch the action. When you factor in the creative mathematics which goes into generating spectator numbers at sporting events (motorcycle racing is not alone in this), and then take a wild stab at the number of attendees on some form of freebie or other, then the actual quantity of punters who handed over cold, hard cash for a ticket is likely to be disappointingly low.
Once upon a time, British fans flocked to Brands Hatch to watch WSBK. Though the claims of 100,000 at the Kent track are almost certainly a wild exaggeration, there is no doubt that the circuit was packed. Fans thronged at every fence, filling every open patch of ground to watch their heroes in combat. So what went wrong?
If only World Superbikes were racing at Brands again, British fans say. Frankly, I think the fond memories of Brands were colored in large part by the fact that WSBK visited Brands in August, when the chances of a hot, sunny summer day are much better than the Midlands in the middle of May. Good weather is a proven draw for any outdoors sporting event, and motorcycle racing is no different.
But a spot of sunshine and a few degrees of temperature can't explain the massive drop in attendance over the past fifteen years. There has always been a very strong British presence in World Superbikes, and the Brit contingent is now stronger than ever. But still the crowds stay away. The racing is excellent: fans often compare the WSBK races favorably to MotoGP, in terms of close battles and unpredictable winners. So that can't be it either. The bikes are perhaps not as trick as they were ten years ago, the formula simplified in pursuit of cost-cutting. Justifiably so: this is supposed to be production racing, after all, and not prototypes in disguise. The balance is pretty good, though. Five of the series' eight manufacturers got on the podium last year, four of them racking up wins.
Great racing, great riders, home talent to cheer for, and yet the stands are only sparsely filled. BSB, the series where most of the current crop of World Superbike riders came from, races less sophisticated bikes, held its round back in April, when the weather is even less dependable, yet drew twice as many fans to the track as WSBK did. What is their secret? How come BSB is thriving while WSBK is in the doldrums?
The answer is simple. Entertainment. BSB director Stuart Higgs understands that what he is running is primarily a show, put on to fill the leisure time of fans. They have many entertainment products competing for their time and money, so to persuade them to spend their time and money on racing, the show has to be worth it.
The ugly truth, one which the racing purists do not like to face, is that professional motorcycle racing, just like every other form of professional sport, is an entertainment product. As boxing promoter Barry Hearn puts it, "Sport is soap opera for men." It is unscripted drama based on a competitive activity, with the drama consisting of the outcome of the contest being unknown. It is a freeform narrative, the story being told second by second, lap by lap as the race unfolds. We only find out how the story ends once the checkered flag falls, though with some races the plot can seem pretty much set in stone as soon as the lights go out. And the best thing about racing is that two weeks later, they repeat the whole thing all over again. Each individual story is part of a larger tale, which leads to the championship, which in turn becomes a much bigger collection of stories, concerning titles, rivalries and legacies.
To be interesting, though, stories need characters. Without someone to root for, or, more importantly, to root against, there is no reason to take an interest in who wins and who loses. A purist will say that choosing a rider to support should be based on a belief in their talent. That, of course, is nonsense. Judging the talent of a rider is something which is incredibly hard. Look at how many riders have been written off after a bad season, or riders who have gone unnoticed until they turned up in a better team and on a better bike. Even the so-called experts get it wrong: many of us wrote Valentino Rossi off as being over the hill. That would be the Valentino Rossi currently leading the championship.
So riders gain support (or the opposite) based on the perceptions of their personalities, gleaned from fleeting glances on TV, and even briefer glimpses at public events. In real life, we might spend an evening chatting to someone and think, "they seem like a nice sort of person." But it takes only a 15-second slot on TV to decide that we either adore or loathe the stars of the sport we follow.
Successful sports series either exploit this by design, or just get lucky with the characters involved in the sport. For the most part, motorcycle racing has fallen into the latter camp, with star riders who understood their own role, and how to create and manage their own stardom. Giacomo Agostini, but especially Barry Sheene understood this very well. Both exceptionally talented riders, but known and loved far beyond the sport because they had character, and knew how to appeal to a larger audience.
In recent years, Valentino Rossi proved to be the master of media management, and a worthy successor to Barry Sheene. Rossi came to the premier class knowing not just that he needed to be loved, but that his fans needed someone to hate. Loyalty to a clan is all the fiercer when it has hatred of "The Other" to reinforce it. Rossi forced Max Biaggi into that role, without Biaggi understanding what had happened to him. Sete Gibernau followed, to a lesser extent, and then came the arch rival who truly made Rossi. Casey Stoner was everything which Rossi wasn't: irascible, plain-speaking, media shy. He was also fast enough to beat Rossi, making his value as a rival even greater.
The Rossi-Stoner rivalry was a case study in how creating off-track drama. There were plenty of incidents to help stoke the fires, but my own abiding memory of it was at Aragon in 2010. Rossi and Stoner, knowing they were moving on to different manufacturers, traded insults in the media. Rossi accused Stoner of not trying hard enough, explaining his results. Stoner said Rossi should watch his words, as he was being beaten by his teammate. We, the assembled media, rushed from the Ducati hospitality to the Yamaha hospitality like children eager to start a schoolyard fight. "Valentino just said this," we told Stoner. "Casey just said this," we told Rossi. Many column inches were filled that weekend.
Once upon a time, World Superbikes had its own master of the media. Carl Fogarty was a massive star, with huge pulling power. He was famous not just for winning races and championships, of which he had plenty, but also for creating rivalries, generating friction, giving his fans someone to hate, as well as letting the fans of his rivals hate him. The supposed 100,000 fans who came to Brands Hatch to watch World Superbikes were really there to see Foggy. If not to watch him win, then at least in the hope of seeing him fail. The high point of the era was the incident at Assen, when Frankie Chili had fallen at the final chicane, behind Fogarty, an error he blamed squarely on the Englishman. While Fogarty was giving the press conference, in stormed Chili wearing just his dressing gown, accusing Foggy of every vile crime under the sun. It is a moment which lives on in the memories of WSBK fans to this day.
Conversely, Grand Prix racing (500 GPs, the precursor to MotoGP) was suffering through a dark patch in that period, with interest waning during Mick Doohan's age of domination. Doohan was clearly one of the greatest riders ever to have slung a leg over a racing motorcycle – his results in 1992, when he took on and beat the likes of Wayne Rainey, Kevin Schwantz, Wayne Gardner, Eddie Lawson, speak for themselves – but watching Doohan take dour victory after dour victory brought no joy to anyone other than Doohan and his team. He rode bikes which others couldn't, and his crew chief Jerry Burgess made those bikes work where others failed. Yet fans disappeared in droves. Attendance at the Donington Grand Prix in the late '90s was similar to the figures for World Superbikes last weekend.
That reversal of fortunes points the way forward for the World Superbike series. If Dorna can build up the characters of the riders, promote them and manage them, then that can generate more interest. WSBK's top men have plenty of character already, but it does not come through on TV and in the press. Jonathan Rea is a quiet but intense man. Chaz Davies has a razor sharp intelligence combined with a quirky wit. Leon Haslam has a dark, brooding quality. Sylvain Guintoli is a chirpy Frenchman who always seems to find something to be cheerful about.
The trouble with WSBK is that these characters have nothing to contrast themselves to. Almost every rider on the grid is likable in one way or another. There are no antiheroes, no riders for the fans to hate, no one to serve as a communal focus for the fans of other riders. The nearest WSBK has is Kenan Sofuoglu, whose rivalry with Jules Cluzel is growing to one of legendary proportions. The recriminations and the anger is real enough, and certainly entertaining, but World Supersport is too unknown and unloved to serve as a surrogate for WSBK. As fascinating as support series are, they are just that: subsidiaries to the big boys, the main class where fans know everybody's name and their personal frailties and shortcomings.
What World Superbikes needs is not a hero, but an antihero. The fans need someone to root against, someone fast enough that the others, potential heroes, need to stretch themselves to beat. Creating an antihero may be easier than creating a hero, but it is still not an easy job. They need to be capable of rubbing people up the wrong way, of saying the wrong thing, of antagonizing the fans and the other riders. Fans should automatically interpret their words and actions in the worst possible way, however they were meant when delivered. That requires a certain type of personality. Max Biaggi had it, but he is now retired. Marco Melandri nearly had it, but is now circulating in MotoGP so far behind the field as to be irrelevant.
Can you create characters from professional sportsmen and women? Of course you can, if managed properly. Barry Hearn took darts and snooker, two of the most intensely tedious sports to watch as a spectator, and turned them into massive, multi-million dollar businesses. He took men who looked like accountants, who practiced sports which move at a glacial pace, and created a TV audience which numbers in the millions in countries around the world. Overweight, physically unappealing darts players are mobbed by fans wherever they go. Without questioning the extreme skill they have in their chosen art, the hysteria which surrounds them was created almost out of thin air, and created by design.
It is, of course, much easier to control the cast of characters in a sport when you control all of the championship. When individual competitors do not require millions of dollars of equipment and support staff just to make it to the start of the contest. The corporate interests involved make it much harder to create controversy, to generate talking points. Sponsors – with a few honorable exceptions, such as Monster – want riders who are famous, rather than notorious. They want someone they can present to their business partners without fear of them saying something unpalatable.
A thousand times worse than sponsors are the manufacturers. Factory teams fear controversy more than anything, forcing riders to adhere to media codes and radically limiting what they can say. Criticism is prohibited, and that prohibition enforced by large fines. Say the wrong thing as a rider and you can kiss a painfully large part of your salary goodbye.
Fortunately for World Superbikes, the manufacturers have a little less to say. Teams can go racing without factory support, or with only indirect support, and Dorna could, should they so wish, create more controversy among the riders and teams. They could create heroes and villains, highlight one side of a rider's character, and contrast that with others. They could, in short, give the fans reason to love one rider, and hate another. Both riders would benefit, as even the rider who is supposed to be hated will grow their fan base. There are always fans who want to root for the bad guy. The Raiders fans, the Millwall fans, the fans who hate the establishment and want to back their guy against it.
Is this artificial? It certainly is. Will such artificiality ruin the integrity of the sport? Not necessarily. The integrity of the sport is about what happens on track: as long as there is a level playing field and a neutral judge – in the case of World Superbikes, race direction and the technical director, ensuring fair play and relative parity among the bikes – then the sporting side will be just fine. There is no need to intervene in the actual racing, other than to ensure it is seen to be scrupulously fair. What matters is off the track: in the media, among the fans, via social media.
With some thought, and a bit of ingenuity, Dorna could grow World Superbikes again by telling a better story, creating brighter characters than what we see today. Doing so would not impact MotoGP, but would help bolster it, perhaps even boost it. The very rivalry between the two series could be leveraged to generate interest: there have always been WSBK fans and MotoGP fans, so why not pit those fans against each other, via some proxy contest between the riders?
Of course, if it was that easy, I would have already done this and would be sitting in my mansion counting my millions. But that doesn't mean Dorna shouldn't try.