In its 75th season, the premier class of grand prix motorcycle racing is to introduce something revolutionary. For the first time since Assen moved race day at the Dutch TT to Sunday, MotoGP is to race on a Saturday. 2023 sees the introduction of sprint races, half-distance races to be held at the end of the day on Saturday, in addition to the usual full-length races on Sunday.
If you want to know exactly how this will work, I would refer you to the piece I wrote on Monday, answering most of the questions I have seen on the MotoGP sprint races. But it is worth asking what Dorna hope to achieve by the introduction of sprint races.
The short answer, of course, is to add some excitement to the series, and better value for spectators at the circuits. "It's time to give MotoGP more exposure, not only on television but also to the fans," said FIM president Jorge Viegas at the presentation of the new schedule at the Red Bull Ring in 2022. "We need more fans, we need a better spectacle, and we are going to fill the schedule on Saturdays."
This had been brought into stark contrast last year at some tracks. Attendance at the Portimão round of MotoGP had been mediocre, and Jerez had a little sparse. Mugello was almost deserted, a track where previously the hillsides had been packed. By contrast, Le Mans was sold out, and Assen was not far off being full. The German Grand Prix at the Sachsenring was heaving with fans, back to pre-pandemic levels.
With sanctioning fees – the sum of money a circuit will pay for the right to host a MotoGP round – one of the most important revenue streams for Dorna, it is in their interest for the races to sell out. The more fans at a race, the more money Dorna can ask from a circuit to host a race.
(This logic only applies to circuits which are not subsidized by other means, of course. Qatar hosts a race because the country is engaged in sportswashing. The Termas de Rio Hondo circuit in Argentina hosts a round because the Santiago del Estero province, where the track is located, believe it is important as a way of promoting the region. The same is true for Motorland Aragon.)
A reason to be there
One of the lessons Dorna drew from the difference in spectator attendance between, say, Le Mans and Mugello, is that the fans need to have a reason to attend the race. Mugello was always a celebration of Valentino Rossi, the hillsides packed with a sea of yellow to celebrate the Italian superstar. Once Rossi retired, those crowds went with him.
Le Mans, on the other hand, is a festival. There is entertainment of one sort or another from Thursday night through Sunday afternoon, with the racing during the day, stunt shows and drag race demonstrations in the evenings, bands at night, and the fairground riders running throughout the event. There is so much to do that it is a weekend ticket for the French Grand Prix is some of the best value for money you can get in MotoGP.
(As an aside, the reason there is so much to do at the track is because a couple of decades ago, the promoter was told to keep fans out of the city of Le Mans, after drunken French bike fans had torn the town apart. Since then, the fans are kept entertained and confined to the track, terrorizing only one another, rather than the townsfolk of Le Mans.)
Increasing the spectacle
This, then, is the plan. By having a race on Saturday, Dorna are making it more appealing for fans to turn up on both Saturday and Sunday. It also means a longer day of on-track action on Saturday, with the sprint race happening at 3pm.
This is only part of the strategy, of course. In addition to the added race, room has been made for much more interaction with the fans. There are rider Q&As planned on a fan stage, and Sunday warm up for Moto2 and Moto3 has been dropped in favor of a rider fan parade, and a chance to meet and greet some of the Moto2 and Moto3 riders.
Leaving aside whether reduced practice and increased media activities is good or bad for the riders (I'll let you guess what the riders really think about it), there is no doubt that Dorna have increased the value of actually physically attending a MotoGP round now. The interaction is not quite at the level of WorldSBK, where an open paddock means the top three ride through a wall of fans on the way to parc ferme. But it is much better than it has been.
The elephant in the room
As good as all this is, this doesn't address MotoGP's biggest problems, however. In my view, the real cause for concern in MotoGP is dwindling TV audiences, and shrinking popularity.
At the root of that problem is that Dorna is caught in the trap all modern sports find themselves in. On the one hand, the big money is to be made from signing TV deals with pay-per-view broadcasters. On the other hand, when a sport disappears behind a decoder, it's popularity – or at least its media exposure – plummets. If a sport loses the interest of casual fans because they no longer have access to it, then the value of the broadcasting rights drops too.
The changing nature of broadcasting has also changed the way the companies buying the broadcasting rights to a sport view them. A couple of decades ago, traditional broadcasters were looking at the rights to a sport as a way of selling adverts, or in some cases, as part of the remit of a public service broadcaster.
Now we have companies like DAZN in Spain, BT Sport in the UK, and Ziggo in The Netherlands. DAZN is attempting to build a streaming service around sports, and so is buying up sports to put on its platform to try to grow its audience base. BT Sport and Ziggo are both telecoms giants in their respective countries, who view sports broadcasting rights as a way of selling a much wider range of services, the so-called triple play.
Ziggo will make much more money from someone who switches broadband, telephony, and TV providers than they would earn from broadcasting MotoGP alone. MotoGP goes into a big pile of sports offered as a separate package, where the combined attraction of a wider range of sports can be the decisive factor in choosing to pay extra for the package, and the discount offered on that package in combination with a complete broadband and TV service is enough to persuade someone to switch providers.
While the amounts being paid by DAZN, BT Sport, and Ziggo far exceed what a more traditional broadcaster would pay, audiences have plummeted. Though numbers are hard to track down, DAZN's audiences are in the low hundreds of thousands in Spain, rather than the 3+ million which MotoGP broadcasts used to draw on free-to-air broadcasts. It is a similar story in the UK for BT Sport, and in The Netherlands for Ziggo Sport.
The size of audiences may matter less to Dorna than the size of the broadcasting rights fee, but this is having knock on effects in the paddock. It is getting harder for Moto2 and Moto3 teams, especially, to find sponsors, as the exposure on offer for a brand is now much reduced. Dorna is having to funnel a lot of the additional cash they are receiving from broadcasters back into the teams to support them.
Driving to survive
The way to grow the audience is to increase the buzz around the sport. Doing that is form of alchemy, a mystical and mercurial mixture of factors which are hard to pin down. The shining example is of course F1. Through most of the first two decades of this century, the pinnacle of four-wheeled motorsport was in decline, as the traditional TV deals Bernie Ecclestone had brokered reduced in value, and the image of the sport grew ever more staid.
Then, the takeover by Liberty Media, and the serendipitous collision of the Netflix Drive to Survive series and the Covid-19 pandemic saw F1 explode in popularity. The lingua franca of the F1 paddock is English, making it easily accessible to a global audience. Drive to Survive coincided with an influx of younger, more online drivers with obvious appeal to a younger audience. Those drivers themselves spent more time on racing sim games, engaging and entertaining fans directly. And thanks to the pandemic, an audience was stuck at home with little else to do than binge watch TV.
Liberty Media caught lightning in a bottle with Drive to Survive. F1 has become a massive global phenomenon, with a huge following around the world. Most importantly, F1 finally cracked the lucrative US sports market, and they did so by attracting a much younger audience.
MotoGP attempted to latch onto F1's coattails with its MotoGP Unlimited series, but that failed for a number of reasons. Firstly, and probably most importantly, MotoGP Unlimited was released in the midst of a torrent of sports documentary/reality shows. Each major European soccer team has its own behind-the-scenes documentary, though surprisingly, one of the biggest hits has been one focusing on a small team in a minor league from a modest town on the English/Welsh border. There are behind-the-scenes shows about cycling, about golf, about tennis. Drive to Survive unleashed a torrent of copycat content, of which only the peculiar and unusual made a dent on the public consciousness.
Bringing the kids on board
This, in my opinion, is the most urgent issue which Dorna and MotoGP need to address. Sprint races are a net positive, certainly, and will make attending a grand prix a much more exciting experience. Some of that will rub off on the TV coverage, with more racing available for fans. But actually expanding the fanbase, and growing it among a younger and more diverse demographic is crucial for the future of the sport. Fans in their twenties today will probably still be watching the sport in 30 years time. Fans in their fifties today will probably be dead in 30 years time.
How should Dorna address this? If I knew that, I would be significantly richer than I am. I am not Theodore Roosevelt's Man in the Arena. It is my job to point out how the strong man stumbles. I do so in the hope that the man in the arena will find a way to rectify his mistakes, and emerge triumphant because of it.