Single Track Mind – MotoGP Has to Change

August 26, 2013
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
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Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

20-20 vision is essential for viewing at MotoGP.
The 2013 MotoGP stop at Silverstone is imminent and the Melling clan is packed and ready to go. But how long MotoGP as a series can continue in its present form?

I am writing this column a few days before the British round of MotoGP at Silverstone. We’ve got our tickets and, with excellent reserved seating at one of the best circuits on the GP calendar, we’re counting the seconds until we head south.

The weather forecast is excellent for the weekend so we’re leaving at first light for what will be a great 150-mile ride to Silverstone and we can’t wait to see Cal whup everyone in front of his home crowd after the disappointment of Brno. Well, we can only hope…

There could well be 85,000 cheering fans at Silverstone, the vendors will do roaring business and even the sun is forecast to shine. It’s going to be a fantastic experience and we will head home happy to have spent somewhere around $500 for our day’s entertainment.

So, the fan bit of me will be delighted – the core of my soul which climbed over the wall at Oulton Park as an 11 year old, to watch Hailwood and Agostini battle it out on screaming MVs and Hondas.

Then, I will wake up and start to think like the adult I am – albeit only occasionally.

Silverstone will be like those perfect late September barbecues. You know the ones. The air is warm and sweet, the food smells great and the wine is like an angel’s breath on the back of your tongue. Summer is never going to end – but the calendar tells you that winter is inevitably just around the corner.

The winter will be that neither MotoGP nor World Superbike can continue in its present form. This is not speculation or paranoia but simple, hard, cold fact.

I will explain why, but let me digress for a moment. I have been writing about bikes all my life and have developed a modest degree of knowledge and expertise in a few elements of motorcycling. This is the skill set of every competent journalist and we all specialize on observing, and commenting, on the efforts of others.

2010 Thundersprint Cavalcade
For a number of years, attendance at Thundersprint (Melling’s own annual motorcycle event) has attracted bigger attendance than the UK MotoGP round.

In terms of event organization things are different. Seventeen years ago I gave up a well-paid job and re-mortgaged our house to oblivion, and beyond, convinced I knew how to bring a big crowd to a motorcycling event. With the support of my wife, Carol, I bet everything we owned on my ideas working and I would have bankrupted the family if I had failed: it was that serious.

For a number of years, we had a bigger attendance at the Thundersprint ( than any MotoGP round with 135,000 fans packing the center of a small town for a free weekend of motorcycling entertainment.

I know about event organization because I have personally done it. I know about everything from litter collection to keeping star riders happy – and all the myriad steps in between. I know this because Carol and I put our own money on the line, every year, and risk financial ruin every time we run a Thundersprint. That’s a commitment totally free of bovine excrement or PR.

So, let’s start at a core truth, which you may or may not wish to accept, and then work backwards from this potential black hole. This one fact is that circuits are, largely but not exclusively, not making money from promoting MotoGP rounds and I would be surprised if anyone, anywhere in the world, is showing a profit from hosting a World Superbike round. If circuits don’t make money from World Championship events they won’t promote them. The situation is even worse than this. Circuits are under such financial pressure that even if they do want MotoGP or World Superbike they won’t be able to afford them. And, to state the very obvious, you can’t run a GP in a parking lot – as we used to do with the Thundersprint.

The days when tracks were owned by enthusiasts are long since gone. The lower echelons of circuit staff tend to be motorsport fans in the same way as sailing instructors love being in sailboats. However, the further you climb up the management ladder the more the staff become focused on the business elements of the running the venue and the less interested they are in the actual activity which takes place.

I know for a fact that no big circuit would run a MotoGP or WSBK round if there was more money to be made from a dog show or a hotdog eating contest.

Owning a circuit is currently a perilous business because of the very high fixed costs – that grass doesn’t mow itself and the perimeter fences aren’t self-painting. Then there is the continued war of attrition fought against tracks by the environmental lobby. This is why there is any number of circuits being touted for sale.

Let’s look at the numbers. To open a major circuit to a World Championship event – and only major venues host these prestigious meetings – costs in excess of $500,000. Bear in mind that you also lose a minimum of a week of track hire when the circus comes to town and that, typically, the track will have earned $300,000 in that period.

Miller fans enjoying the pit walk - Miller Motorsports Park
The costs of hosting a World Championship motorcycle race rings in at close to $1.3 million.

For any World Championship event there will be extra security staff; a huge amount of advertising; VIP hospitality; manning of police approved Lost Children centers; litter disposal; traffic management measures and a myriad of other financial costs. I could fill 20 pages with the detail, and bore you to death in the process, but this is what happens behind the scenes at every big event and each individual element costs money – and a lot of it too.

Then there is Dorna’s franchise fee which for a World Superbike round is, I am reliably told, $500,000. The total, in this very simplistic calculation is $1 million and then add a further $300,000 which you would have earned by renting out your facility to Ferrari owners or corporate hospitality days or whatever – all of which carry minimal overheads.

The grand total will be something in the region of $1.3 million before you even cover your costs.

Admission prices for all World Championship rounds are standardized across the world to stop one circuit discounting and stealing fans from a rival event. In Europe, this would be a real possibility because we can get a cheap flight to Spain for $50. Fans who could save $200 might well be tempted to head for Spain instead of Germany, Holland or Britain – but they can’t because the prices are fixed worldwide.

A ticket for World Superbike costs $75 but this is not as straightforward as it seems because all through Europe there is, typically, a 20% sales tax. This means that the ticket vendor only gets $62.50 of the $75 sales price. The harsh reality is that over 31,000 fans need to buy a full price ticket for the circuit to break even.

I would enter a speed eating competition chomping on my Arai if there has been a WSBK round in the last five years which has had 31,000 paying customers. In fact, most don’t even attract a third of this number.

And yes  that does mean you!
Dorna exercises strict control over the tracks, takes vendor site rental fees and is out of touch with its customers.

This dire situation is exacerbated by the tightness of control which Dorna exercises over the tracks. Most of the money from vendor site rental goes to Dorna and this is hugely important because event organizers make a significant income from vendors’ site fees.

Admission ticket prices are much higher for MotoGP, and crowd numbers are higher, but still the profit margins are squeezed.

Let’s re-cap. The circuits are not making any money from World Championship motorcycling events and many of them are already in dire financial straits. It doesn’t require a Harvard Ph.D in economics to see which way this direction sign is pointing.

The root cause of the problem is that Dorna is not in tune with its customers. Given a weekend where we are not working in the motorcycle industry what do Carol and I choose to do? Obviously, go to MotoGP because we are bike racing fans. The reason that the Thundersprint works is that we are our customers. We’re not rich, or sophisticated or VIPs but rather are one of our paying customers – the only difference is that we happen to own our event.

Even though we do own a highly successful event, you will still see us sat on the grass with our customers – eating fries and drinking a coffee from one of our vendors. We do not have any VIP suites, or corporate hospitality. We eat what is on sale to our customers. The rest rooms they use are the ones we use.

By contrast, MotoGP and WSBK are owned by a corporation which exists only to make money for its shareholders. Our primary aim is to promote a brilliant event and, as a by-product, make a modest profit. Dorna reverses the situation. Squeeze as much money as possible from bike sport and as an addendum perhaps put on a great event which is good for motorcycling.

This is why there are so many fundamental mistakes made by Dorna management. They are not their customers and have no empathy with them. I would like to know when Mr. Ezpeleta last sat in the bleachers with his customers or bought his lunch from one of his vendors at MotoGP.

Despite Dorna’s best efforts to destroy MotoGP and World Superbike, there is a simple solution immediately available. It will become widely reported eventually but, as with so many of other predictions, please remember that you read it first in Motorcycle USA.

The racing, the thing which attracts us fans, is brilliant in WSBK – really outstanding. Dis-regarding the asinine addition of fake lights on the front of WSBK machines, the bikes are relevant to the ever diminishing numbers of riders who either own, or aspire to own, super sports machines of any capacity.

The problem with World Superbike is the quality of the presentation of the show. At the last round I attended, there were 45-minute gaps between races because there isn’t enough quality entertainment to fill a day. Other than an airport, when is the last time you waited 45 minutes for something to happen?

Uncommitted audiences will not tolerate gaps like this in the show – they simply won’t!

Moving on MotoGP, 90% of the fans come for the big one – MotoGP. Moto 2 has a much sparser audience because, despite the quality of the riders, the bikes are identical. As for Moto 3, only riders’ relatives and a few, hardcore, junkie race fans watch tiny riders droning round on tiny bikes which bear no relationship to anything on sale today.

The answer then is staringly obvious: get rid of Motos 2 and 3 and bring World Superbike and World Supersport into MotoGP. Now, you have a show which is worth paying to watch live and which would make riveting TV.

Better still, it makes commercial sense. If you are thinking about buying a Kawasaki Superbike you can really bond with Tom Sykes as he battles with the factory Aprilias and BMWs.

The logic of one, unified, World Championship is irrefutable. Instead of the Spanish championship being, de facto, the sole feeder class for MotoGP there are many national championships throughout the world which would supply a multi-national entry for World Supersport and World Superbike and from these two championships would naturally come the next generation of MotoGP riders. A truly international entry would automatically have a much wider attraction for both sponsors and broadcasters.

Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta  right  during the announcement of a MotoGP round planned for Brazil in 2014. Dont be distracted by events in far off corners of the world  however. These are vanity events which take place because Dorna is in harmony with the suited businessmen who make them happen.
Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta (right) during the announcement of a MotoGP round planned for Brazil in 2014. The schedule continues to grow, but how sustainable is the World Championship in its current form?

Don’t be distracted by the new World Championship races in far off corners of the world like Russia and Brazil. These are vanity events which take place because Dorna is in harmony with the suited businessmen who make them happen. Dorna does not have to make money for its promoters – nor will they ever do so.

When did these high flying business people battle to get into a gridlocked circuit or had their wives wait in line for 30 minutes to use the rest rooms?

With a unified World Championship, and what a show this would be, there needs to be a complete re-thinking of what it means to be a professional rider. First, last and middle the riders are at GPs to sell product: racing is an addendum to this overarching aim of keeping the factories in business. Cut through all the flimflam, smoke and mirrors and if racing doesn’t make a profit then factories will stop doing it.

The argument not to race becomes ever stronger by the year. The profitable factories are actually the ones NOT racing. Harley, Triumph and BMW, at the end of year, don’t get near World Championship events and yet their sales, and profits, are soaring. Neither Kawasaki nor Suzuki are going within a nautical mile of MotoGP and they are doing just as well in sales terms as Honda and Yamaha. Worse, or best, of all Ducati are failing miserably in MotoGP and sales are soaring!

Probably Tarquino Provini with the factory MV Agusta.
Ducati factory effort in the Golden Age of GP racing.
(Above) Tarquino Provini with the factory MV Agusta. (Below) Ducati factory effort in the Golden Age of GP racing. This is what life used to be like for GP riders.

If riders want to go to GPs driving their own van and living in a tent, as used to happen in the Golden Age of Grand Prix racing, then fine. However, if they want the giant motorhomes, hospitality and every other toy which goes with being a modern GP rider then they need to be intimately connected with the manufacturers making a profit.

The link between racing and sales needs to be simple and unequivocal and this means the riders being actively involved with retail customers.

The first step is to make riders accessible to their fans. By contract, I would make every rider spend a minimum of an hour during every day of a GP being freely accessible to fans.

I would also move all corporate hospitality out of all the GP paddocks – and remember that the MotoGP paddock is a tightly controlled enclave within the already watertight Moto 2 and 3 holy places. In the place of the vast hospitality palaces, which spectators never see, I would build fenced walkways just as they have in zoos. This is a serious solution to the critical problem of fans being disenfranchised and not me making any disparaging or humorous allusions about riders and teams

Clearly, it is impractical to have fans walking round team garages but it is perfectly reasonable to have them see the riders, bikes and mechanics close up and so become part of the MotoGP experience.

After all, when you go to Disney World you don’t expect to see Mickey Mouse and Snow White only with the aid of a pair of powerful binoculars – and a huge amount of luck!

If the rich, famous and powerful have to walk through the massed fans to get to their VIP hospitality so what? Most of us ordinary folk are not carrying infectious diseases – other than a love of motorcycles and racing – and we occasionally get washed so tend not to smell too badly.

In tandem with bringing sponsors into contact with fans I would remove all VIP passes from Dorna staff. I would insist that they use only public access to the circuits, eat only food on sale by vendors and use public rest rooms. This too is said in all seriousness. Enforce this policy at three GPs and you would see the standards soar for the rest of us.

The last, and in some respects the most important, step is to broaden the spectator base. There are not enough hardcore fans to support either MotoGP or World Superbike – let alone both – so the customers outside this committed audience need attracting.

Just how much Dorna does not subscribe to this belief is shown by the loss of free to view coverage of MotoGP in Britain through the transfer of TV rights from the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) to British Telecom – a telecoms’ giant.

Marc Marquez kept close enough to Jorge Lorenzo to make a final corner pass for second place.
Dorna absolutely must explore ways of broadening the motorcycle road race audience around the world.

It is difficult to explain the BBC in a few words because it is a national institution. We have a compulsory tax in Britain to pay for the BBC and it is very much a left of center, public service broadcasting organization – but of gigantic proportions. How big? The BBC took over $5 billion from British taxpayers last year to pay for its free to view services.

MotoGP is the only live motorcycle sport it broadcasts but it does so with a very entertaining show which has wide appeal outside the motorcycling audience. Audience numbers widely vary but a typical figure is around 1.5 million.

However, even this figure doesn’t reveal the whole truth. Many BBC programs are viewed online throughout the English-speaking world and so the original terrestrial TV broadcast of MotoGP was seen very widely in a huge number of countries.

Here’s a link to the show they broadcast from Brno.

he broadcasting rights for MotoGP were cheap too at $3 million.

BT was once another state-owned monopoly but its core business has moved from telephone lines, and exchanges, to being an internet service provider. It reportedly bid $12 million for the broadcast rights to MotoGP but these will be pay-to-view on TV – or free if you take a BT internet deal.

The insider assessment of the audience is that BT will be lucky to attract 100,000 viewers – and these will be predominately in Britain and already existing motorcycle racing fans. Viewing from outside Britain will, in practical terms, be impossible.

So, Dorna pocket an additional $9 million – but lose 1.4 million viewers. Worse still, of this 1.4 million a proportion will be interested in motorcycle racing but not committed to the sport. It is this audience which goes to one GP a year and which we need so badly.

As an addendum to this tragedy, I should add that motorcycle racers do not help themselves or the sport. As I have said, the BBC is avowedly left of center. If riders can only talk about racing and they are all white and male then the BBC power brokers had ample reason not spend money on MotoGP – or bike racing at all. Rather than winter test sessions Dorna should be making its riders appear on children’s shows; daytime TV, cooking programs and anything which brings motorcycling to a new audience.

Riders have got to stop thinking just of lap times and training and work at the bigger issues so that motorcycle sport becomes mainstream.

What is for certain, and I use this word advisedly, if Dorna does not address the current crisis neither MotoGP nor World Superbike will exist in their current form 10 years from now.