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Lone Wolf and the Phil Taylor effect


As regular readers might have deduced by now (yes, you five) Wolf is a fully paid up member of the Bah Humbug brigade, delighted that the so-called "festivities" which, although based on a Christian moral code, seems to fill the supermarkets but not the churches, are finally over. January can't come quickly enough, the nights start to get longer, the weather (eventually!) better and, in February, World Superbikes kicks off at Phillip Island, one of the world's great circuits.

So joy unconfined? Well, not quite. First we have to get through another bout of "festivities" celebrating the arrival of the New Year or if you come from that soon-to-be foreign land north of the border, Hogmanay. And as watching television, other than shopping, is all that most people in our bankrupt state have to do during this period then you will be getting more than a full diet of a pub game in which the star is a portly bloke from Stoke who has become a national treasure.


Yes, darts. It fills the Alexandra Palace in North London with 8000 besotted and, it looks like, besozzled, fans every night for a fortnight. Other than football it attracts on of Sky's biggest audiences and that portly bloke, otherwise known as Phil 'The Power' Taylor, is one of the best known 'sportsmen' in Britain.

What is going on here? Well, it goes like this. Sport is part of the entertainment business. Television is all important. The combination of a creative promoter, in the case of darts, Barry Hearn, and a television channel, Sky, prepared to invest and build for the future (look at the Sky cycling team), is transformational. Hearn has now taken over snooker, dying on its feet with the World Final being televised by a moribund BBC. How long before that changes? The BBC is no longer inclined to invest in sport and Eurosport doesn't have the money.

Motorcycle road racing is one of the most exciting sports in the world, or it can be. But would the man on the Clapham omnibus recognise the name Shane Byrne or Jorge Lorenzo? Maybe Valentino Rossi. But, for certain, Phil 'The Power' Taylor would ring a bell. In Spain it will be different but when Rossi retires who is a household name in Italy?

In the States, freestyle motocrosser and, lately, rally driver Travis Pastrana is probably better known than any other motorsport star, NASCAR included. F1 and MotoGP wouldn't get a look in. It is no coincidence that Supercross was created for television. And whatever happened to motocross in this country?

So what can be done? Don't expect any of the governing bodies to do very much, the FIM conference in Monte Carlo was remarkable only for its lack of ideas. The promoters, certainly those who have engineered an effective monopoly over the two World Championships, are in business to make as much money as possible in the short to medium term.

Those who are responsible for the survival and growth of the sport have to make it mass entertainment which the media can embrace. That means throwing some of the old rules away; it means building heroes and making them recognisable; it means promoting a spectacular sport beyond the old specialist audiences; it means acknowledging that for huge numbers of people, bikes going round and round in circles ridden by blokes you can't identify, is boring; it means doing whatever is necessary to get more winners, more confrontation and get spectators and viewers taking sides.

Take a look at Formula 1 and Premier League football. F1 took advantage of technology which, basically, allowed drivers to press a button and whiz past their rivals. For the past few years F1 has been coma-inducing but this season, dare I say it, that series has been ten times better than MotoGP. Yes, I know it has been helped by dodgy tyres but it helped give the lowly teams a chance.

And everyone rightly complains about the appalling behaviour of Premier League footballers, not to mention the managers, and the League or the governing body seems powerless to stop it. They would of course deny this but you can bet they recognise that cheating, referee-baiting and challenging authority is what the fans love. Why stop it?

Change will almost always be resisted by those closest to the sport. The introduction of the Showdown by BSB was not universally welcomed but, in my opinion, it was a good idea, making it more likely that the series will go down to the wire. On the other hand, the decision to stop crashing riders getting back on their bikes after one wet race meeting at Brands Hatch was knee-jerk and deprives fans of the potential of great comebacks.


But much more is required from the promoter and the television company if the investment in live tv is to be made worthwhile. It is a well organised and highly controlled series. But let's make it more compelling, more confrontational. It has been suggested here before that the grid places should be decided by ballot. Great television. And take the muzzles off the riders and teams. Let's have a bit more aggro!

Finally, are we doing enough to attract non-motor cyclists. Are we pushing ourselves into a smaller and smaller niche of hard core bikers? If this truly is the entertainment business then it should be attractive to every family - and their kids - as viewers or spectators. Car driving males are often one-time or closet bikers. It is a huge audience that is not being exploited.

Happy New Year



What is happening to World Superbikes? A blanket of silence has descended on this best of all World Series since the Dorna takeover, the somewhat ignominious departure of boss Paolo Flammini and exit of operations director Paolo Ciabatti and media director Julian Thomas to Ducati. It is rumoured that former British and World Superbike star, the Spaniard Gregoria Lavilla, will take over in race control.

It is very difficult, as a fan of WSBK, to be optimistic about the future of the series. Competition is healthy and while they employed different formulae and attracted largely discrete audiences they kept each other on their toes. But the moment investment company Bridgepoint owned both the writing was on the wall and there was only one winner, MotoGP being at least five times bigger than WSBK.

But takeovers are generally designed to reduce costs and, more importantly, competition then one would like to hope that the benefit of reduced costs will be put into the series rather than going to the bottom line. Realistically, I fear it will be the latter.

Will both series survive? MotoGP certainly as it is now valued at €1bn. World Superbikes? But let's look forward to at least one more exciting season with a Briton well capable of winning the world title

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