‘We don’t need another hero’ - great song but we do and according to David Miller’s contention (Heroes & Villains BSN last week) the odd villain as well as hero. World Superbikes is badly in need of the sort of rivalry that existed in its glory days. But it’s not the only one.
MotoGP can count itself lucky ihas Valentino Rossi and the numeral 46 which has become a world brand and appeals to a young audience. But The Doctor is short on time and no successor is in sight. Well, maybe Marquez but others such as Lorenzo have tried and failed miserably.
A visit to North Carolina last week, the home of US motor sport, discovered that other sports are suffering similar problems. NASCAR is the biggest motor racing series in the US, where F1 is struggling to establish itself and, sadly, motorcycle racing has all but disappeared, but even it has suffered a massive decline in attendances.
Indeed, the stands at many of its famous tracks like Charlotte or Daytona are being taken down, one reason being that empty stands don’t look good on TV. But behind it is diminished interest from younger audiences and while the Daytona International Speedway is spending $1billion upgrading their stadium it will cater for fewer people who will pay more. And, by the way, much of that money came from a $10 billion TV deal.
Further north, Minneapolis was hosting the Ryder Cup, a golf team event played every two years, home and away, between the US and Europe. It attracted 150,000 spectators and TV audiences into the hundreds of millions round the world. It is the big one. Why? It is not golf as we know it. It is confrontational, the biggest players on the world being pitched against the other with each hole being win or lose.
Needle between players is not unknown. Add to that a partisan crowd which is rooting for one side or the other, happy to cheer when the side they are not supporting makes a mistake and being known to make extremely rude comments to players sometimes resulting in them being frog-marched off the course.
Golf did have its equivalent to Rossi. Tiger Woods, one of the most successful of all time, polarised opinion. To many a hero, to others a bad-tempered villain. When he ceased playing in major tournaments TV audiences plunged. And youngsters lost their hero.
The elephant in the room is football. It continues to grow around the world, even in the US. Why? It is no longer a sport as we older chaps knew it. It is entertainment. The players are B-list celebrities, on the front page as often as the back.
Its promoters know what the audience want and a lot of it is not nice. Cheating is endemic but largely allowed - even promoted in an unholy alliance with media. Controversy is courted, confrontation created - managers fighting on the pitch is par for the course. It gets headlines. It also gets a young audience where many sports are losing out.
It is 40 years since Barry Sheene made tabloid newspaper headlines. Since then Fogarty who, although not quite in Sheene’s league, had forged a reputation which suggested trouble was his middle name. And now we have Valentino. But not for long.
Success depends on product, promotion and pricing. We are definitely behind the curve on the first two. Traditional sports, trapped by history, find change difficult, but even cricket has been revolutionised. Our product has not changed that much even though MotoGP now is better than it has ever been. But is it better than the days of Sheene, Roberts, Rainey and Lawson? Or Hailwood, Agostini, Read and Ivy. At least you saw the latter twice a day and they were a lot more accessible.
There is now much more competition for people’s time. So more needs to be spent on marketing, presentation and promotion plus, in terms of attracting a younger audience, a greater understanding of what they looking for, how to deliver it and how to persuade them to try it.
Social media is critical in reaching the widest possible audience. And in turning minority sports, like darts or boxing, into the mainstream by great presentation then television is vital. Motorcycle racing is gladiatorial, why isn’t it presented like that. It looks too matter of fact.
Dorna has done a good job with MotoGP and because kids in countries like Spain and Italy ride round on scooters there is great interest. But silly things like banning riders from gesturing, apparently rudely, at a competitor is plain ridiculous.
Sheene’s two fingers to Kenny Roberts was the hallmark of one of the greatest battles Silverstone had ever seen. Let’s have more of it.