When I was a kid, which is longer ago than I care to ponder, I got up early on a Sunday morning to watch the NBA, the American basketball league. I knew nothing about the sport, I was channel-hopping one day and fortuitously happened upon a game between the LA Lakers and the Boston Celtics. It was at that point the most exciting sport I’d ever seen. The stadiums were packed and loud and the commentators armed with endless stats hyped-up every moment, while the on-court action was the best of its time and in fact some of the best basketball ever played.
I came across this at the right age to be hooked and I have been a die-hard Lakers fan ever since, drawn to not only the game itself but the style of play the Lakers are known for and the personalities in the team at the time. That’s how becoming a fan works. You’re introduced to a sport and something, or many things, spark your imagination and excitement and you need more. You are hooked.
And a big part of the allure is becoming enamoured with the competitors and identifying a hero with which to focus on.
There is also the fun of buying into rivalries. Ali vs Frazier, McEnroe v Borg, Ford v Holden, Senna v Prost, Rossi v Stoner and of course Ricky Carmichael v James Stewart. The list of great rivalries can go on-and-on.
So what we see here is that with exposure to a quality product that presents itself well through whatever media outlet you found it, and an extra layer of saleability via a hero figure who is challenged constantly by the great rival, a sport thrives. Without these things it has little to no chance.
Now let’s have a look at an example of when one of these ingredients is taken away.I have been a bigger than average fan of Formula One since I was little. My dad used to wake me up late at night to sit and watch the races with him (and the 500 GPs); as a result my primary school early mornings were sluggish and my finger paintings were below par.
Formula One had everything listed above, amazing coverage, heroes and intense rivalries. During the many times when the racing hasn’t even been that good, those three things kept me satiated. But inexplicitly, Channel 10 started turning F1 into a fashion show and an outlet for retired netball players to remain relevant. They weren’t covering a motorsport for fans, they were trying to turn it into a safe space for the bushranger moustache, man-bun hair-do, vaping crowd. The ones I assume only watching it to be seen watching it so it could imply some form of manliness that’s completely free of micro-aggressions or processed ingredients. And here’s me, just wanting to watch a car race because it’s fucking awesome. The cars are fucking awesome, the history is fucking awesome, the weekend dedicated to absorbing endless stats is fucking awesome. But Channel 10 wanted me to sit through commentary on how open-toe shoes are making a comeback, before we cut back briefly to the fucking awesome racing.
Then, F1 sold its coverage to Fox Sports. I don’t have Fox because I see no value in paying for endless repeats of fishing shows and Hitler documentaries, he’s dead and he was a little prick…let it go people. So F1 damn near disappeared from my life, except for what I could glean from social media and the occasional visit to a website which was never enough to keep me engaged.
The point here is that the coverage of a sport was greatly altered and I, as a huge fan, didn’t gel with the changes and I have all but completely disengaged.
A brief overview of Australian professional dirtbike racing shows that the coverage of a section the sport has decreased over the last few years, which is worthy of a separate discussion unto itself. As a result, exposure to heroes or rivalries and the shear relevance of racing is greatly diminished.
Take the Ando vs Hammy grudge-match for example. It was such a huge event for supercross in 2019 because it was the single tangible rivalry anyone could point to on the starting gate that night. It’s not supposed to be like this – they’re supposed to be secondary to the main show of this current guy versus that current guy but we can’t generate that level of excitement anymore. We can’t generate the level of excitement Dacka vs Bell did or Ashcan vs Hogan or pretty much anything Jono Porter ever did. These are all decades in the past but dwarf anything we have on offer on right now partly because so few people are actually exposed to the sport. It’s not just Australia either, the US is the same post the RC, JS7 and CR22 era and only slightly sparked in comparison by Eli versus Ken or Cooper. There are less people at the races, less people watching the races and as the moto media landscape shrinks via market forces or vested interests, less outlets to cover the races.
We are a tiny sport in the context of busy Australian weekends. We find it hard just to exist inside the law at times, let alone run large scale and well attended events. And yet we’re amongst the best in the world on the race track and racing motorcycles is probably the greatest competitive endeavour ever conceived by humans. Racing dirtbikes is fucking awesome. And heroes increase participation. How many sets of golf clubs do you reckon Tiger Woods sold by inspiring people to participate? Ricky Johnson made me want to ride a dirtbike and I wanted a CR500 (solid parenting decision in not supplying me with my certain doom). Kelly Slater made untold numbers of kids want to surf on an Al Merrick board and Andrew Johns will have stirred the next generation of halfbacks to buy a Newcastle Knights jersey. We participated and we buy the product because the sport appeals and the heroes inspire.
Motorcycling has allowed itself to be pigeon-holed in too many circles as an outlet for the undesirable, a getaway vehicle from a drug deal. That’s not what this is. This is a family sport, an opportunity for mates to spend time together, a healthy and positive past-time and a means of transport that’s less of a burden for congested road systems. It’s a means of exploration, a way to gain confidence and even a means to an honest living. Heroes reinforce the positive aspects to prospective participants which increases the chances of growth. It’s really that simple. And we need growth. Dealers are hurting and impending death of the ATV is only going to make that worse, particularly in the regional areas where they can’t just push to sell another sportsbike to make up the difference.
Only as an industry with a vision can this be turned around. Lessons from the past can be employed because the fundamentals of the racing haven’t changed for decades; the gate still drops, and the flag still waves. Enduro is still a race against the clock and trailriding is still the bedrock of the dirtbike world.
But we need top level racing to matter deeply. Australians respond to good motor racing but turn away just as easy when it’s not delivering (see the ups and downs of touring car racing). We need quality coverage of decent venues and an effort to build the stars into personalities that inspire and seem bigger than life. And this coverage must be shared across as many media outlets as possible.
There are riders setting the bar high like for example, Todd Waters, Josh Green and Dylan Long who each, quite differently, give young riders something to aspire too, but we need their approach to spread throughout the industry. We need their example to be the norm if and when outside sponsors sniff around.
The media, the riders the manufactures, promoters and governing bodies. Everyone has a role to play in growing professional racing and seeing that have a positive effect on the rest of the industry. Give a reason for fans to engage and return as spectators and participants. The amateur racing scene is just fine as evidenced by the popularity of DIRT ACTION Amcross and the Transmoto events to name just two. So, if the grassroots are strong then it can’t be impossible to see growth at the pointy end.
But it needs a shared vision. It needs new ideas and fresh minds, not the protection of established and tired concepts or the timidness of bean-counters worshiping the P and Ls and internal marketing efforts – which is a certain death approach for any and all racing. It needs riders to engage, teams to step-up and manufacturers to decide whether they’re in or they’re out. It needs a governing body that gives a toss and it needs actual strong and consistent promotion that reaches people that aren’t already aware. Not just the people and the bots following a single social media account.
Surfing did it. Supercars have done it too. They each had deep drops and dark days but found a way out by engaging the fans both during the week and on the weekend.
Let me just drop this fact in here. American Cornholing league pays out about $250,000 in prize money a year. Local level cornholers can earn about 60 grand a year. That prize money figure dwarfs this sport by such a degree it’s hard to fathom. Cornholing is the sport of throwing a beanbag through a hole in a piece of wood…I shit you not.
2020 has been a hell of a ride already – imagine for a moment that we succeed in actually improving something by year’s end. There’s always hope.