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Opinion

Why MotoGP fans must be patient and accept some pain with Liberty’s takeover

OPINION: Liberty Media’s acquisition of Dorna Sports means it now owns the world’s top motor racing championships in Formula 1 and MotoGP. The success of the former should act as encouragement for MotoGP fans, but they must also be patient with Liberty and accept that there may be some pain on the horizon

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It is a blockbuster deal that will get the financial markets hot and bothered. Liberty Media’s acquisition of Dorna Sports from Bridgepoint Capital has come in a deal worth €4.2 billion. That’s not bad for a company that was worth around €500 million in 2006, when Bridgepoint bought Dorna from CVC in 2006 after the latter was forced to get rid of it by the European Commission at a time when it also owned F1.

In the ensuing years, Dorna enjoyed a boom period as the rivalries between the likes of Valentino Rossi, Casey Stoner, Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo kept fans enthralled. It navigated the series through the financial crash of 2008, bringing in a radical set of rules from 2012 to boost grid numbers. This led to manufacturers returning for 2016’s switch to same spec-electronics, which also levelled the playing field and brought some of the most exciting racing the championship had seen.

Dorna’s financial measures during the COVID-19 pandemic ensured its paddock survived the toughest test MotoGP had ever faced and it has continued to expand its footprint, even if interest has fallen away somewhat in recent years.

Bridgepoint issued a statement of intent last year when former NBA chief Dan Rossomondo was appointed as CCO at Dorna. Come the end of the year, an American team in Trackhouse Racing announced it would be joining the championship, while a new US TV deal was announced on the eve of the 2024 season.

It’s clear where MotoGP’s next growth target is. And as such, the first rumblings of Liberty Media’s interest in the series were hardly surprising. Gathering momentum in recent weeks, the deal was finally announced on Monday 1 April.

The only April Fool here, though, is the one who doesn’t believe this won’t be a good thing for MotoGP.

One only has to look at what has gone on with Formula 1 since 2016. The Bernie Ecclestone-helmed CVC had taken the series as far as it could by that point and its unwillingness to cater to a new, younger audience coincided with the racing being arguably at its dullest over the last 20 years.

Liberty bosses Chase Carey (right), Greg Maffei (centre) and John Malone (left) have overseen an explosion of F1 interest since taking control

Liberty bosses Chase Carey (right), Greg Maffei (centre) and John Malone (left) have overseen an explosion of F1 interest since taking control

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

"I'm not interested in tweeting, Facebook and whatever this nonsense is," said Ecclestone in 2014. Under Liberty, between 2016 and 2022, F1’s social media engagement grew by a massive 80%. Driving that was Liberty’s strategy to engage a younger audience, with Netflix’s Drive to Survive a major boon for F1 in exposing it to a mainstream viewership.

MotoGP hasn’t exactly been sat on its hands over the past few years. It tried its own DTS-style docuseries in MotoGP Unlimited in 2022 on Amazon Prime Video. But a calamitous launch and a marketing campaign that rivalled a child’s roadside lemonade stand saw it fall into abyss and a second season was canned due to its failure.

MotoGP has expanded its horizons. It raced in India last year, returned to Indonesia the year before and is hoping to bring a grand prix to Kazakhstan in 2024. And last year saw a majority uptick in trackside attendance from 2023, with an all-time record being set at the French GP – though credit for that lies more at the feet of promoter Claude Michy than anything else.

F1 had to be dragged kicking and screaming into a new way of being under Liberty after its takeover in 2016, but the fact that some of the more underwhelming competitors on that grid are household names is testament to the US company’s efforts

Safe in its strongholds, MotoGP is still searching for a truly solid worldwide reach. In the UK, TNT Sports’ TV figures aren’t much to shout about in comparison to MotoGP’s BBC days, while attempts to expose the series to more people through a handful of free-to-air rounds on ITV have been stymied by the network’s lackadaisical promotion.

Dorna hasn’t been sleeping on MotoGP – or sister championship World Superbikes, which has been absolutely fantastic of late – but the benefit of fresh ideas and perspective should only be seen as a positive thing.

This is meant in no way a slight, but motorsport fans can be an incredibly stubborn bunch. Liberty’s takeover of F1 was – and still is, in some respects – a case and point of this. Liberty’s understandable push to break the American market came with stars and stripes showmanship, which to begin with was derided by fans and some of the long-in-the-tooth members of the paddock.

It hasn't always been a smooth ride, but F1's road to success in the US has shown a path to MotoGP

It hasn't always been a smooth ride, but F1's road to success in the US has shown a path to MotoGP

Photo by: Erik Junius

Liberty was undeterred and it pushed on. There are now three races in America, and five in total across North America. When the US GP returned to the calendar in 2012, it hadn’t been a fixture since 2007. In that time, MotoGP happily raced twice in the country and in 2013 did so three times. A return to that isn’t inconceivable now given Dorna’s long-held aspirations of breaking the US market – something further borne out in Trackhouse Racing joining the grid this year.

The American showmanship element is something that still rankles fans and drivers alike, as was proved by the reaction to the pre-race ceremonies in Miami and Las Vegas last year.

Like it or not, this will be something MotoGP will have to embrace as part of its development under Liberty’s ownership. F1 had to be dragged kicking and screaming into a new way of being under Liberty after its takeover in 2016, but the fact that some of the more underwhelming competitors on that grid are household names is testament to the US company’s efforts.

MotoGP has a real personality problem right now. A social media study last year revealed that the most popular rider on various social platforms – Marc Marquez – had five times more followers than the next one, which was 2021 world champion Fabio Quartararo. Double reigning world champion Francesco Bagnaia only has 1.5m followers on Instagram, while 2023 runner-up Jorge Martin has just 830k. McLaren sophomore Oscar Piastri, who is yet to win a GP, has 1.8m as a comparison.

The overreliance on Rossi and lack of a plan for once he had retired – which happened in 2021 – has created this problem. Correcting this will be a big task for Liberty and it will require some new ideas that will likely upset some existing fans.

But progress always comes at the expense of something. MotoGP fans, though, should get behind Liberty and support its efforts. This is a fantastic world championship. As a spectacle, motorcycle racing has so much more to offer than its four-wheel equivalent. After two rounds of the 2024 season, MotoGP is also looking like a much more exciting prospect than the current F1 campaign.

Getting more people interested in MotoGP will only be a good thing. And with F1 suffering a small downturn in interest amid the Red Bull/Max Verstappen domination of the past couple of years, MotoGP is well positioned to break out – not least with a major regulations shake-up coming in 2027 that should level the playing field.

With a lack of fresh impetus, it also appears a good time for MotoGP to seek a new start

With a lack of fresh impetus, it also appears a good time for MotoGP to seek a new start

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

The current state of play also offers a lot of storylines and characters for new fans to gravitate towards, like Marc Marquez’s career redemption on a year-old Ducati, or Pedro Acosta’s rise from rookie sensation to generational talent.

How Liberty – which will complete the deal by the end of 2024 – goes about pushing this is an unknown for now, but what it has done with F1 will almost certainly form the blueprint.

What follows next may be uncomfortable for some, as MotoGP is brought through this new era and it will likely leave some at the door as they resist the direction the championship is taken

What this deal also means for WSBK at the moment is unclear.

What follows next may be uncomfortable for some, as MotoGP is brought through this new era and it will likely leave some at the door as they resist the direction the championship is taken. If F1 is anything to go by, though, the patience and growing pains fans will have to endure over the next few years while Liberty figures out what is best for MotoGP will be rewarded.

What does the future hold for MotoGP under Liberty ownership?

What does the future hold for MotoGP under Liberty ownership?

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

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