Can Liberty Media repeat F1’s booming success with MotoGP?

Sportem
Sportem
10 Min Read

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time, not all that long ago, when Formula One was not the darling of the motorsport world that it is today.

Video content was largely restricted on social media, making viral moments nothing more than a marketer’s fantasy. In-person attendance in 2016 was 65% of what it was in 2022, and in the United States in particular, it was half. Television ratings in the U.S. that year were 38% of what they were last year.

Then along came Liberty Media, which completed its purchase of F1 in January 2017. Two years later, “Drive to Survive” debuted on Netflix — part of the new owners’ comprehensive approach to holistically promote storytelling around the series — and not long after that, the sport became the star-studded pop-culture sensation that millions watch each Sunday on ESPN.

In MotoGP, the calendar may as well have just turned to 2017.

Last week, Liberty announced a takeover of MotoGP parent company Dorna Sports, acquiring approximately 86% of the company, which will remain independently operated under Liberty’s Formula One Group. The takeover could attract regulatory scrutiny, but the deal is expected to be completed by the end of 2024.

It has been less than two weeks, but so far, the new owners have been clear: the product is good.

“Fans will only have things to look forward to and more people to share their fandom with,” Dorna Sports chief sporting officer Carlos Ezpeleta said during a news conference on Thursday at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas ahead of this weekend’s Grand Prix of the Americas. “Liberty does not think that the sport needs fixing, and we agree with that. We think that we have an amazing sport that we have built together with all the stakeholders in the paddock.”

The goal for Liberty is simple: get MotoGP in front of a larger audience. But how will it accomplish that?

MotoGP’s growth opportunities

Making MotoGP an international success story won’t be as simple as pulling pages out of Liberty’s “How We Made F1 Into a Season Full of Super Bowls” playbook.

Formula One has long traded on the extravagance of destinations like Monaco and nine-figure team budgets, creating a sense of luxury and exclusivity that goes hand in hand with the celebrity culture that has inundated the paddock, which routinely welcomes the likes of Brad Pitt and Serena Williams. What MotoGP sells is its racing, where top speeds approach 230 mph, riders drag their knees and elbows across the pavement at every corner and leave tire marks on one another in fiercely contested overtakes.

Where Liberty succeeded with F1, though, and where it must discover similar success with MotoGP, is in storytelling.

Expensive cars driven in exotic locales, riders reaching triple-digit speeds just inches off the asphalt, these moments appeal to core audiences, but history suggests that they alone aren’t enough to attract new fans.

What drew legions of new (and almost equally importantly, younger) fans to F1 were the personalities of “Drive to Survive.” Daniel Ricciardo has enjoyed an admirable grand prix career, one worth celebrating when the 34-year-old eventually decides enough’s enough, but the man with eight career victories has as devoted of a following as you might expect of a multi-time world champion. That’s almost entirely down to his persona, the colorful Australian practically became synonymous with “Drive to Survive.”

That’s the Netflix effect. That’s what MotoGP needs.

“I feel that we have a lot of stories to tell,” 2023 runner-up and 2024 championship leader of MotoGP Jorge Martín told ESPN on Thursday. “It is a really risky sport, a sport that you really play a lot with your life, and I think people would like it a lot if they could see something like this. Hopefully with Liberty Media on board, they will push the sport and it will help all of us.”

The potential is there.

Marc Márquez is arguably the greatest MotoGP racer of all time, but a career-threatening arm injury has kept him from adding to his six world championships. Luca Marini has lived in the shadow of half-brother Valentino Rossi, a seven-time world champion who transcends the sport, and is now embarking on a quest to restore MotoGP’s most storied team to its place at the front of the field. Pedro Acosta is only two races into his rookie season but is already making headlines, both for his generational talent and his larger-than-life personality — he said overtaking Márquez on his debut was “like when you lose your virginity.”

One source told ESPN that there are no plans for a “Drive to Survive”-like documentary series in the works, but that will change in time. MotoGP is looking for the right partner to tell its story, and that selectivity will be vital in a crowded marketplace where no other sport has truly capitalized on its all-access docuseries quite like F1 has.

And nowhere has F1 felt the Netflix effect with more force than in the United States. Adding a second race in the country is necessary to help MotoGP’s audience expansion. The issue, however, is that there isn’t an obvious candidate to join Circuit of the Americas on the calendar.

Before Austin became home to the Grand Prix of the Americas in 2013, Laguna Seca in Salinas, California was an on-and-off home of MotoGP in the U.S. between the late 1980s and early 2010s. While that venue is almost universally adored, the changes required to meet the standards of the FIM (MotoGP’s sanctioning body) would be prohibitively expensive.

Various other potential destinations face similar or equally large hurdles. There are questions of safety, concerns with facilities that don’t meet the expectations set by the championship’s newest tracks and worries that locations are situated too far from major cities.

The physics of motorcycle racing demand large areas of run-off room, space for fallen riders to come to a (relatively) gradual stop before hitting walls, barriers or any other structure that can do the human body damage when struck at speed. While the F1 calendar balloons with street races, including in Miami and Las Vegas, that premise is a total nonstarter for MotoGP.

If (or when) a second circuit in the U.S. were to be added to the schedule, one source suggested that MotoGP could construct a Western Hemisphere swing consisting of two races in the U.S. and another two in South America — likely in Argentina, where it raced at Autódromo Termas de Río Hondo off and on between 2014 and 2023, and Brazil, where Jacarepaguá most recently hosted the series between 1995 and 2004. This could help expand the series’ audience while also improving scheduling efficiencies.

Perhaps the greatest opportunity that Liberty can provide MotoGP with, though, is the power of association.

Liberty is more than just Formula One; it also owns the Atlanta Braves, SiriusXM, Live Nation and QuintEvents. Experience with those brands across industries yields a vast network of contacts, all well-versed in media and promotion.

Leveraging Liberty’s networks can open doors to potential partners and sponsors who may have never heard of MotoGP before last week. If the sport can present its incredible product to these new audiences, showcasing the personalities of the seemingly fearless riders who risk life and limb every time they throw a leg over the bike, then Liberty may well have another motorsport hit on its hands.

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