In The Paddock Column

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Gilding the Grand Prix Lily

The recruiting of Dorna’s new promotions chief, introduced earlier this season at the USGP, represents a major shift in policy—a break with tradition—for the company that controls MotoGP.

Dan Rossomondo was given the directive to grow MotoGP’s fan base and level of corporate support.

Firstly, new guy Dan Rossomondo is not a member of CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta’s family (or at least not as far as we know), making it a very unusual appointment in a senior team already comprising his son and daughter and at least two in-laws.

Secondly (to be a bit more serious), he’s not even Spanish. For a senior position in the company to be bestowed in this way hasn’t happened for decades.

So far, keeping it in the family has worked pretty well for Carmelo and Co, considerably enriching the clan, and creating a dynasty. And to be fair, it’s worked pretty well for MotoGP, too. Mostly.

Starting back in 1991, the company has expanded the calendar, attracted more factory entries and introduced leveling-up technology that may have destroyed most of the technical value of the sport, but led to much closer racing, with better chances for more than just the factory teams.

Most especially they have made an exemplary TV show, pioneering aspects of on-board technology and exploiting ultra-slow motion to maximized viewer involvement.

In the past couple of years, Dorna determinedly endured the big bump of Covid, maintaining business as close to usual as possible. Then came a tricky return to the new normal last year, with crowds dwindling especially in Italy after the departure of Valentino Rossi.

Now, however, Dorna is claiming a bounce-back, after strong attendance at Jerez and a new record crowd at the most recent race at Le Mans. On top, a 27 percent increase in TV figures, according to Dorna’s latest crowing release. Mugello next weekend will prove an acid test—last year saw a big slump. But overall, it’s looking like a good job.

They might trumpet that MotoGP is the world’s most exciting motorsport, but there’s no need to do so ’round these parts. As a matter of fact, we knew that already.

The business lies in telling other people and explaining why: to increase profit. Grand prix racing was once just a sporting sport, managed amateurishly by the blue-blazer brigade of the FIM. When it became MotoGP it became sporting business instead, managed by a different sort of suit. For better or worse.

The first CCO (chief commercial officer) was Manel Arroyo, part of Dorna’s original management core of 1991. Working hand-in-glove with Ezpeleta, he built up TV coverage, boldly switched much of it to pay channels, and earned a reputation as a hard-nosed negotiator. The Spanish hierarchy was secure.

His replacement is an American with a lofty CV. Rossomondo comes direct from the role of senior VP of Global Partnerships and Media at the NBA, a sporting business that might be considered exemplary in the art of self-promotion and commercialisation. Previous experience in the field suggests he is well-equipped to deliver his goal, to grow both MotoGP’s and Superbike’s world following (or at the very least to regain fans lost when Rossi left), with particular emphasis on youth.

He comes at a time when, boom-time figures notwithstanding, Dorna’s progress in this area had somewhat stagnated.

The presentation of the riders has always been a bit cheesy and ham-fisted, exemplified by often cringeworthy “social media” moments in press conferences. The riders’ role as cardboard cut-outs has been extended with the latest show-pony development. New this year: the race-day Fan Parade (riders trundled round the circuit on a flat-bed truck to wave at the crowds, or at CotA empty grass hillsides), and the fans’ pit walk, where riders and teams are corralled for inspection in pit lane—the direct opposite of a royal walkabout.

The greatest failure came with the Amazon “MotoGP Unlimited” series, intended to emulate the massive marketing success and youth appeal for F1 of Netflix’s “Drive to Survive.” This flopped, for mainly all the wrong reasons, most of which were Amazon’s not Arroyo’s nor Dorna’s fault. Although that the lingua franca of the pit boxes is Spanish and Italian rather than English limited the appeal. It was enough to undermine the enterprise. Filming for the contracted second series was canned early last year, after it had already begun.

Rossomondo will bring U.S. knowhow to the task. It is encouraging to note, in a recent interview with Britain’s MCN, his observation that MotoGP needs more than to create heroes. It also needs villains. Perhaps Freddie Spencer and his much-derided Stewards Panel could fill that role—a few more wacky decisions that upset the race results should do it.

And hopefully progress can be achieved without over-Americanizing the traditionally European sport. CN

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