Thursday, August 3, 2017

Whither Bonnier? Sport Rider takes its last checkered flag

I suppose it should not have come as a surprise to learn that Bonnier Motorcycle Group has folded Sport Rider, given the times.


Back in my ‘Motorcyclist’ days – which is to say about four owners ago – SR always felt like the sharpest and most-authentic of the Primedia bike mags. It was lean and mean; it was pretty much produced entirely by Kent Kunitsugu and Andrew Trevitt. Considering its low staff count I imagine it was profitable and that ‘Kento’ (something I certainly never called him) could justify its narrow focus. SR didn’t suffer fools as gladly as more catholic titles like Motorcyclist or Cycle World. I think that it came the closest any of those ‘corporate’ magazines to sharing Roadracing World’s credibility.

That was 10 or 15 years ago, at a time when sport bikes ruled the showrooms. All bike sales tanked in the Great Recession, but sport bikes really never rebounded. In effect, the industry’s refocused on entry-level bikes on the one hand, and ADV bikes on the other. Sport Rider was a dinosaur on a cooling planet, and mammals ate its eggs.

And, of course, the Internet’s thrown print into a complete panic. Some of which tinged the obit Bonnier issued for the magazine.

I suppose that Indian LSR bike is worth a post on on a slow news day, although it's been left up longer than is justifiable. But is that Indian Bobber story really 'trending'? In the week it's been up it's earned nine comments. If that's 'trending', this web site's got trouble.

Evidently, Bonnier’s not just closing Sport Rider, it’s changing the entire structure of the ‘motorcycle’ group.
BMG is shifting from a title-specific content and sales structure to one that empowers the editorial as well as the marketing staff to focus on one role across all BMG brands. This is compared to the previous model where many of the 13 motorcycle media brands had their own staff members with like responsibilities.
It’s hard to picture Kevin Cameron as anything but Cycle World’s tech boffin, but I guess that means that his work could appear in Baggers now. Sad! That is, if he’s still got a job; the press release spoke of head count reductions in a way that definitely suggests layoffs from multiple titles, not just SR.

This is, to be clear, all about trying to keep a business rubber-side-down as it shifts from paper to web, and as even old guard web sites struggle with increased fragmentation and erosion from social media. And lest you think anyone at Bonnier has an actual strategy in mind, check out this buzzword salad, attributed to Andy Leisner:
As digital channels become more technologically driven and advertising solutions demand greater optimization, these changes will help BMG deliver more informative and inspiring content to its audiences. The new channel-specific approach, in addition to expanding marketing-solution options for partner brands, will also help decrease the cost-per-acquisition and increase sales for the Group’s clients.”

I don’t know what that means. I’d ask Leisner, but he obviously doesn’t, either. But there was one phrase at the bottom of Bonnier’s statement that caught my eye: “The new model will remove the boundaries between BMG departments”. Not titles, or roles, but departments.

What could that mean but that sales and editorial are now officially, as opposed to merely functionally, blended? To be clear, motorcycle magazine editorial departments have not really been independent for decades. Not since manufacturers started flying journalists business class, and putting us up in luxury hotels, while hosting new model launches at exotic race tracks*. But in the last year or two I’ve had a queasy feeling about Bonnier, in particular, presenting branded content as journalism.

Last year, when Indian revealed its all new race only motor and announced that it would again field a factory flat track team, I contacted Polaris’ press guys to get more information and had an awkward exchange as they told me that, basically, they’d issued a press release and some photos but as for features, they were only cooperating with Cycle World. That seemed odd.

Over the winter, a Canadian motorcycle journalist PM'd me to ask, What did I know about Bonnier offering to manage product launches? Until then, I hadn’t heard anything about it.

The last launch I attended -- there were of course editors from Cycle World, Motorcyclist, and Sport Rider there -- a Bonnier sales guy also happened to sit beside me at the pre-launch dinner. It was a gathering where I'd expect to see sales guys from the manufacturer, but not a publisher.

"Oh hi," I said coyly, following with "Is this a Bonnier launch?” as casually as possible.

“No,” he assured me, it wasn’t.

“But that is a service you guys are now offering, isn’t it?” I asked, again trying to sound as conversational as possible.

He told me that it was, and that they’d coordinated some new product launches but not (yet) the launches of any new motorcycles.

Since then, it could just be me, but it sure seems as if Cycle World’s devoting a lot of ink  and pixels to Indian, and a lot of the coverage feels like branded content.

I really don't think this is the Indian that brought Indian into the 21st C.
Look, I get that this is an exercise in line-drawing on my part. None of the 'big' motorcycle outlets really practice independent journalism. They all accept free trips and press loaners (in sharp contradistinction with, say, Consumer Reports which buys the cars it tests from unsuspecting dealers and operates its own test track.) 

I myself've accepted a bunch of spiffs from manufacturers, and have even (albeit rarely) sold "gifts" given to me at product launches. It's been years since I have worn a helmet that I paid for with my own money.

But somehow, this feels like a sea change. And, not for the better. 

I'm down with branded content. If some manufacturer wants to produce a video and post it on their own site, I'm cool with that; I'll help them do it. That Red Bull space jump -- OK, we all know it's really just an ad. And the hot millennial girls with their open-faced lids, tatts, and selvedge jeans... sure I know that's really all just marketing for someone. I guess I'm just too old to accept that stuff presented as journalism, in magazines or on web sites that readers might feel are dedicated to serving up an expert independent opinion.

I'm not sure that what I'm seeing from Bonnier right now is branded content masquerading as legitimate journalism, but I wish that press release had been worded to give me faith in the old (and yes, often fictitious) separation of 'sales' and 'editorial'. 

*Note to Manufacturers: Please don’t stop doing that. I love those free trips.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Does Ducati have a Chinese suitor?

I recently read that -- despite widely repeated rumors that Harley-Davidson was interested in buying Ducati from the Volkswagen brand -- that H-D had never been in the running.

Although you probably think of Benetton as a fashion brand, the company ran its own F1 auto team throughout the '90s. Best results came in 1995, with Michael Schumacher winning drivers' championship and, with Johnny Herbert's points haul added in, Benetton also won the contructor's title. This would not be bad ownership for Ducati -- they clearly love motorsports and there are some great natural sponsors under the same umbrella.

So who is in the running? Among the contenders are Benetton (or at least, the holding company that owns the clothing brand) and a Chinese motorcycle maker, Loncin. On the face of it, a fashion company's not a perfect fit for Ducati. Or is it? Ducati is a fashionable brand and Benetton has some serious motorsports credibility: They weren't just an F1 auto racing sponsor, they actually built their own car and ran their own team. It was a completely in-house operation.

What about Loncin? It's almost unknown to American riders. But as it happens, I devoted a chapter of my Second Bathroom Book of Motorcycle Trivia to "the biggest motorcycle companies you've never heard of".

From Day 74, here's the Cliff's Notes summary of Loncin:

Loncin is another Chinese motorcycle company headquartered in Chongqing. The founder, Tu Jianhua, started Loncin Holdings Company in the early ‘80s, after he was injured on his previous job, at a state-run coal mine. By 1993, he made gasoline engines. Loncin launched its first complete motorcycle in 1999. In 2002, the company cut the ribbon on a new R&D center. Now, Loncin manufactures over a million bikes a year, at factories in Chongqing, Zhejiang, and Guandong. 
If you’ve traveled in Mexico or Argentina and seen Italika- or Zanella-brand motorcycles, there’s an excellent chance they were actually made by Loncin. The company has also acquired Amino, an Egyptian brand that sells throughout Africa. The company is capable of top-quality manufacturing. Loncin manufactures whole motors for BMW motorcycles in a part of the factory under direct supervision by BMW engineers. It also supplies components for GM, VW, and BMW cars.
This is a 2015 Loncin GP250
Honestly, that 250 doesn't look that bad. Some Ducatisti might chafe at the idea of Chinese ownership, but look on the bright side: Italy and China are both 'noodle' cultures. And more to the point, Loncin would provide a solid financial base to the Italians. Such an acquisition would create opportunities for low-cost/high-quality production in-house that might allow Ducati to either lower costs or increase margins. It would also give the Chinese access to Ducati's hip designers.

If you've got a huge pile of motorcycle magazines on the back of your toilet, do your girlfriend a favor and replace them with one tidy copy of my Second Bathroom Book of Motorcycle Trivia. The first edition was an Amazon best-seller, but you know I'm right when I promise you that when it comes to reading on the john, Number Two is even more satisfying than Number One.

The perfect gift for any motorcyclist who poops (and reads.) Just $12.95 at Amazon today.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

"Ahm 'ere." Guy Martin gets out alive

I see that MCN's reporting Guy Martin's retirement. Guy's own Facebook page (Thanks for the tip, Steve!) suggests that outright 'retirement' is a bit strong, but I knew he was done at the TT even before he officially withdrew from this year's Senior.

Martin's been a pretty stalwart guy over the years, and he's bounced back from some scary crashes. But he was visibly shaken, even hours after found a false neutral and crashed his Honda at about 140 miles per hour, at Doran's Bend in this year's Superbike race.

I watched this interview and knew immediately: Guy's done.

That onboard video was also a PR nightmare for Honda. The company was already reeling from their 'A' rider's -- John McGuinness'-- similar crash and serious injury at the NW200.

The CBR1000RR SP's struggled in World Superbike and here in MotoAmerica (though Honda riders have fared somewhat better in BSB). Honda had high hopes for McGuinness at the TT, and would have used a win there to argue that the machine was, at least, a contender on real roads.

Serious TT fans questioned Honda's choice of Guy as McPint's teammate, because Guy's had relatively lackluster results on the Island in recent years (and has never won a TT). But the choice made sense from a marketing perspective because Guy's still a favorite with the punters, and a natural on TV.

Instead the bike -- which has a newfangled 'autoblip' feature -- was the culprit in two very high profile and well-documented crashes. I would not be surprised to see a chaste Honda presence on the Island next year.

That would be bad news for the TT organizers, but I'm sure they breathed a sigh of relief after the Senior, anyway, once they were certain Ian Hutchinson was going to survive a horrific crash that put a brutal end to what might've been a fairy tale ending to the fortnight.

That left leg's cringe-inducing eh? Yeah, well unfortunately, that's the 'before' picture.
Here's the 'after'. If you're a medical student, spot what's missing. (Hint: an ankle.) If there's a bright spot to it being the same leg -- and I realize I'm reaching here -- it's that Hutchy's won several recent TTs on motorcycles modified with a right-side shift.

The Hutchy story goes back to 2010. That year, he won five(!!!!!) TT races. Late in the summer-long afterglow, he lined up for a BSB Supersport support class race at Silverstone -- a modern circuit that should have been safe by comparison. But he crashed and was hit by two other riders, sustaining so much damage to his left leg that an amputation seemed inevitable. Five years and 30 operations later, he returned to the TT, won again and kept winning. Well 'ard, as they say over there.

That comeback story makes him even more popular on the Island than Guy is. He won the Superbike and Superstock races earlier in the week and if he could've ended the Fortnight by winning the Senior it would've been a feel-good story. But he crashed in the very fast 27th Milestone section -- severely, severely damaging the same leg.

Instead, surgeons had no choice but to completely remove his left ankle, and with several inches of bone MIA, he faces an excruciating recovery. I'd say, Hutchy's done, but I'm afraid he'll prove me wrong.

In a very slightly different universe, fan favorite Guy Martin would've been killed at Doran's and, a few days later, Hutchy -- arguably the TT's biggest star -- would've offed himself on the Mountain. Honestly, I don't think the event would have survived the press coverage. Or the soul-searching.