Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Tour de Media: Ups and downs

Honda takes on title sponsorship of Pikes Peak hillclimb

I see that American Honda will become the official sponsor of Pikes Peak, entering a bunch of cars, bikes, and a quad. The entries include an electric car but no electric motorcycle. (I guess they couldn't arrange to borrow the Mugen bike that will race again at the TT in June.)

The driving/riding duties seem to be handled by a Honda's American R&D staff. Jeff Tigert, a 'known fast guy' on the West Coast, will be riding a CBR600 in the 750 class.

I didn't see a Honda motorcycle entry in the big bike class, so I guess we won't see a Honda-Ducati showdown for the outright course record. I have to wonder, though, what this means for Ducati. For the last few years, they've done a great guerrilla marketing job at Pikes Peak. They've been the de facto title sponsor, without paying for official status, just on the strength of a well-managed PR program. They may not manage to 'own' the event this summer, if -- as I expect -- Honda backs its title sponsorship with a soup-to-nuts PR program.

I think that my friends at Faulkner-Livingston Racing did too good a job managing the Ducati Pikes Peak program; they proved that racing there could generate great exposure for a relatively small investment.

Barring a high-profile PR disaster (read: fatality on the all-paved, fast, and as a consequence more dangerous course) Honda's involvement signals a quantum jump for the hillclimb, in terms of returning it to past glory as one of America's highest-profile motorsports events.

Fisker proves Christensen's theory again

I've written before about the way disruptive change comes up from the bottom of the market, not down from the top. And now, I read that Fisker -- the high-dollar electric sports car -- is about to fold. I suppose the guys who now run Mission Motors are looking at Fisker and thinking, at least we didn't do that.

Every now then I try to arrange an interview with the people at Vectrix, who have partnered with Daimler's Smart unit, and are developing a cheap & cheerful low performance electric scooter. That's where I expect real success for an EV two-wheeler. (But somehow, Vectrix senior management seems to be avoiding me. I guess I've got a reputation as a bushwhacker.) If I ever get them to return my calls, you'll hear about it here first.

AMA Pro Racing finds its long-lost Superbike TV deal

Last but no means least, AMA Pro Racing just breathlessly announced that the rest of this season, and all of next season's Superbike and DSB-class road races will be broadcast on the CBS Sports cable network.

That's a lot better than no TV deal, and most of the series' stakeholders are probably eager to trumpet it to existing and potential sponsors. But don't kid yourself; the racing's not on CBS, it's on CBS Sports, a cable channel that is, like, Channel 521 out there in far reaches of obscure cabledom.

Actual audience figures for CBS Sports are hard (read: impossible) to come by. The channel is not a Nielsen subscriber, so I could not get an independent estimate of viewership. The network coyly says that it is "available to over 100 million households" [my italics].  That does not, however, mean it's available in 100 million households. It means that it's carried by cable providers that serve that number of homes. A better guess is that about half that number of homes actually subscribe to a package (i.e., a 'sports tier') that includes CBS Sports.

If you want a working figure, you can say that somewhere between a third and half of American homes currently subscribe to a cable package (or something like the Dish Network) that gives them access to CBS Sports network, although most American households could get access to the network if they were willing to spend an extra few bucks a month.

That's a lot of potential viewers, but it hasn't translated into many viewers for most of the content carried on the channel. I've read estimates in the advertising trades (the ad industry, of course, makes audience estimates its business) suggesting that even popular CBS Sports shows measure their audience in the tens of thousands. This is not a return to the days when motorcycle racing occasionally showed up on Wide World of Sports and was exposed to millions of people who weren't even looking for it. No broadcast of this year's AMA Superbike series will even be seen in 0.1% of American households.

I don't want to be a 'Morose Mark' on this topic. Like I said, this deal's a lot better than no TV deal. But my message to AMA Pro Racing is: You can not -- and must not -- assume people will find, and watch, the Superbike series now that it's 'on TV'. It's available to a wide audience. Now you have to convince that wide audience to watch it.

What I mean is, now that people can watch it, we need to tell them where they can find it, and why they should go to the trouble. AMA Pro Racing needs to develop a social media campaign that leverages everything all the many stakeholders, especially riders and sponsors, are already doing on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc. They should be advertising online, where a lot of the young action-sports enthusiasts they could capture already spend a lot of time. There should be beer coasters in sports bars, telling patrons to ask bartenders to switch one of the televisions to our network. There should be ads at every AMA race and handbills in every motorcycle dealership, telling people in that particular market what channel number they need to program into their remote. Because the only way we'll build an audience is by telling people how to watch us, and why they should bother.

We've got a TV deal. Big whoop. Now, let the audience outreach begin.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Notes from the Blue Groove: It's twins!

I think that the newly announced Basic Twins class for 'Pro' riders is, basically, a good idea.

Under the current class structure, Grand National Experts race twins on half-miles and miles, and race 450cc stock-framed, motocross-based machines on short tracks and TTs. In the only support class, up-and-coming Pros race on the MX-based bikes on all tracks. When this format was introduced a few years ago, many people decried the loss of the 'framers' on short tracks. There were also complaints that the 450s would be far too slow for the Mile races.

'Too slow' is arguable, but the singles races on Mile tracks turned out to be thrilling drafting battles in which -- even by flat track standards -- the racing was a little too close for comfort. It would be a little different, maybe, if the tracks themselves were old-school, deep cushion deals... but they're not; nowadays, they mostly groove up into one-line affairs.

Jesse Phibbs, 21, died a month after crashing in the 2010 Indy Mile. And while I think he was the single class fatality, there have been a few too many close calls. I think twins will prove safer on the Mile tracks -- spreading riders out a little and allowing for slightly different corner lines, even if they're marginally faster. After all, the idea is to bring up promising young riders, not maim or kill them off.

It remains to be seen how the rules will shake out in detail. I presume the new twins will replace singles at all Mile tracks, but what about half-miles? Will some of those be designated 'Twins' tracks and others 'Singles'?

I know it won't make me popular, but I think some consideration should be given to making the Basic Twins class a 'stock frame' class. Go ahead, roll your eyes, but hear me out: When the 450 MX-based bikes came in, people bitterly complained that they were, basically, pieces of shit compared to real 'framers'. But the fact is that while they are slower, cruder bikes, the racing hasn't suffered. More grassroots sponsors -- dealers who sell 450 motocross bikes -- were brought into the sport. And the cost of fielding a competitive machine fell at least a little. Remember the old 883 Sportster class? Those stock-frame bikes were pigs, but the racing was great.

I think the same thing could happen with a Basic Twins class that specified stock frames. Bikes would cost less to build; they'd look more like street bikes and be more attractive to dealer sponsors; they'd look visibly different than the Experts' bikes, which would reduce the prestige erosion at the very top.

I'm just sayin'...

A note from the Dept. of Modest Proposals: Cancel Daytona

I was going to write a blog post bemoaning the 2 1/2-month gap between Daytona and the next AMA Superbike race weekend. I was going to ask, "Is there really no Speedway availability later in the spring?"
Ago won the 200 in 1974. And damned if I don't have trouble remembering who won it last month.
Daytona is dead. Long live Daytona.
The early start/long gap schedule forces teams to rush preparations Bike Week; that's a bigger problem for the smaller teams. Then, the marketing of the series loses momentum during the hiatus; that takes the wind out of the promotional sails (and sales) for the bigger, commercial/factory squads. Nobody thinks the current schedule is good.

A March event made sense decades ago, when Bike Week in general and the '200' in particular attracted an international field. The race had to be scheduled before the Grands Prix season, and before the big Easter meetings in England (then the de facto head office of the racing industry.) It was an informal trade show and industry conference; everyone who was anyone was there. That's no longer true of the year's first AMA 'National'.

So I was going to say, reschedule it. But as I started composing this post, I realized the answer isn't rescheduling Daytona. It's canceling Daytona.

Let's face it: Daytona's not just an outlier on the AMA schedule, it's an outlier, period. No matter what you do to the course infield (and there have been several changes to the layout and course distance over the years; remembering when qualifying ran on the oval alone?) the banking still makes it so unique that the tire supplier makes special tires for it.

Face this, too: It's all about the '200'. Every other class is just an appendage to the main event, which has lost so much prestige having been downgraded to the second-fastest class that now there's hardly a main event at all. But, whether teams are competing for less prestige or not, machines still have to be built with special refueling and tire change components.

I don't think it should be part of the AMA Superbike series at all. I'm not saying they shouldn't hold it; I'm just saying that it shouldn't be a points-paying race in the American national championship.

I think, instead, that DMG should take a page from the Isle of Man's book.
DMG should study the way that the Isle of Man has steadily gone about restoring the TT as a stand-alone event that is not part of any championship.
Like the TT, Daytona was a world-class (and sometimes actually a World Championship) event, attracting the world's top riders, until some time in the '70s. Then it fell on hard times, and for years -- for decades -- when old hands gather to talk about it, the talk is only that it's a shadow of it's former self.

Since 2004, when the Manx government took over the TT and created a strategic plan to grow the event's prestige back to long-lost levels, they've done a great job. It was achieved, in part, by actively going out and recruiting riders and/or teams that the organizers thought would add to the event. The TT Press Office works year round to build the event's profile.

In fact, top TT teams (who already refuel, albeit not with dry-break equipment, and change tires) could probably be lured over to race the 200. Some World Endurance teams might come, too. (I would have said, make it a part of that championship, but the FIM would never homologate DIS for a world championship event.)

As a first event on the AMA Pro Racing schedule, Daytona sucks. But the Daytona 200 would make a great one-off race. What do you say, DMG?