Last weekend I got up early (too early, it turns out) to watch the MXdN live video feed via MediaZone. I really enjoyed it — well worth the $24.99 I paid for a year’s subscription that also buys me full coverage of the 2009 GP season and access to the archives for 2005–2008. If you want a recap of the coverage itself see Davey Coombs’ Racerhead #40 over at RacerX.
What I want to talk about is a realization I had while watching — that Internet video is the right medium for motocross. Not broadcast TV.
It’s no new idea that motocross is a niche sport. I think we all know this and, to my mind, it always will be. A big niche, perhaps, but a niche nonetheless. It’s a special sport. A different sport. It’s an extreme sport, but not a circus like Supercross. There is a history, a mind set, and a culture that are inherent in the way man and machine attack the terrain and the elements. There is an endurance aspect that simply doesn’t exist in other forms of closed course competition. It is not a complicated sport, yet it requires understanding.
None of this fits neatly into 1–hour, commercial-laden segments of American broadcast TV. The sport, at it’s core, does not match up well with normal, accepted TV practices for niche sports — 8 minutes of action punctuated by 1.5–2.5 minutes of commercials. Then repeat the cycle over and over.
It’s unrealistic to think motocross will ever get a regular 3–4 hours of live network coverage like NASCAR. Just won’t happen. We’re even unlikely to get extended coverage of once-a-year events like the Indy 500 or Petite LeMans can do. The best we can hope for is the foreshortened, summarized coverage of one moto or the other that is shown by SPEED TV. And the truth is, from a race fan perspective, that coverage is pretty poor. I don’t mean to bash SPEED. I’m grateful they show it. I understand the limitations, I know why it is what it is.
Start with the internet in mind
And that’s my point. In all the discussions of “going mainstream” and getting bigger audiences and live TV I’ve tried to maintain an open mind. There are a lot of people at MXSportswho are far smarter and more experienced than I. They are sincerely interested in doing the best thing for the sport — their livelihoods now depend on it. Besides, I never had a clear vision of what should happen, vs. what is being proposed to happen. It’s clear to me now that what should happen is a comprehensive plan to develop the future of the sport (and perhaps all niche sports) around Internet video.
The for-pay, real-time and on-demand video of the MXoN was excellent. It was a bit small on screen, but that’s the limit of current bandwidth and technology. Hopefully it will get better, but I was happy to pay for it. I got my coffee and sat in front of my nice LCD monitor and kicked back to watch the races. I chose to watch it live, but I didn’t have to. I could have gone riding in the morning and come home to watch it afterwards with the same effect. I have since watched portions of it again.
I didn’t suffer through commercial interruptions that broke up the races based on contracted commercial time, or a video editor’s idea of a good time-point to insert meaningless drivel. I didn’t suffer through commercials at all. There was plenty of screen real estate that could have been used for clickable adverts had MediaZone chosen to do so, but there weren’t any.
This is the viewing experience that befits motocross — not commercial, broadcast TV. Yet I fear that we may well abandon the fundamental personality of the sport in pursuit of something we can never achieve — mainstream, commercial television appeal.
The challenges of broadcast
I have no idea of the financials at work in this. The facilities expense for doing decent coverage is the same, whether you’re sending the signal out via commercial broadcast or on-demand. I don’t know enough to know whether on-demand is a viable model, but if we can’t get enough paying on-demand customers to make it go, how is it we’re going to draw enough sponsors to make a commercial broadcast viable? Maybe the difference is that in the US there is a well-established entity — SPEED TV — that can manage the broadcast logistics and the hope is that a package can be devised that will convince them to pay lots of money for the rights. Just remember that when Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation bought SpeedChannel in 2001 the plan was to make it into a 24–hour NASCAR channel. This has implications I’ll discuss in a moment.
Either way, we may still have to give up certain fundamental elements, like the beautiful, natural terrain courses in the middle of nowhere that used to be the heart of MX. Tracks bulldozed out of the infields of road race courses are Supercross tracks, not MX. Thankfully, the AMA contract for SX stipulates that any facility with more than 30,000 fixed seats is SX. But that still leaves a lot of potential facilities that aren’t really suitable for MX. But I digress.
I realize the driving motivation for all this TV talk is to bring in more money — money that can give promoters more capital for improving facilities, pay riders better purses, and provide a better overall experience for fans. I hope this works. But I also know this whole process has been done. It’s called Supercross. And it is not motocross.
The audience matters
If you look at what does get lots TV coverage, it’s clear that the mainstream TV audience is just not right for MX. I mean, really, SPEED TV reruns the same Monster Truck shows over and over at 6:00pm every day. There is obviously a huge audience for this motorized version of the WWE.
Want another indicator? Look at the coverage given to the MXoN on the most popular, dedicated, multi-disciplinary racing show in the US — Dave Despain’s Wind Tunnel. On the day the US claimed their 19th victory, the MXoN — one of, if not the, largest outdoor off-road motorcycle events in the world — got barely a mention. This unprecedented domination of a huge international event didn’t even warrant a still photo of Stewart or Villopoto taking the checker. That says something important about where we fit in the overall scheme of TV spectator motorsports. Despain is a motorcycle fan. The night of MXoN he had Ricky Carmichael in studio talking about his stock car racing. On tonight’s show he had James Stewart talking about his switch of Supercross teams. But motocross races don’t make the cut.
The 900-lb gorilla of motorsports, NASCAR is also sports entertainment. There hasn’t been a technical development for street cars or any level of consumer technology to come out of NASCAR in decades. The entire discipline is micro-managed to the smallest degree to remove as much technology as possible from the racing equation. NASCAR is pure entertainment, and there is a huge audience for this.
But it’s not the technically literate, participatory audience that is drawn to motorcycle racing. The motorcycle racing community is all about technology, performance, and improvement. This little disconnect is at the heart of the goat rodeo that has paralyzed professional road racing in the months since AMA Pro Racing was purchased by NASCAR-centric DMG. While motocross is an entertaining sport, it is not sports entertainment. The difference is big and significant.
I will still keep an open mind about whatever comes out of the current management meetings. MXSports is as good as anyone to shepherd the sport forward. But I sincerely hope they do not get sidetracked by the lure of an unattainable goal. Preserving the soul of our sport should be the first priority.