So, Liberty Has Bought MotoGP. Now What?

In a shocking turn of events, F1’s commercial rights holders in Liberty Media has bought MotoGP for $4bn. But what does it mean? Dre talks about it on the Newswipe!

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Read time: 7 mins

No, before anyone thinks it – This is not an April Fool’s joke. Heck, the Financial Times was reporting on this last week. It’s been coming, but today Liberty Media, the owner of F1’s commercial rights confirmed they’ve bought 86% of Dorna Sports at a 3.5 billion euro valuation, with Carmelo Ezpeleta and the family retaining the other 14%. It’s quite the improvement on the half billion the company was bought for when Bridgepoint took them on in 2006. 

Now, I need to make this point early – This isn’t a done deal yet. The statement on MotoGP’s website lays it out pretty bare, that this deal is subject to international clearance and I suspect the EU’s Anti-Trust laws will be looking at this one closely. We’re talking about the two biggest Motorsport series on the planet under the same roof, they’ll be Monopoly-based questions asked and Europe’s Competition Commission is the strongest in the world. 

This has happened before. When Bernie Ecclestone’s CVC snapped up a majority stake in F1 in 2006, it had to sell MotoGP as the EU determined that one entity owning both was “a risk to price increases for the TV rights to these events and a reduction in consumer choice.” Funny that. If you want an easy, more mainstream comparison, think of gaming when Microsoft recently bought out Activision/Blizzard for more money than god. If the last two decades have proven anything, big corporations snapping up assets rarely goes well in the end.

Liberty’s sports portfolio is now easily worth eight figures and is now the largest in the world after you add the Atlanta Braves baseball team. Now, do I think one business should own both? Probably not. Monopolies are generally bad for business and arguably three of the biggest Motorsport series, (World Superbikes included here), are under one roof and will be incredibly hard to compete against.

But let’s pretend that F1 and MotoGP are now so different in terms of their goals and objectives that the EU’s cool with it. What’s the vibe check on all this? 

The conference call announcing the deal this afternoon had me nervous. World Superbikes was barely mentioned at all. A return to Argentina sounds ambitious at most given the country’s sensitive financial climate. They openly said 22 races was a target, which… given the sport was being ravaged by injuries at 20 last year, worries me. Lots of talk of the Women’s World Championship as a key demo to promote as well as strategising pushing the sport to new broadcasters, content shares and a big US push. It all seems like F1’s marketing model to me. And to be honest, that’s probably not a bad thing.

If you’re MotoGP, you need the help. The one thing that almost everyone can agree on with Liberty buying F1 has been the vastly improved marketing behind it. F1 had no social media presence until 2016, and it’s done a brilliant job of closing that gap to the rest of global sport in the eight years since. Some might even argue they’ve been too good at it, with many fans complaining that the “entertainment at all costs” mantra the series has had has damaged its integrity. 

To a degree, I get it. F1’s not done itself many favours in the court of public opinion lately. Some of that is elements that are beyond the commercial rights holders’ control, like Abu Dhabi 2021’s farcical ending or the clashes between them and the FIA as a governing body, as both entities fight over the sport’s lack of true leadership.

Some of that is a lot of older F1 fans who insist on gatekeeping the audience as Drive to Survive provided a huge shot in the arm, taking Reality TV vibes and pushing their characters out on the global stage of Netflix. Yeah, uneducated fans scare people, even if you were probably that same person yourself in the past. 

There are the bigger changes to the sports DNA that have split the room. Sprint Races, the bloated calendar, the late leaning into countries high on the sportswashing index like Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the rejection of an 11th team in Andretti. But as much as people don’t want to admit it, they’re not dealbreakers for our consumption as fans. At this point, it’s hard to deny that Liberty’s influence on F1 has been largely positive and the sport is in way better health than it was.

Don’t forget, we just came through a once-in-a-century pandemic too. And ask yourself this, when MotoGP was under Bridgepoint’s leadership in 2006-2023, did you ever hear anything about them when it came to giving a shit about it? They’re a venture-capitalist firm that owned the sport for profit and nothing else. Say what you will about Liberty, but they’re actively wanting to grow what they have.

This matters because no matter how you slice it, Dorna and MotoGP are lagging from a promotional standpoint. As a man who’s watched both series for 20 years, in this writer’s opinion, if you can stomach it, MotoGP’s racing product has been some of the best in the world for a long, long time. But it’s always had that same muttered under-the-breath frustration when you talk to any bike fan about it: “Why aren’t more people watching our brilliantly entertaining sport?”, something that’s only doubled in my feeds now I watch IndyCar. And like those guys across the pond, the simple answer is that the sport doesn’t know how to garner new fans.

MotoGP now has the same problem World Athletics had with Usain Bolt, only their version was Italian and also had an affinity for wearing yellow. Both sports never contemplated pushing themselves to promote their sports as a whole, even when they knew their talismanic breadwinner was winding it down. Athletics has looked itself in the mirror ever since and wondered why Noah Lyles, Jakob Ingebrigtsen and Mondo Duplantis can’t move the needle like Bolt could. MotoGP’s now been doing the same in life after Valentino. Losing four years of prime Marc Marquez didn’t help, but the current state of the sport tells you all the clues. 

Francesco Bagnaia is a wonderful bike rider. He’s won two World Championships and has a good chance of three-peating. That would put him deep into the all-time great discussions that we do in any sporting dialogue. But I promise you, most people wouldn’t recognise him if he walked down the street, even less so if it was Jorge Martin or Fabio Quartararo outside of France. 

On a more macro scale, I witnessed Silverstone first-hand have to work very hard to make its two-wheeled GP worth going to again after a startling attendance of just 41,000 rolled up in 2022. Mugello pulled similar numbers after shockingly high ticket prices and a lack of Italian needle-mover. Generally speaking, attendance has been going down for the last few years. Same in the sister brand of World Superbikes. Their racing has been stunning, a genuine golden age of manufacturer support, superb racing and competitive balance with recognisable names like Jonathan Rea, Alvaro Bautista, and Toprak Razgatiloglu. But very few people are going out of their way to watch it. 

MotoGP tried their version of Drive to Survive via “MotoGP Unlimited” and it was a bust, not going down well with its core audience and had a botched launch in the UK with technical problems on Amazon Prime Video. (Although to their credit, There Can Be Only One on YouTube is genuinely excellent and well worth your time, but 150-200k YouTube views isn’t Netflix.)

MotoGP wouldn’t have hired Dan Rossomundo as Chief Commercial Officer straight out of the NBA, one of the best-promoted sports in the world if it didn’t recognise that they had a problem. And I know the man has been in dialogue with media firms like my old friends at The Race asking what can be done to improve that relationship. Ask any YouTuber who’s tried to make the most out of the sport for “content”. *stares directly into the camera as I process another content ID claim*

See what I’m getting at here? Dorna needs the promotional help, and F1’s been good at that for some time now. I wonder just how much influence Liberty will ultimately have. The statement says that Dorna will remain “independently ran”, which suggests that the sport will just let MotoGP do its thing, but I wonder if there’ll be voting rights involved on the board’s table if Liberty does want to push what they think is right for the sport. 

I hope Liberty largely leaves MotoGP’s operations alone and focusing on the marketing of the product is an easy win for them to join forces in that department because while MotoGP has its own set of sporting problems with dirty air and ride height devices neutering the entertainment factor, it’s not like F1’s had a string of classics post-Liberty. Think about it – Since 2017, how many genuinely good F1 seasons can you remember? One? Maybe two? And has it mattered? Not really. F1’s revenue went up 25% last year.

In any case, this is a huge deal for how Motorsport will be run and watched. The mega powers, the two former heated rivals, could very well now be joining forces. And the scary thing is, no one truly knows how it will go. And it’s not great news for any other series trying to gain market share, because one slice of the pie just got a whole lot bigger. It’s going to be fascinating and scary to see how this acquisition ends up in the long run. 

About the Author:

Dre Harrison

Somehow can now call himself a Production Coordinator at the Motorsport Network, coming off the back of being part of the awkward Johto Era at WTF1. All off a University Project that went massively out of hand. Weird huh?

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