Chatting with a couple of NASCAR fans recently, I was reminded that any competition is boring if you don’t care who wins. But if you do care, then even cars driving around in circles can be very compelling entertainment.
Those NASCAR fans really cared about how their favorite drivers finished, and not only how they finished in the latest race, but what and how those drivers were doing off the track as well.
Those fans had been captured by the personalities of those drivers. One of the things NASCAR does well is sell personalities. All major sports-related businesses do this to some extent, but some organizations do it better than others.
The NASCAR fans loved their drivers and loathed the others, so each race becomes a contest of great emotional importance. Will Good triumph over Evil? Will Justice prevail? This drama is acted out lap after lap, and then continued post-race with interviews, public appearances, blogs, and so on.
The importance of personality to the success of a sports business has been made plain for MotoGP fans by Valentino Rossi. Sure, he won a lot of races while he was charming millions of fans, but I’d argue his personality was just as important to his success as his talent on a motorcycle. I’d even say that personality is more important.
Again and again in the MotoGP paddock I hear discussion of what is going to happen to our sport when Rossi leaves. Will the fans he brought to MotoGP leave as well?
Certainly some will continue to watch and attend races, having learned to love motorcycle racing during his career. But others will leave because they are Valentino Rossi fans rather than motorcycle racing fans.
So I’m always on the lookout for the next great personality. We wondered if Marco Simoncelli would be part of the pending personality gap, with his unique but similar combination of off-track charm and on-track aggression. Sadly we will never know how far he might have taken that combination.
Marc Marquez has both qualities in arguably greater quantities than Simoncelli did, though I doubt there would be much of an argument about his on-track ability.
Along with races and a Rookie World Championship, Marc is already winning the hearts of many fans. Just take look at his Twitter account, which is racing toward a million followers. (Rossi is at 2.5 million).
I think it will take a cast of personalities to make up for the inevitable loss of Rossi’s. So I’m also constantly looking in the lower classes for those who might contribute with a combination of winning talent and winning personality. The latest contender in my mind is Jack Miller.
19-year-old Miller is from Queensland, Australia, and he did a season and a half in 125cc and Moto3 before battling to 7th place in the 2013 Moto3 season. He was outgunned by the KTMs as he soldiered on aboard an FTR Honda, impressing many with his frequent Top Ten finishes.
He impressed some enough to claim title contender Luis Salom’s Red Bull KTM for this season, and he made good use of the new machine by winning the first race in Qatar. After one race he leads the championship, and many consider him to be fighting for the title all season.
Other Moto3 contenders Alex Rins, who barely lost the 2013 title to Maverick Vinales, and Alex Marquez, Marc’s younger brother, are certainly on par with Miller for riding ability. They may have an edge on track, or the advantage may be Miller’s given that he spent last season wringing every last bit of speed from his underpowered Honda.
For personalities, the Alexes are well-mannered young men, fast on motorcycles, perhaps a bit shy, especially in the case of Rins. As I don’t speak Spanish, I can’t know what they are like when they communicate in their native languages, but the ability to be charming in English is, for better or worse, crucial when it comes to attracting fans from around the world. In English, the Alexes seem a bit dull.
So in the personality contest, I think Miller has the advantage in terms of winning fans to root for his success. He is certainly not boring, and seems to have an intriguing mischievous quality that can go a long way toward getting people’s attention.
I first met Miller at the 2012 Valencia test. He was on a scooter watching the MotoGP bikes circulate, and I stopped to say hi. Frankly I wasn’t sure who he was at the time, but I recognized his face as one of the Moto3 riders. I’m sure he had no idea who I was. Yet he was polite and friendly, not shy at all, but not full of himself either.
In 2013, I watched him turn in one solid performance after another, often the top Honda rider in a class dominated by KTM. And now he’s off to a great start for 2014, and the MotoGP TV audience got its first view of Miller on a podium.
He was excited for his first Grand Prix victory, as one would expect. At the end of the Australian anthem he wiped his eyes from the emotion of the moment. Then he decided to make sure at least one of his podium mates left sticky, in spite of there being no champagne allowed for the Qatar GP.
I don’t know Miller well, and have only spoken to him one on one at the test back in 2012. But I do observe him as a fan would, albeit from a slightly closer distance. And I see the potential for a solid contribution to the coming personality gap.
If he continues to achieve podiums over the next couple of years, and thus continues to show fans his strong personality, he will find those who like and cheer for him. He will also find those who dislike him – consider that no one has more vehement haters than Rossi. But like bad publicity, haters can also be a good thing, and can help one’s popularity.
Miller is playful, brash, and most important, genuine. His antics are spontaneous and sincere rather than contrived and calculated. He has powerful sponsorship in Red Bull, which brings to his career their marketing expertise. He’s also fast on a motorbike.
He has the ingredients to make for a popular rider. I don’t know if we’ll ever see another rider as popular as Rossi, but Miller has a lot of potential to keep a good number of fans watching MotoGP after Rossi has gone.
Scott Jones is a professional photographer who covers MotoGP and WSBK for racing industry clients as well as racing websites and publications in the U.S. and Europe. His online archive is available at Photo.GP, and you can find him on his blog, Twitter, & Facebook.
All images posted, shared, or sent for editorial use or review are registered for full copyright protection at the Library of Congress.
Photo: © 2013 Scott Jones / Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved