After winning the MotoGP Triple Crown: The Rider, Team, and Manufacturer Championships, the factory Yamaha team finds itself in a difficult position looking for a title sponsor for next year. After Valentino Rossi’s departure to Ducati Corse for the 2011 season, Fiat, the team’s sponsor from 2007 until recently, dropped the Yamaha squad after its loss of the Italian rider (Fiat had long been associated with Yamaha because of the company’s desire to woo Rossi into the Ferrari Formula 1 team…that and the Italian helps sell the Italian made cars).
Perhaps under-appreciating the value of having Rossi on board a Yamaha bike in 2011, the tuning fork brand has now been left scrambling for a marquis name to help foot the bills for the next season. Despite having the reigning MotoGP World Champion Jorge Lorenzo and Rookie of the Year Ben Spies, deals with Petronas, Telefonica, and AirAsia have failed to materialize, despite lengthy rumor, meaning Yamaha’s corporate Blue/White livery might be spotted in Qatar (something reserved usually for non-sponsored wild card riders).
Talking to MCN‘s Matthew Birt, Yamaha Racing’s Managing Director Lin Jarvis brushed off the lack of a title sponsor as something related specifically to Yamaha’s situation, and instead linked it to the global climate in the motorcycle industry and motorsports as a whole. According to Jarvis the team has a few “irons in the fire” as far as sponsorship deals go, but with Ducati Corse announcing last month that it would be partnering with AMG as a title sponsor, the argument that this is about MotoGP’s lack of commercial potential for sponsors seems to hold less weight, as the Italian company seemingly had little difficulty talking the German auto-tuner out of its millions of dollars.
While it is true that the economic climate is tough, and many companies have pulled marketing budgets that include racing sponsorships, looking at the AMG/Ducati Corse partnership it is clear that large deals and sponsorships can materialize under the right conditions. Obviously Valentino Rossi is a large portion of that equation, as the Italian rider has the star power off the track to help grease the wheels on such deals, a trait that Lorenzo and Spies do not share.
While Jorge Lorenzo may have a cadre of fans on Twitter, the Spanish rider has little real following outside of his home country, and is often seen as arrogant and forcefully trying too hard to be appealing to the fans. The inverse of this is perhaps Ben Spies, whose talent on the track cannot be questioned, but American seems to lack any motivation to build his personal brand or a connection with his fans, seemingly lacking the charisma and personality x-factor that makes riders like Valentino Rossi and others so special and marketable.
With two personality duds on the factory Yamaha squad and no sponsor in sight, the real nature of MotoGP and motorsports in general seems to rear its ugly head: at the end of the day racing needs to be entertaining, not only on the track, but off the track as well. In this aspect teams and MotoGP as a whole are failing miserably from a promotional standpoint, putting almost no effort into developing the personal brands of riders. Of course some of the blame lays on the riders themselves, who see their job as being on the race track, and not in the press debrief afterwards.
With stories off the track carrying more weight than what happens on Sunday’s race, there is a critical element missing from riders who cannot be more than a two-wheeled pilot. Sponsors pay riders both directly and indirectly through the team, and thus become the ultimate priority. When riders fail to adequate meet the needs of those sponsors, or fail to create a brand or image that the sponsor can use to promote its product, that rider has failed to do his job, despite what the race sheet says at the end of the day. With Yamaha arguably signing two riders that are archetypes of this idea of a lacking personal brand, perhaps it isn’t surprising that the company finds itself in this position today.