If you haven’t already read David Emmett’s excellent analysis of Valentino Rossi’s options in MotoGP, you owe it to your MotoGP-loving self to sit down and digest David’s thorough game theory walk-through on the nine-time World Champion’s prospects in the premier class.
David’s analysis is spot-on, and approaches the impending 2012 mega silly season from a logical point-of-view (for those who aren’t keeping track, virtually every contract in MotoGP is up for renewal this year). I don’t disagree with any point David has penned, but I wanted to add one line-item to his analysis: some discussion about Rossi’s post-motorcycle racing career, and how it influences The Doctor’s choices this coming contract renewal period.
Never say never, but few are expecting Valentino Rossi to hang up his spurs at the end of the 2012 MotoGP Championship. Going out on a career low-point is certainly not the Italian’s style, especially as it casts a particularly dark shadow on a career that has enjoyed the bright-light superlative of “Greatest of All Time” from some of motorcycling’s most knowledgeable sources.
Hoping to cast that phrase with an underlined typeface, and not with an interrogatory question mark, there is sufficient evidence to believe that Rossi will want to end his career in a way that will leave no doubt about the nine-time World Champion’s abilities. The question of course is how those final seasons will play out, and who they will be with.
The 10,000 Hour Rule:
Turing down my own chance at a professional athletic career (college sounded like a way better idea than sailing boats for a living), I have always been intrigued with the endgame to an athlete’s career. Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story to Success proposes the idea that it take 10,000 hours to truly master and be skilled at a given task, in our example we will of course be talking motorcycle racing.
In order to achieve such a duration, one must essentially work at their craft for eight hours a day, five days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, for five years. For a motorcycle racer, I would argue that time does not include the hours in the gym training, eating right, and pounding pavement for sponsorships. That is 10,000 hours on a bike, riding hard, and risking injury. Add in the cost of track time, machinery, travel, and expendables, and the picture as to why we have so few outliers in motorcycle racing starts to take shape — not to mention why so many of the riders at the top of the sport started when they were teenagers or younger.
Natural talent surely plays a huge element in this process, and can catapult a young athlete into the process, but Gladwell surmises that it still takes 10,000 hours of practice and routine to hone a person into a truly special instrument of their craft. That is to say in motorcycling terms that Valentino Rossi surely could have risen through motorcycle racing’s ranks on his talent alone, but what made him the G.O.A.T. was the Italian’s hard work that spans more than two decades.
The Window of Opportunity:
This brings us to the crux of being a professional athlete, as for many sports the peak of ones career also comes during the peak of one’s physique. Motorcycle racing is a bit different in this regard, as we have examples of the positively geriatric Carlos Checa and Max Biaggi wiping the floor with the younger riders in World Superbike, but then again motorcycle racing is also a sport comprised of both man and machine. While physically demanding, one’s success does not solely rest of their physical abilities (contrast this to a sport like quarter-mile sprinting, for example).
Despite not being a completely physically-based sport, it should surprise no one that around their mid-30’s the end of a rider’s career becomes a lingering question. Hitting those golden years at the same time as a major transition in his on-track performance, we have invariably linked Valentino Rossi’s ailing results to the waning years of him racing a motorcycle, and the discussions have begun to revolve around not “if” but “when” Rossi exits MotoGP.
Most of those questions have centered around what will become of MotoGP, a story worthy of its own post, so I won’t digress here. But, the question should also be asked of what will become of Valentino Rossi. Imagine for a minute that since you were a young man, you have worked to become good at just one thing in life. You have spent 10,000 hours actually practicing what you do, and even more countless hours supporting that endeavor. Living a one-dimensional life in this regard, the window to achieve your success is small, and by your 40’s, virtually no one continues in that sport. So question has to be asked, what do you do afterwards?
The Tragedy of Having No Endgame Strategy:
The role of an athlete, post-sporting career, falls into two camps: those who fade away from the sport, and those who linger in a different capacity. Pick up a starting grid list from 10 or 15 years, and play the “whatever happened to…” game with any number of the riders you find. Some of those men were able to fallback on an amassed wealth that will let them and their family lead comfortable lives in retirement, while others squandered their earnings and struggle to make ends meet. Watching Mark Neale’s Faster, I was shocked to hear that after his injuries Gary McCoy was going to go hang dry wall at his brother’s construction business.
I have never seen too many financial advisors roaming the makeshift city that is the MotoGP paddock, so I always cringe when I hear about some of the “investments” riders make. For example, Ben Spies just opened up a burger joint in Dallas area. I know from my business background that restaurants are one of the worst entrepreneurial endeavors one can make as they require huge amounts of capital, carry a ton of overhead expenses, make razor-thin margins, and are subject to fickle culinary trends.
Maybe Ben has a portfolio that is absolutely killing it in this roller coaster stockmarket. Maybe Mr. Elbowz just loves him some hamburgers, and had a little extra cash laying around. Or just maybe, no one took the 27-year-old aside and said, “You five more years to make all the money you will ever be able to live on. Spend it prudently.” I don’t pretend to have the inside-scoop on any one rider’s financial situation, but if the rock & roll lifestyle have taught us anything, it is that the “can’t touch this” financial attitude can do in even the biggest of stars. In other news, the Grandfather of American road racing recently put his house and part of his motorcycle collection up for sale.
Motorcycling’s Golden Parachute:
Contrast that line of reasoning with the fact that a number of the team owners in the MotoGP paddock were racers once, as were some of the media personalities, industry executives, etc. For instance, Monster Tech3 Yamaha, the top satellite team in MotoGP, is owned by an ex-racer: Hervé Poncharal — and the same can be said of LCR Honda & Gresini Racing, which see their team principals both having earlier careers in GP racing.
Walk around the GP paddock long enough, and you’ll find Randy Mamola who is the traveling brand ambassador for a number of companies involved with the sport. Similarly, you will now find three-time World Champion Loris Capirossi serving in a new capacity, as he has become the link between the riders, Dorna, and Bridgestone. The list goes on, but the point is that with some foresight into a future that does not involve racing motorcycle around a track, an ex-racer can find arenas were their massive experience and unique toolset still have tremendous value.
I still come back to my first interview in the MotoGP paddock, where I had a conversation with Hervé Poncharal about Colin Edwards. At the time, the Texas Tornado was seriously considering a switch from MotoGP to World Superbike, and a few weeks later, Ducati yanked the cord from its WSBK program. Talking about whether Edwards would stay at the Tech3 team, move one, or retire, Poncharal clued me into one of the major negotiation points Edwards was having with Yamaha: what his role would be post-MotoGP.
You may have heard of a little riding school affiliated with Colin: The Texas Tornado Boot Camp. Motorcycle camps needs bikes. Students crash those bikes. Motorcycles are expensive. At the time of his negotiations with Yamaha, the issue of how much Colin would get paid to ride was not an issue at all (this was at the height of the riders-paying-for-rides in GP movement), but instead the negotiations were revolving around how much support the tuning fork brand would give Edwards for his new business venture, and how much time Edwards would spend as a brand ambassador for Yamaha.
Just as the Texan’s rough & tumble style, which has endeared him to fans, would help sell seats at his motorcycle school, that same persona could help Yamaha sell bikes here in the US market. That is a skill and asset that has value well after a career of motorcycling is over.
Wait Weren’t We Talking About Valentino Rossi?
The connecting of the dots should be clear by now. While a significant component of Rossi’s options in MotoGP are still weighed against time sheet results and podiums, a growing concerning on The Doctor’s mind has to be about his future career, the career where he doesn’t race a motorcycle for a paycheck. There is no greater personality in MotoGP than Valentino Rossi, and the argument that the Italian is the media force behind the premier class is almost a moot point. That has value, value that a motorcycle company wants to cash-in on for the coming decades.
Dominating the first years of the four-stroke format on a Honda, as well as the 800cc era on a Yamaha, many will want to write-off this chapter of Rossi’s career on a Ducati. However, it is the Italian brand that has the most to gain from having Rossi sunset his career within its team’s ranks. Just to taste the proportions of that combined effort, we have to only remember back two years ago when the rumors of Rossi’s defection to Ducati Corse were being made. The Italian media went crazy, the Ducatisti of the world lost their collective minds, and us here at A&R saw our traffic permanently double for helping break the news.
Building the Rossi brand, both in the VR46 and institutional senses of the word, Valentino has something that few riders have to offer a company during the endgame of their career. Unlike Edwards, Rossi won’t be negotiating for bikes a motorcycle-themed camp, but instead he will be bargaining his likeness, personal endorsement, and persona to a motorcycle brand with a value that will be measured in millions of dollars. Ask yourself which of the three OEMs has the ability to capitalize on that opportunity the most. I will give you a hint, it is not the commoditized brands of Honda and Yamaha.
While the situation between Rossi and Ducati Corse looks bleak right now, be assured there will be a movement that starts from the very top of the organization to retain the nine-time World Champion for the rest of his career — at any cost. Just as our expert analysis by David Emmett predicts that Rossi’s only option would be to stay with Ducati Corse for another season, based if for no other reason on the fact that there is a lack of #1 position seats at Honda & Yamaha, the endgame analysis for The Doctor suggests that the Italian rider will align the end of his racing career with the company that best serves his post-racing career. For that answer, there is only one company that not only places enough stock in brand value, but also has the ability to make a sizable return on such an investment, and thus pay a substantial price for a Valentino Rossi that no longer races.
Photo: © 2012 Scott Jones / Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved