Liberty Media Buys MotoGP for £3.6bn: Can It Recreate F1 Success?

  • F1 owner Liberty Media has purchased MotoGP, as well as 86% of its former owner Dorna Sports
  • Since taking over F1 in 2016, Liberty has grown its fan base substantially, specifically in the US
  • Dorna attempted a similar strategy with a MotoGP TV series but it failed to land with viewers
  • There are plenty of opportunities in the US for MotoGP, including exploiting its American riders
MotoGP race
Liberty Media will try to recreate its F1 success with new purchase, MotoGP. [Image:]

A serious gap

MotoGP, the premier championship of motorcycle racing, experienced unprecedented viewership numbers in 2023. This included 20% growth on weekend television audiences, which amounted to more than 400 million viewers over the year. Meanwhile, nearly 3 million went to watch the 20 rounds of racing live.

Those totals pale in comparison to the popularity of MotoGP’s four-wheeled cousin, however. F1 now averages a global viewership of around 70 million per race weekend. The season finale in Abhu Dhabi in 2021 amassed 108.7 million viewers alone. Cumulative TV audience for an entire season reaches around 1.55 billion – 275% higher than MotoGP.

Liberty Media has just purchased MotoGP in a deal worth £3.6bn ($3.9bn)

In what appears good news for MotoGP fans, riders, and stakeholders alike, the championship now has a new owner that could add to its popularity. Liberty Media has just purchased MotoGP in a deal worth £3.6bn ($3.9bn), which includes 86% of former MotoGP owner Dorna Sports.

Notably, US-based Liberty Media also purchased F1 in 2016 and has since grown the car racing championship into a powerhouse. The question is – can the company do the same thing with MotoGP, or is it like comparing apples and oranges?

F1 success

Liberty Media purchased F1 from a consortium of sellers in 2016. When it did, the company was well aware that it had a lot of work to do to turn the driving championship into its vision. Previous CEO Bernie Ecclestone maintained an old-fashioned approach during his tenure. Favoring the “70-year-old guy who’s got plenty of cash” over “kids,” he catered broadcasts and content towards the older long-term fans of the sport.

Aiming to increase viewership, Liberty Media decided to do things a little differently. The company focused on expanding into the US market and signed a lucrative Netflix deal to do just that. The F1 docuseries would take viewers behind the scenes of teams, showing the drama involved in tense race weekends, the desperate fight for contracts, and heated teammate rivalries.

F1 has seen a dramatic increase in popularity since Netflix added Drive to Survive in 2019

F1 has seen a dramatic increase in popularity since Netflix added Drive to Survive in 2019, including an increase in viewership of more than 40%. F1’s valuation has increased from $8bn to around $13bn. The teams have also seen the benefits of this growth, with the average valuation of a team increasing around 276% since 2019 to $1.88bn.

Netflix just released its sixth season of Drive to Survive and the growth that it has generated is still evident, particularly in the US. The championship now has three US races, adding Miami and Las Vegas to its regular location of Austin in 2023, and an American driver. The season saw 1.11 million viewers on average per race in the US, doubling from 554,000 in 2018, although slightly dipping from 2022.

Liberty Media has many learnings that it can take from its experience with F1 and apply to MotoGP.

From cars to motorbikes

Commenting after his company’s takeover of the MotoGP this week, Liberty Media President and Chief Executive Officer Greg Maffel explained the already existing benefits of the purchase. “MotoGP is a global league with a loyal, enthusiastic fan base, captivating racing and a highly cash flow generative financial profile,” Maffel stated.

Despite this, he sees room for growth, adding: “We intend to grow the sport for MotoGP fans, teams, commercial partners, and our shareholders.” Execs of the Spanish Dorna Sports, which previously owned the racing championship, also seem to believe in Liberty’s ability to do just that, with CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta praising its “incredible track record of developing sports assets.”

So, could Liberty just recreate its winning recipe which secured Formula 1 success? Well, MotoGP’s previous owner may have made this a little more difficult.

Viewers also complained about voice dubbing replacing any option to watch with subtitles

The league released a Drive to Survive-inspired series called MotoGP Unlimited on Amazon Prime in 2022. This wasn’t released with quite the same perfect style or timing as Drive to Survive, with fans only getting to watch the doc once the 2022 season was already underway. Viewers also complained about voice dubbing replacing any option to watch with subtitles in English, a move that caused some of the harshest critics to deem it “unwatchable” until Amazon fixed the problem.

Dorna halted filming in 2022 for Season 2 of MotoGP Unlimited, claiming it had to wait on data from the first season to become available. Now, it seems that the release has been scrapped altogether, but filming was supposedly pushed back to 2023. Whatever the case, it has proven a much shakier start to life on a streaming platform than the immediate hit Drive to Survive.

Taking over the US

MotoGP fans have had a difficult time even watching races until recently, with many not streamed at all in the US. It was only last month that the league formed a partnership with TNT Sports, meaning Americans can watch every Grand Prix live this year across the broadcaster’s networks and platforms – a major breakthrough as the league seeks new fans.

In regard to American races, MotoGP is in a similar position to F1 when Liberty Media took over in 2016. The racing championship has just one American race at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. This is the same track that F1 chose as its sole American circuit from 2012 until it added Miami in 2022.

No doubt Liberty Media will hope it can add a couple more American tracks to its MotoGP calendar. While this might be achievable in regard to Miami, Las Vegas’ street circuit makes that a no go for motorbikes. Many fans have also singled out the six-mile Flatrock Motorsport Park in Tennessee as another potential destination once it opens in Summer of 2024.

Joe Roberts was the US’s sole representative on the Grand Prix scene for three seasons and five races

While MotoGP itself doesn’t have any American racers, second tier league Moto2 does, in addition to an American team. Joe Roberts was the US’s sole representative on the Grand Prix scene for three seasons and five races of the 2022 season. He is now joined by Cameron Beaubier and Sean Dylan Kelly who both ride for OnlyFans American Racing, at least giving Americans someone to cheer on.

Some work to be done

While MotoGP is clearly a different beast to F1, Liberty Media could use a very similar path to success. The roots are already there for the league to become a goliath, all Liberty needs to do is nurture it in the right way. A Netflix series produced with the same quality and reach of Drive to Survive could be the way to kick start that.

Dorna clearly attempted to recreate Liberty’s F1 success with questionably efficacy. Now, the real expert is at the wheel (or handlebars) so it’s time to crank that acceleration and get the league to where it should be on the global sporting stage.

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