MotoGP: The emergence of a digital divide
As I was diligently taking care of my daily community management yesterday, a LinkedIn post caught my attention. In the MotoGP discussion group on the popolar business platform, content production executive Mark Coyle cleverly discussed the urgency of a digital revolution within the MotoGP championship and at races. Now, Mark is a highly valued professional and needs no further endorsements from me, yet the piece was so brilliantly written and so timely I couldn’t help but repost. Of course, I didn’t bona fide cut and paste the article, but asked permission to Mark first. So, here is the link to the original post and discussion and here is Mark’s LinkedIn profile if you have any questions or want to chime in.
The winter months are long and empty for MotoGP fans but the pre-season testing is over and the first race in Qatar is upon us. From this weekend until November 8, fans will pack into 18 circuits around the world and many more will watch on television and, increasingly, via their smartphones, tablets and computers.
But what, I wonder, will be the quality of the digital experience for those who pay not insignificant sums to attend races in 2015?
As social media increasingly becomes part of every sporting experience, are we seeing the emergence of a two-tier audience where the crowd at the venue is being inadvertently excluded from the digital “noise” being created by those who watch from home? Are MotoGP circuits worldwide equipped with sufficient wireless and mobile network capacity to allow crowds to connect and remain connected to social media platforms and the internet? The answer appears to be “no”.
Social media is now an intrinsic part of the MotoGP experience which, like all other events, divides into three distinct phases:
- Pre-event: Building up anticipation, swapping opinions on the participants, predicting the outcome
- Live: Real-time commentary and updates using a range of multimedia platforms, constant engagement between the race and those following it
- Post-event: Analysis of the result, the riders’ performances, the “what ifs” and the beginning of chatter about the next race
The pre and post-event conversation includes the entire MotoGP community around the world. Many people engage with these stages from their homes, using strong and steady wireless or fixed connections. Any frustrations are more likely to come from an “unfavourable” result or someone else’s post or tweet than from them being unable to participate in the conversation at all.
But what of the fans who leave the comfort of their homes and join the throng at the Sunday race (or Saturday, in the case of Assen)?
Publicly available wifi zones are a distant dream and mobile networks become swamped then grind to a virtual halt. Meanwhile, the conversation and commentary generated on social media by the armchair fans continues apace and swells as the race approaches and is run.
The “living room” experience is enhanced by the television and online offering coming from Dorna and the broadcaster which has bought the live rights.
By comparison, those at the race mostly stare in frustration at spinning wheels, timed out screens and zero bars on their mobile phone network.
I’ve been to The Circuit of the Americas, Le Mans, Assen, Silverstone, Aragon, Phillip Island and Valencia and my connectivity using an iPhone 5 in the grandstands and public areas was, at best, patchy and inconsistent and at worst, non-existent.
Given that I haven’t attended every MotoGP venue around the world, I asked David Emmett, Editor of motomatters.com, how he’d fared. He told me: “My experience has been that mobile data works pretty well on any day other than race day, and after qualifying.
“But the increase in mobile data use has also been noticeable over the past few years. About five years ago, I bought a 3G dongle for use in Spain, as it was cheaper than paying for the internet connections in media centres.
“When I first started doing that, the 3G connection worked extremely well, except for about 10 minutes after each race.
“Since then, data speeds have got worse and worse, for longer periods of time, to the point where mobile data is now virtually unusable from about mid-morning on Saturday until 4pm on Sunday.”
Of course, there are many variables in this equation including your mobile carrier, the type of device you’re using and the type of content you’re trying to upload.
David specifically mentioned the following five European circuits:
- Jerez – “pretty much unuseable”
- Valencia – as above
- Assen – as above on race day
- Mugello – “awful”
- Misano – “pretty good, even on race day”
There are, of course, great benefits to being at a race in person.
The sights, sounds, smells and sheer exhilaration created by the MotoGP paddock, crowds and campsites remain indelibly printed on the brain for long afterwards. Many travelling fans tie in a race with a biking or driving holiday and not everyone is glued to social media so the absence of strong connectivity is less noticeable for them.
David made the interesting observation that reception at Brno and Sachsenring is, by comparison, good and this may be to do with crowd demographics.
They tend to be older, more male, are likely to be on two wheels and are camping, which may suggest they bring fewer items, mobile phones included, to the track compared to Jerez and Valencia where many people stay in the city and take more things with them.
In a perfect world, there wouldn’t be a gap between the domestic and the at-circuit experience. Anything you could do at home, you could do at the track while rubbing shoulders with many thousands of other fans.
The onus to improve connectivity lies with the circuits themselves and infrastructure isn’t cheap. There isn’t a money tree covered with pounds or euros but at some point, they will have to make advances or the digital divide will widen further, not only between the armchair fans and those who choose to attend races but between MotoGP and other sports.
They can’t hike ticket prices by a large margin so if there is a will to improve things, I suspect the answer lies in commercial agreements between the circuits and MotoGP sponsors who are active in the territory.
Such deals would allow sponsors to engage fans with the offer of exclusive content using the top riders – Marquez, Rossi, Lorenzo etc – and derive revenue for the venues to invest in the technical infrastructure.
A discussion about connectivity at sporting venues needs to acknowledge the tension between providing fast, public networks in places where large sums of money have been paid by broadcasters for the rights to cover the event.
The rights owners are justifiably protective of their investment and are wary of fans showering video clips onto social media platforms. At the start of this season, the Premier League warned fans about publishing Vine videos of goals online but some top-flight clubs are installing networks to increase fan engagement – and to push commercial messaging at those on the terraces.
I’ve always believed that the two can co-exist and create a virtual marketing circle, a model that Dorna, circuits and rights-holders could and should copy from the in-stadium blueprint and adapt to the racetrack layout. The Circuit of Wales project is perfectly placed to become one such digital showcase.
New technology, innovative ideas
But wifi and technical infrastructure isn’t the only part of the digital experience. There needs to be content and innovation too.
I’ve long held the view that Near Field Communication (NFC) is a technology whose full potential has still to be realised.
Imagine a MotoGP circuit with NFC “stands” promoting a sponsor’s product. A fan comes into proximity of the stand which triggers an alert on his or her smartphone. They accept the alert and are invited to sign up to the sponsor’s mailing list, after which they’re sent an exclusive video of Marc Marquez talking about his favourite points on the track and telling them where the sponsor is giving away a free gift.
The fan is invited to post a message about Marquez containing the sponsor’s name or hashtag on their social media platforms, which can be done within the proximity of the stand.
Another use of NFC would be to incorporate it into the big screens at circuits. Exclusive content about the riders/sponsors is pushed from the screens to smart devices at key moments during the session, perhaps as that rider takes the lead or crosses the finish line.
Sport and social media go together hand-in-hand but the throttle is going to have to be twisted if the off-track, digital experience is to get anywhere near race pace.
With thanks to David Emmett @motomatters for contributing to this blog.