If there’s one major drawback to motorcycle racing becoming more professional, it would have to be the corresponding disappearance of athlete personalities and increased self-censorship. Especially with respect to off-road and motocross racing, it’s as though the more professional these sports become, the more introverted and guarded the athletes turn.
I suppose it’s inevitable. There’s way more at stake these days, and alongside the sponsorship dollars flowing in come obligations and expectations. So much so that as a result, most riders have turned off their personality and become guarded—as if a robot on autopilot. You know what I mean, that glazed look a rider gets right before they rattle off one of those stale, pre-rehearsed podium speeches we all fast-forward and wince in embarrassment for said athlete. Sadly, our industry and sport has done this to itself through unrealistic expectations and silly endorsement policies. It’s a shame it’s gotten to this point where top riders have to create faux-professional façades (read: dry and boring) instead of being themselves and showing their true character. I would argue that this homogenization of rider personalities doesn’t help our sport—it hinders it.
Of course, I understand that a sponsor that pays good money expects a return on its investment. But what I don't understand are those sponsor’s expectations the majority of the time. Does it really make a difference if a sponsor's name gets mentioned in a podium speech alongside 15 other names, rattled off in a soulless shotgun manner? Doubtful. Does the rider always have to show off the energy drink can at every opportunity as if we don't know already (through multiple jersey, bike, and transporter logos) who their main sponsor is? I don't think so. Sure, it probably makes the big wig execs feel all warm and fuzzy, but that's about it. Sponsors pay riders and teams to sell product. Personality and style sell product. Okay, race wins help too, but race wins without personality and style are a flatline. Ridiculous sponsor obligations have resulted in boring riders with padlocks on their personalities.
"Personality and style sell product. Okay, race wins help too, but race wins without personality and style are a flatline. Ridiculous sponsor obligations have resulted in boring riders with padlocks on their personalities."
Think about some of the biggest names in sport, not only are they outstanding athletes but they also have outsized personalities. Sometimes to the point of being controversial. Names like Michael Phelps, Lance Armstrong, Danica Patrick, LeBron James, Mike Tyson, Venus and Serena Williams, and Tim Tebow are just a few that come to mind. Each one of these iconic athletes has a personality that’s as much a media draw as their athletic accomplishments. As a result, they’re magnets for product endorsements and sponsorship deals. And depending upon what a particular brand stands for, the athlete personality the brand chooses to align itself with may be anywhere from an egotistical braggart to a squeaky-clean evangelical. The point is, it’s up to the brand to choose which athletes it wants to align itself with, and there are plenty of personalities to choose from.
This is why it’s so hard for me to understand why in dirt bike racing we’ve gotten to the point where we feel it’s necessary for our athletes to turn off their personalities and act in the same Xerox manner. Where did this come from and when did it become the norm? What happened to the Bob Hannah types that spoke their mind? In a way, perhaps our sport has become too literal. If a sponsor doesn’t literally hear its name mentioned by an athlete on the podium they think they’re not getting their money’s worth. But instead of obsessing about mentions, maybe brands should instead encourage their athletes to show more personality. Instead of spoon-fed boilerplate social media posts, encourage them to make posts that reflect their personality—that are authentic. Allow them to have fun representing a brand instead of feeling obligated to push out a certain number of sponsor shout outs and product mentions. In an age when influencer marketing is at an all-time high, in order for it to work an influencer must be able to show their own unique personality and style. Our sport and industry has to get past its outdated, controlling habits and encourage sponsored riders to be themselves—to not be afraid to show us their personalities. For the benefit of our sport, let’s hope this starts happening soon.
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