When Jonathan Rea stunned the sports world by finishing second in the the BBC’s Sport’s Personality of the Year in front of 10 million viewers, the shock was felt around the UK.
And especially in the mainstream media who scrambled to find out exactly who the Northern Irishman was and largely immediately put the results of the show down as an irrelevance.
Rea was the only man in the top six who did not have mainstream media behind him. Farah had the BBC as did Paralympian and Strictly star, Jonnie Peaccok, Olympic swimmer Adam Peaty gets a lot of BBC coverage and everyone knows Anthony Joshua and Lewis Hamilton.
These are the names given the most sporting publicity and it makes Jonathan’s achievement all the more impressive that he took on the established stars and came within 3000 votes of winning the whole thing!
Of course Rea had all of Northern Ireland behind him, as well as the road racing and motocross communities but it shows just how big motorcycling is in the UK and that is simply not tapped into in the mainstream media unlike the coverage smaller, more city-based sports seem to get.
Stefan Everts was winner of the equivalent award in Belgium and Pauls Jonass has just won the “most popular” Sportsman in Latvia, so it has been done in other countries.
This is a big opportunity for motorcycling in the UK, if not necessarily motocross, to get some more exposure. The sport can’t really get any bigger without mainstream coverage, but with the door now ajar, will attitudes change or will motorcycle racing forever be a big secret sport to Fleet Street?
We spoke to former motorcycle news editor and current chief at MotoHead magazine, Adam Duckworth, to get his well-rounded perspective.
Adam Duckworth: “It’s tough to get actual figures about how many active motorcyclists there are in the UK, but figures around 1.2 million are often quoted estimated from the number of licence holders and insurance renewals and seem pretty accurate.
“But of those, around a quarter are people who just use bikes as convenient transport or for business rather than being motorcycle fans.
“The man who rides his moped to work or a pizza delivery man often aren’t what you’d class as motorcycle fans.
“So at around 900,000, it’s still a big number but motorcyclists are often under-represented in the mainstream media.
“There is some coverage of the latest motorcycles being tested by some mainstream magazines and newspapers. But more often than not, a motorcycle is used as cool prop in a trendy advert for aftershave or clothing.
“There’s still the reputation as motorcyclists as cool outsiders, a cliche advertisers like to use.
“In terms of motorcycle racing, it’s very difficult to get it onto terrestrial TV as it’s just not big enough in terms of audience size. All the big players want Premiership football, the Olympics, Formula One, Wimbledon, Ashes Cricket and the like. Gone are the days of the BBC showing cross-country running, wrestling and other non-mainstream sports.
“It’s all about the numbers and motorcycling doesn’t bring that. Things want they know will bring a huge mainstream audience, and support from advertisers who want to showcase their products around it.
“Even MotoGP racing doesn’t get much mainstream media really, so secondary series like World Superbikes or MXGP hasn’t got a chance. Luckily with the explosion of the numbers of TV channels and now streaming via the net, we can all get to see our favourite sports.
“This fragmentation of media along with explosion of social media means motorcyclists (and other ‘minority’ groups) can form strong communities. That’s what I think Jonathan Rea did so well in the SPOTY as two distinct groups rallied their support to stick two fingers up to the mainstream. That’s motorcyclists, and people from Northern Ireland. Both are proud of JR’s achievements and came together to do something big and get bikes and Ulster a little bit of mainstream glory.
“You can bet there wasn’t a huge online campaign to get votes for Mo Farah…”
It will be interesting to see how the mainstream media covers motorcycling in 2018 and while motocross may be a step too far unfortunately, with riders like Rea and Marquez always mentioning dirt bikes, the motocross fraternity might also benefit from a slight increase in coverage by association with WSB and MotoGP world champions.
While I wouldn’t be holding your breath for seismic changes, with respected scribes like Adam Wheeler and his online magazine, On Track Off Road (OTOR) covering motocross, WSB and MotoGP plus getting some mainstream articles for the latter two disciplines, it should at least be easier to connect the dots to the mainstream thanks the public votes for Rea, who may now have a big enough name that can hopefully push some extra stories through.