In MotoGP, Sports Marketing

Valentino Rossi, aka “The Doctor”, has wielded an influence over the world of motorsports that extends far beyond his last lap on the race track. Despite retiring from professional racing more than two years ago, Rossi remains a pivotal player in the realm of MotoGP sponsorship and marketing. His VR46 brand and MotoGP team recently announced an exclusive partnership with global e-commerce giant, eBay. The sheer magnitude of this collaboration has incited widespread speculation and curiosity regarding its ramifications on the industry and paradoxically, on the future of Rossi’s own VR46 team.

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Bigger than the game

Starting with a bird’s eye view, the first question that inevitably comes up is: is Rossi’s persona and influence greater than MotoGP itself? The answer, surprisingly, is not straightforward. On one hand, it’s undeniable that Rossi’s name carries a significant weight in motorsport fandom. His career, laden with nine world championships, represents an era of MotoGP that has enthralled fans for decades.

Rossi’s charisma and tenacity have not only won him legions of fans but also lent a remarkable marketing allure to his VR46 brand. An interesting tidbit to note here is that Rossi’s number 46 is a tribute to his father, Graziano Rossi, who raced with the same number. The VR46 brand has now become a globally recognized symbol of Rossi’s illustrious racing legacy.

The VR46 – eBay sponsorship

Now, let’s venture into the remarkable union of VR46 and eBay. In the sphere of sports marketing, brands typically leverage the popularity of sports personalities to drive visibility and market penetration. However, the VR46-eBay partnership is an outlier, as the retired Rossi still commands a significant sponsorship pull. A fact that speaks volumes about Rossi’s appeal is that, according to a survey by SportsPro Media, Rossi was named one of the world’s most marketable athletes in 2012 and 2013, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Lionel Messi and Usain Bolt.

The partnership has undoubtedly been a masterstroke for eBay, which is looking to make a substantial impact in the sports merchandise market. Rossi’s immense fanbase ensures a ready market for eBay, making the deal a veritable goldmine. But here’s the curious bit: This alliance also amplifies Rossi’s already dominant presence in MotoGP marketing, to the extent that it potentially overshadows other teams and drivers, his own VR46 team included.

The potential negative fallout for VR46 is intriguing and counterintuitive. The problem lies not in the lack of popularity but an over-concentration of it. Rossi’s persona is so large that it risks dwarfing his own team’s visibility. Future sponsors might be reluctant to invest in the VR46 team if they feel Rossi’s towering image could overshadow their brand. This concern is not entirely baseless, given the global marketing might of the VR46-eBay alliance.

This scenario presents an interesting challenge for sports marketing. How does one balance the marketing benefits of a highly influential personality like Rossi, with the potential detriment to his own team’s visibility? This conundrum underscores the complexity of the relationship between athlete branding and team sponsorship.

As we delve deeper, we can’t help but draw parallels between this situation and the phenomenon of personal branding in sports that’s been steadily gaining traction in the past decade. In a sense, Rossi was a pioneer in creating a personal brand within MotoGP that could transcend his active racing career. However, the question remains: Will this personal branding overshadow the brand of the team he owns and manages?

Sponsorship: Risks and rewards

Now, let’s consider the intriguing perspective of VR46, the team. It’s not merely Rossi’s racing team, but an extension of his ethos, a manifestation of his unyielding passion for motorsports. While having Rossi’s name attached gives the team an unparalleled marketing advantage, it may inadvertently eclipse the individual identities of the team’s riders, possibly obstructing their path to carve out their own unique brand identities.

The current situation is reminiscent of what transpired in Formula 1 with Michael Schumacher and his Ferrari. The combination of Schumacher and Ferrari in the early 2000s was so potent, the two brands became almost inseparable. Even now, a casual conversation about F1 history invariably gravitates toward Schumacher’s dominant years at Ferrari. Yet, there was a period of adjustment when Schumacher retired, and Ferrari had to re-establish their brand identity independent of their star driver. However, the case of VR46 is far more complex given Rossi’s dual role as the team owner and the brand.

As we continue to observe this intriguing dynamic between Rossi and his VR46 team, it’s worth noting the inherent unpredictability in sports marketing. While strategic maneuvers and well-calculated campaigns can lay the groundwork, the eventual outcomes often hinge on the unpredictable elements of the sport, such as the performance of the drivers, their personality development, and the ebb and flow of fan sentiment.

My perspective on the matter is that the VR46-eBay partnership is, without a doubt, a sports marketing coup. It’s a testament to Rossi’s unrivaled status in MotoGP. It’s a move that has undoubtedly cemented eBay’s position in the sports merchandise market and bolstered the commercial aspects of MotoGP. However, the task ahead for Rossi and the VR46 management is to meticulously navigate their marketing strategies to ensure that while Rossi’s legacy continues to fuel the team, it doesn’t engulf the potential star power of his team riders.

Sports marketing genius?

To conclude, I’d argue that Rossi’s significance to MotoGP is not only about his incredible career statistics or the scale of his fanbase. His influence extends to shaping the marketing dynamics within the sport. The VR46-eBay partnership underscores Rossi’s enduring relevance in the commercial landscape of MotoGP, which could be both a boon and a bane. The challenge now lies in managing Rossi’s larger-than-life image in a way that amplifies the brand without overshadowing his own VR46 team. Only time will reveal how this delicate balance will be achieved.

In conclusion, Valentino Rossi is indeed larger than life. His impact on MotoGP, both as a racer and now as a team owner and brand ambassador, is unmatched. But the true genius of Rossi will lie in his ability to leverage his personal brand to foster the growth of his team and its riders, without letting it overshadow them. This delicate task will be a true testament to Rossi’s prowess, not just as a racer, but as a leader, a mentor, and a marketing virtuoso. Only then will we be able to answer the complex question: Is ‘The Doctor’ still bigger than MotoGP?


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Silvia Schweiger
Silvia Schweiger
Associate Director, Executive Marketing and Commercial at RTR Sports Marketing, a London-based sports marketing company specializing in motorsport for over 25 years.
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