A New Era For Motocross

In our article ‘The Monaco Years’ (published in August 2018) we speculated that “it’s not inconceivable that Youthstream could be acquired”, with the Luongo family remaining in place to “run the motocross world championship on behalf of a new owner, in a near-identical repeat of the Dorna Off-Road era”. 

  

With the announcement on 31st January 2019 of Youthstream’s acquisition by Infront Sports & Media AG, it’s clear our crystal ball is working nicely. Truth be told, we’ve long been aware that Youthstream was for sale, and it was only a matter of time before a new owner was revealed. We won’t divulge the amount Infront have paid, but let’s just say it’s easy to understand why Giuseppe Luongo is smiling broadly in the picture which accompanied the press release. The man has a remarkable talent for reselling his own company for ever-increasing amounts of money while retaining full day-to-day control and gaining an extension to his existing contract. Mr. Luongo wanted Youthstream to have parity with Dorna, and now the FIM’s two largest promoters both have the security of long-term agreements which run to 2036. Infront must be convinced - or have been convinced by Mr. Luongo - that there’s additional capacity to monetize motocross, either by gaining new sponsors, events (and the sanction fees they command) and subscribers to the MXGP-TV platform or squeezing more money out of those already paying handsomely for the privilege.  


Given this represents a major industry development, we feel this is an ideal time to provide an update on the situation from MXGP Action Group’s unique perspective.


You may think that we’ve been quiet lately, but, as has always been the case, we’ve been busy behind the scenes, expanding our efforts to push for improvements and changes in the motocross world championship while simultaneously continuing detailed research in multiple areas. Just when we think it can’t get any more shocking or surprising, another line of inquiry opens-up and we’re immersed in a fresh examination of previously unseen documentary evidence.  


During our initial foray into this matter in the early 2010s we exposed the blatant corruption that led to the FIM awarding the promotional rights contract for the motocross world championship to Giuseppe Luongo’s Youthstream organization (and, before that, his Action Group company). To be strictly accurate, we cannot claim credit for discovering the commercial impropriety in the first place: that accolade goes to others within the motocross grand prix paddock, whose illuminating and ground-breaking work we were fortunate to inherit and able to continue. MXGP Action Group analyzed and corroborated everything, tied-up [a few of] the many loose ends and compiled the material into a verifiable and publishable form. We hoped that this information being made public would initiate a wide-ranging program of change. It didn’t. 

  

We learned a lot from that experience. Although clearly the contract had been awarded in the most inappropriate of circumstances, with then-FIM president Francesco Zerbi granting a lucrative deal to a company in which he himself (and other senior FIM officials) had been cut-in as a shareholder/s, it was soon apparent that the agreement wasn’t going to be rescinded.

  

Firstly, even though the contract was awarded by a corrupt (but long-since-departed) FIM president, it appeared that was insufficient grounds for it to be declared null and void. The contract may have been signed by an FIM official who knowingly had a serious conflict of interest, but that doesn’t make the contract legally invalid, however unpleasant a taste it leaves in the mouth.

  

Secondly, further information we discovered led us to have serious doubts as to the integrity and loyalties of the majority of the senior FIM management in the Ippolito administration. What we originally believed to essentially be an issue relating to historic corruption by former-President Zerbi, and which in turn was being perpetuated by a single FIM official until recently, ultimately morphed into a situation where we had good reason to question the integrity of the entire FIM organization. You thought ‘Severus Stiftung’ was the only anonymous slush fund nestling in the ultra-secret location of Lichtenstein? Think again.

  

The situation also demanded pragmatism. The FIM will always need a series promoter. Relieving Youthstream of their obligations and starting from scratch cannot ever be a practical or desirable solution. Plus, there’s no guarantee that any replacement promoter would be any better for the sport, and there has never been a queue of suitable candidates beating a path to the governing body’s headquarters in Mies to make their pitch for the commercial rights agreement. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. 

  

In truth, there have been many good things that have resulted from the appointment of a series promoter, and our view, which perhaps you may find surprising, is that we have no problem with the promoter being Youthstream or with Giuseppe Luongo occupying a position of influence. We do have issues with the decisions that have been made which negatively impacted the motocross world championship. Those same damaging decisions could have been made by any promoter. 


Nobody can change the past. They can only try and influence the future. So, our strategy changed some time ago, and we began to focus on the mechanism/s by which those negative decisions came to be made in the first place.


Dr. Wolfgang Srb, the Austrian who’d been the FIM’s motocross head for an absurdly long time, became president of FIM Europe in July 2014. This was all part of his long-term plan to move up through the organization’s ranks before achieving his goal of being elected as president of the FIM. As his career progressed, many people called Srb’s ethics, loyalties and independence into question. He was perceived as being uncomfortably close to Giuseppe Luongo, when his position in the sport’s governing body dictated a suitable amount of professional distance be maintained. His priorities appeared to lie firmly with boosting Youthstream’s balance sheet and not improving motocross. The prospect of Srb becoming the FIM’s supreme head was therefore a terrifying thought for us, for the motocross community (inside and outside the paddock) and for motorcycle sport at-large.


The next president was to be elected at the FIM’s Annual Congress in Andorra on 1st December 2018, and the successful candidate would replace Vito Ippolito, who had naturally come to the end of his three permitted presidential terms. 


Dr. Srb was standing against the Portuguese Jorge Viegas. Although we knew relatively little about Mr. Viegas, discrete inquiries led us to conclude that he was an infinitely preferable candidate to the objectionable Austrian. We also knew (and subsequently this became increasingly obvious) that certain members of the FIM’s senior leadership were so vehemently, passionately, obsessively opposed to a Viegas presidency, that there must be a very good reason why they didn’t want him to succeed. With the weight of the FIM behind him (and Youthstream lobbying federations on his behalf), Srb was a cast iron, odds-on, dead-cert favorite for the win. All bets were off. Less than three weeks before the election Wolfgang Srb – and his supporters – believed he had the FIM presidency in his pocket.


However, MXGP Action Group had simultaneously been conducting painstaking research to ascertain exactly who the real Wolfgang Srb was. We didn’t know what we’d find (if anything) when we began looking, but equally we knew that it was worth making a concerted effort just in case there was something that would prove useful. We lifted lots of rocks in lots of locations. We chased-down leads that turned out to be dead-ends. We drank a lot of coffee. But eventually we found several needles in several haystacks. What we discovered was fascinating and disturbing in equal measure. We uncovered submissions made by Srb to an Austrian national newspaper expressing overt racist, homophobic, anti-multiculturalism, anti-migrant and anti-EU sentiments. These were clearly deep-seated opinions of which he felt strongly enough to write to a national newspaper about. Not once, but repeatedly. In fact, he felt compelled to write on 72 known occasions in the twelve months to July 2008. Srb’s correspondence painted a revealing picture of a man totally incompatible with not just the role of FIM president, but his own strategic vision – submitted as a formal part of the candidature process – for the organization he aspired to lead. This wasn’t fake news or disparaging, fabricated allegations from us (we’d never stoop that low, as we’re only interested in finding irrefutable facts). They were Srb’s own thoughts in glorious Technicolor. 


You can read our profile of Wolfgang Srb here.


Srb’s election as FIM president rested on winning majority support (50% + 1) among the 113 national motorcycle federations under the FIM’s global umbrella. They would each cast a vote for their preferred candidate at the Annual Congress. Srb was confident of overwhelming backing from those federations and had, with the help of other senior FIM figures, been canvassing their support around the world for several months. We felt those federations – and the wider motorcycling community – should be given the opportunity to understand more about the man who might be president. We had planned to draw the federations’ attention to our findings prior to the election so that they could understand exactly who it was they’d be voting for when they made their choice between Srb and Viegas.


We never got that far. 


We published our profile of Dr. Srb on the MXGP Action Group website on 12th November 2018, a mere 19 days before the election. However, before we even had time to direct the federations to our findings, Dr. Srb suddenly resigned. Not just from his campaign to become FIM president, but from his leadership role in FIM Europe too.


In his letter (written on 14th November 2018) to Harald Hertz (the president of the Austrian federation), Srb cited medical reasons as his official explanation, and while it’s true that he suffered a minor spinal injury (a cracked coccyx) during a speedboat trip in Norwegian waters the previous month, this was nothing more than a convenient smokescreen. An honorable way for a dishonorable man to fall on his sword. 


30+ years involved in motocross. 30+ years within the FIM. 21 years as the head of the FIM’s motocross commission. 4+ years as president of FIM Europe. Srb resigned 17 days before the culmination and crowning glory of his FIM political career. The inner motocross community – composed of the race teams and the media who cover the sport – went into a state of shock. In Mies, Switzerland, the FIM’s leadership were similarly left dumbfounded by this most surprising turn of events. 


As sole-remaining candidate, Jorge Viegas should have been announced immediately as president-elect. He wasn’t, and we heard credible accounts of desperate attempts by the incumbent FIM management to discredit Viegas, and further tales of frantic last-minute legal challenges by the FIM to their very own election process(!) to find a way – any way – to prevent Viegas from securing victory. The final days of the Ippolito administration were characterized by bizarre, occasionally deplorable decisions (many of which have subsequently been reversed), and while we were appalled - but not in the least surprised - by the behavior of people who really should have known better, we seemed to have backed the right horse. 


Fortunately, the cabal failed in their attempts to thwart Viegas. We call that karma. 


We felt further vindicated when, within a few hours of his election, Mr. Viegas made sweeping changes to the FIM’s management, and many existing, longstanding FIM board members were removed, with fresh faces appointed. Out with the old, in with the new. 


What does all this mean for the future? We are unsure, but we’re feeling cautiously optimistic.


We are pleased to confirm that since December 2018, MXGP Action Group has been in direct, frequent and seemingly productive dialog with the new management of the FIM. MXGP Action Group’s spokesperson, James Gilmour, has met with President Viegas. Our opinion is that he is a refreshingly different leader to those who have gone before. You can judge this for yourself by visiting his Twitter profile (@jorgepviegas), where he shares some very honest opinions to the world. We particularly like his post made on 8th December, in which he spoke of only wanting to work “with crazy people from our world, the world of motorcyclists! The FIM is only for passioned people!”. We were told, on more than one occasion, we were crazy for forming MXGP Action Group, so we’re happy to be on Viegas’s wavelength. 


Encouragingly, Mr. Viegas seems to appreciate our viewpoint and shares our desire for genuine transformation. He recently asked us to submit our own proposals for potential on- and off-track improvements to the motocross world championship, and he already has a comprehensive report on his desk from us. Mr. Gilmour has been asked if he wishes to meet with both Mr. Viegas and Giuseppe Luongo, an offer which has been accepted. It remains to be seen whether this meeting comes to fruition, but – to be clear – MXGP Action Group is very willing to attend and engage in forward-looking discussions. 


Will anything positive come of these new developments? We are hopeful, but equally we remain alive to the possibility that it could all just be smoke and mirrors. It wouldn’t be the first time. We’re also aware that Mr. Viegas has a HUGE workload at present: after the FIM Board made the decision to dismiss Steve Aeschlimann, Viegas is currently the interim CEO. He’s also on his own voyage of discovery within FIM headquarters, uncovering all manner of nasty surprises that the previous administration was eager to keep shielded from view and which illustrated their incompetence, arrogance and avarice. While we selfishly want wide-ranging changes to be instigated as quickly as possible, we equally recognize that Viegas has more pressing priorities requiring his attention. Rome wasn’t rebuilt in a day. 


The decisions that we, along with many others, feel have negatively affected motocross were made by Mr. Luongo in conjunction with the FIM. In theory, (and this has consistently been Mr. Luongo’s justification), any decisions relating to motocross were only made with the backing of the Motocross Grand Prix Commission – a three-man committee comprising Giuseppe Luongo (representing the promoter), Takanao Tsubouchi (representing the Motorcycle Sport Manufacturers Association, the ‘MSMA’) and a representative from the FIM (who for many years was Dr. Srb, who always sided with Luongo). It was with the ‘approval’ of this commission that decisions like the removal of prize money came into being. When Dr. Srb moved on to the role of president of FIM Europe, his place on the GP Commission – and position of CMS Director – was taken by Tony Skillington. Mr. Skillington is a good man, but it was widely-known that he was unable to express his true views when voting on the Commission due to explicit pressure being exerted from above by FIM management should he have the temerity to vote against Mr. Luongo. With Mr. Viegas now FIM president, a virtually all-new management at the FIM, and Dr. Srb sitting at home in Vienna wondering how it all went so spectacularly wrong, will the Motocross Grand Prix Commission now have the power to genuinely vote for what’s best for the sport, and not just the promoter? Or was the Commission just a sham all along? Time will tell. However, with the previous FIM management and Giuseppe Luongo being so vehemently supportive of Wolfgang Srb’s campaign to become president, we strongly suspect that the Austrian’s elevation to the top job was critical to maintaining the [skewed] balance of power. Srb is no longer a factor, and if the Commission does, as Luongo has always maintained, have the authority to make critical – and controversial – decisions, then it also has the power to revoke them. We’ve stressed this point to President Viegas in our comprehensive proposal.


The initial signs are good. In mid-December 2018 the manufacturers convened for their regular meeting with Youthstream. Prior to that meeting Tony Skillington was told by President Viegas that he had his full backing to vote for whatever he felt was in the best interests of the sport of motocross. That unequivocal backing was a stark contrast to the past. And the differences didn’t end there. The teams also reported a much more conciliatory Giuseppe Luongo sitting across the table from them. If he seemed less combative than usual, his relaxed demeanor was doubtless partly influenced by the deal he’d done with Infront Sports & Media AG.


We have known about the acquisition for some time (it was the industry’s worst-kept secret), so when the press release landed in our inbox on 31st January we weren’t in the least bit surprised. Will it be a positive or negative change? Again, time will tell. Certainly, the family name of Infront’s president Phillippe Blatter carries with it some unfortunate baggage. But if governance and control over matters relating to the sport is retained and performed by a legitimate, transparent, democratic and fairly-functioning Motocross Grand Prix Commission then in this scenario we don’t feel that it makes too much difference who the shareholders of Youthstream are behind the scenes.


Now, there’s a statement you didn’t think we would ever make.


MXGP Action Group

image688