Now for the future

Australian F1 Grand Prix - QualifyingA few years ago, I was an occasional F1 correspondent for a Melbourne radio station that hosted a two-hour sports program, one with the word ‘sports’ in the title even though it focused on only one. You know the drill: an hour and 55 minutes of breathless chatter about what the 28th-best player on an AFL team had for breakfast yesterday, who said what on Twitter, and a lot of blathering and chortling about ‘back in my day’ from the hosts who, by virtue of what they used to do professionally, have a new profession they’re not qualified to perform in their post-sporting days.

It was the day before the F1 season-opener in Melbourne, and while the rest of the sporting world was ready for a truly global sport to start for the year, said sports (sport) show hosts were adamant as they introduced me a few minutes before they finished for the night. “Don’t know about you Matt, but I reckon this F1 business is losing favour, there’s nobody anywhere that seems to be talking about it,” came the first statement masquerading as a question from former athlete/“journalist”, and it was hard to know where to go from there. I did consider pointing out that, more than likely, nobody in Spain was wondering how Richmond’s backline would handle Carlton’s assortment of tall forwards, but sometimes it pays to keep your powder dry. Nothing I said, no matter how considered, was going to make the slightest bit of difference.

I digress. The news that Australia will continue to be on the F1 calendar for another five years last week was good for Melbourne, good for Victoria and good for Australians [1] who enjoy all sports, not ones pushed down our throats whether we like them or not [2]. Next year’s race will be the 20th at Albert Park; remarkably, only seven races on the calendar have a history longer than Melbourne’s. It’s a great coup, and one we should be proud of. It also gives all those involved in the event a chance to move forward with some certainty; speak to some spectators at the track each March, and you get the feeling plenty feel the event has been watered down a bit in recent years as its future remained uncertain. Some fans were counting down until the end of the (now former) contract in 2015 – “we better go this year because there’s only two more” – so five more years (at least) is a great sign.

What I’d personally like to see over that five years is an end to the alarming promotional trend for the event that almost seems apologetic on occasion, and for the city to actually get behind it properly rather than certain sections of it lining up to belt the event from pillar to post because of what it isn’t each March. More than one sport can have its time in the sun at once. It’s not that hard, as I’ve learned this week.

I’ve taken advantage of the F1 mid-season break to sneak (as much as you can sneak across 24 hours of travel) to Indianapolis for MotoGP, as I have for the past three years. We’re not in MotoGP’s heartland of Europe, that’s for sure – that the only support race on the event bill features a bunch of Harley Davidson’s tells you something – but Indianapolis pulls out all the stops when a big international sporting series comes to town. There’s plenty of other sporting distractions here at the moment – the NFL season is about to start, the Indiana Pacers’ star basketballer Paul George has just suffered a broken leg that will sideline him for a year, and there’s the Little League World Series everywhere on TV [3] – but MotoGP is the big deal this weekend. You can’t move around town without seeing a billboard promoting the event, while the fans continue to show up in numbers at the vast Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a venue so enormous that (as one pic I saw this week showed) it could fit the entire Wimbledon complex, the Vatican City, Yankee Stadium and the Kentucky Derby track inside its oval track used for the Indy 500 (think about that for a minute).

The city is on board, the local media – all of it, not just the ones who have the publishing rights – supportive, and it feels like an event everyone wants and embraces along with their other, perhaps preferred, sports. Melbourne could learn much.

It’s terrific for Melbourne’s self-proclaimed “sporting capital” status (capitals that aren’t ‘A’, ‘F’ and ‘L’) that the Grand Prix season will open up at Albert Park for the next five years. Melbourne has a wall-to-wall international calendar of sport that fits in seamlessly with the events of local interest. Let’s embrace that rather than resist it. And let’s not apologise for it.

—- —– —– —-

[1] I’m speaking in lists, much like Steve Bracks used to when he launched what he repeatedly called the “‘Straya Gran Pree” in his tenure as Victorian Premier.

[2] I do like my footy. Support my team with a passion, do some work in the sport too. There’s a lot of terrific people working in it. But I can’t – won’t – make it the only sport that matters like so many involved in it do.

[3] I’m not joking. Bonkers coverage.

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