Victoria’s image as Australia’s — and, it’s been happy to boast, the world’s — capital of major sporting events is looking a little tarnished at the minute.

The motorcycle grand prix at the world famous Phillip Island circuit is just a month away, yet it has no major sponsor.

With TV and print advertisements for the 3-5 October event running without any sponsor name in them, it’s unlikely there’s going to be one now.

Quite an embarrassment this for something that is classified by the Victorian government and tourism authorities as one of the state’s “hallmark” events and is supposedly watched by hundreds of millions of TV viewers in countless countries.

Victorian Tourism and Major Events Minister Tim Holding traipsed down to the Phillip Island circuit on the 4th of September to launch a one-month countdown to the MotoGP.

Holding trotted out his spiel about what a wonderful event it is, how well ticket sales are going, even safety messages for the thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts who will ride there to see it, but somehow forgot to mention that it has no sponsor.

The big race will feature the two great motorcycle riders of modern times, Valentino Rossi, who has already equalled and will surely better the feats of his Italian countryman Giacomo Agostini, and Australia’s young reigning world champion, Casey Stoner.

Sponsors for big sporting events are usually locked into long-term deals, but when there’s a new one it’s usually in place at least three to six months out to ensure maximum leverage of the sponsorship, including in the advertising campaign.

Having not secured a backer while Rossi and Stoner were battling hammer-and-tongs mid-season, the chances of finding one now — especially at full market rate, in the seven figures – have not been helped by Stoner falling off his bike at the past two rounds overseas, effectively handing Rossi his umpteenth world title already.

The MotoGP is run by the Australian Grand Prix Corporation, rather than the Phillip Island circuit owner, transport tycoon Linday Fox’s Linfox.

AGPC chief executive Drew Ward has been telling anyone who will listen for weeks that there has never been more interest in the sport, that ticket sales are going gangbusters, and that extra grandstand seats are being erected to cater for the crowds that will flock to the island.

So why no sponsor?

Where’s the leadership, inspiration and direction been from AGPC chairman Ron Walker and his deputy, John Harnden, the men who ran Melbourne’s 2006 Commonwealth Games in tandem, or the other A-listers around the board table?

How come Ward and the executive team who are the recipients of generous annual bonuses — amounting to more than $500,000 in the past three years, although Ward has only been in his post 15 months — have not been able to land a sponsor for such a stand-out sporting “product”?

Melbourne-based Global Machinery Company put its name to the race the past two years but got on its bike and rode off in other directions, perhaps towards a public float.

Qantas was the MotoGP sponsor for some years, as an add-on when it also had the naming rights to the Formula 1 grand prix in Melbourne, but it seemingly lost interest years ago once motorbike-crazy James Strong was no longer chief executive.

Dorna, the Spanish company that is MotoGP’s global commercial operator and equivalent of F1’s Bernie Ecclestone, helped the AGPC save face earlier this decade when it couldn’t find its own sponsor, pulling a couple of names off the shelves of its international suite of “partners” — Skyy Vodka, Cinzano vermouth, and motorcycle parts maker Polini — but it is believed it kept most of the distress price for the rights in those years too.

This time it appears Dorna has been reluctant to facilitate another such face-saving exercise.

Perhaps frictions that have long rumbled below the surface between the international and Australian race organisers are now coming up on the radar.

All of which looks very likely to leave the Phillip Island MotoGP without any substantial corporate cheque towards offsetting losses on the race that run to about $6 million a year.

That’s a long way short of the $40 million Victorian taxpayers are going to be slugged for last March’s Formula 1 festival in Albert Park.

But for the Victorian government, tourism and major event executives, and particularly the AGPC board and management, this year’s MotoGP is going to run with red faces as well as red ink.

Peter Fray

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