Exclusive: Isle of Man TT boss Phillips delves deep into his future plans

| | TT and Roads

“If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” – the mantra of those fearing change – has not been entirely absent following the announcement of how the TT is going to be from 2022s onwards.

It is not a cry that Isle of Man motorsport boss Paul Phillips is interested in listening to because he strongly believes that without change this unique event will decline.

More than that, he believes that today’s technology offers an opportunity to expand a great brand into a global brand and with it an international fan base for a motor sport event the like of which simply does not exist.

That is his goal and he recognises it presents many challenges but he is prepared to listen to those recognise that change is necessary, there is opportunity and who will
help him overcome those challenges.

Fresh from cycling along the coast road from his home/office in Ramsey to the seafront in Douglas where the IoM government is spending £20m in a massive reconstruction programme, he talked to bikesportnews.com about what he is trying to do and why he is trying to do it:

“Our job is to make sure the TT is sustainable, firstly. There are threats to the TT as there are threats to any organisation events and business. So, we have to mitigate them to be sustainable for the next five, ten, fifteen, twenty years.

“We continue to deliver an economic benefit to the Isle of Man, because that’s what we are here for. We’re unique. Not a motorcycle club who likes motorbike racing. Not a commercial promoter whose reason for being is a return on their investment. We’re a government department delivering this event for economic reasons.

‘Also, if you consider ambition, we have ambitions to develop the TT into a genuinely world-class entertainment brand. So, that’s the road that we’re on. We’ve got risk management, sustainability, and then ambition.
The story dials back to ten or 15 years when the TT was not in a great place, and the motorcycle industry and associations were kind of starting to mount opposition towards it.

“The industry generally had pulled away from it. The media pulled away from it. Local support was not fantastic.Attendance had gone down to the 30,000 mark. There was probably a view at the time that the TT had reached its extent and no more. So things changed, people started working on the TT with a different approach.
‘The methods that we collectively used put the TT on a better trajectory, a trajectory we’ve seen over the past decade or more which has seen more people come, more spending on the island, more income, more media coverage, more teams and manufacturers, better support, better local support – arriving at a point where we’re at at the moment where nobody thinks the future of the TT is threatened.

‘So, the methods and the tactics we employed to do all that were all right at the time. Digital marketing and engaging with the industry and the teams, going on a journey. That was around ’05, ’06, ’07 time, before social media. Our world has changed.

‘What’s happened in the last two years has accelerated the trajectory the world is already on. We’d already seen the audience going into decline. So, before we talk about ambition and growth we’ve got to deal with sustainability. Keeping the public support. Maintaining the industry support. Managing the risks. All that kind of stuff just to make sure it can survive.

‘After that comes the ambition. The trajectory we’re now on lines up pretty well the trajectory of Formula 1. The pre-Bernie, Bernie, post-Bernie eras when they lost half their audience. The reason was it was completely non-digital. It was probably his first, last, and only major mistake.

‘When Liberty took over they returned it in three years,A big change is coming to the sport, and I would say Formula 1 as well. We consider Formula 1 as a piece of entertainment. That’s what we want to do, or anyone who promotes sport, to get to a higher level with a big audience.

Unless we do this the risk is that it would, as with any event, go into audience decline and arrive at a point where it costs more than it brings in or the gap between the two is so little that simple other things like public inconvenience becomes an issue. And it affects commerce.

“We talk about the TT being an international event. It does have international awareness, but in terms of audience, it’s an event for middle-aged men from the North of England. Not entirely true, a bit extreme and tongue-in-cheek, however our international audience is very small.

“We have to backfill with the new generation. Millennials and generation X are the huge void in our audience. And the reason is because we deliver our content in the traditional ways, one being linear television. There’s no problem with any of that, we don’t want to replace generations but we certainly want to expand.

“Talking about the TT being sustainable runs the risk of your event dying out with the fan base. We’re not starting a revolution here but we’ve got to talk to them in a way which they expect.

‘The opportunity we have is that our content is so strong with interesting and exciting stories, but it feels like a big change for the TT. We are giving the traditional fans a lot more of what they like. They like racing. We know that. They told us they like racing, so we’re going to give them more racing, but they don’t like the pain in the arse it is to get here.

‘So, we’re going to try to make that easier for them hoping in a way that will help. You want access? We want to make it the best access for a motorsport event in the world. You kind of sit where you want to sit. You can go in the paddock which is still quite unusual and we want to give everyone an internet connection. I don’t watch television anymore and I’m in my 40s.

“My daughter is 14 and has never watched television, but she consumes a lot of content. It’s not like replacing the linear broadcast as we know it. It will still exist for some time to come. That’s what they’re doing in MotoGP, linear TV but also do digital because they know the sponsors are saying we want that age group. You’re not giving us that age group. We’re only given numbers for older people. We want those young people.

“The models keep changing. The broadcast model for sport has changed really quickly over the last two decades. I don’t think anybody really had grasp on where it was all going to end up. One minute, broadcasters would go down the exclusive page and take a big of fee but decimate their audience. Next, they would flip and go back, or they would find somewhere in-between.

“The big difference there is it’s not just all about the live sport broadcast or the highlights broadcast. That’s just one part of it. It’s the chain of content that’s feeding the engine all of the time. We expect as sports fans now to have greater access. We expect to see behind the scenes, even the slightly more indiscreet stuff. That’s what we expect.

‘I agree that TV in itself has quite a number of challenges. It is easy to do stuff on a circuit of 2.5 miles. What you’re trying to cover here is 37 and three quarter miles You’ve got to make absolutely sure the product is exciting in itself. What we’re talking about here is a proper broadcast, masses of cameras at the track, a proper graphics package, on-site studio build and two helicopters.

“Let me be really honest. We all understand the size of the challenge. You could take something that’s visceral, like the TT, and somehow do it badly. So, it has to be done right.”

BSN: But what about the product. The paddock seems to offer the same things and the same riders. The riders don’t change very much. Do you need to do something more radical with what you’re producing here?

PP: “Possibly, but not all at once. There’s a lot of other stuff. We’ve been 18 months arriving at this point, but we have really taken the TT completely back, completely apart, challenged everything we’ve ever done, every thought we’ve ever thought about, and slowly put it back together. What we’ve confirmed in the public domain is a small percentage of the work that has been done. There’s a lot more things to come, and there is a strategy for that, which there hasn’t been previously. That takes us over a number of years.

“So there is more change coming. There is more that we are considering. But in terms of the ’23 schedule, which is I think what you’re referring to, when we go up a couple of races and we race into the second weekend… A huge percentage of our visiting fans, significant majority, can’t get the holiday they want. They can’t get the travel and accommodation that they want.

‘So, changing the schedule with a great focus on weekend racing and trying to move some of the existing peak, which is currently in the middle, aligned with the new ferry, which is really important because the new ferry added to the old ferry gets us around 3000 passengers in and out additional every day – 75 per cent of the people come by ferry together. That’s really important for getting out. Out, not in. Out is the issue.

‘With the final race on the Saturday rather than Friday we have to factor in that new ferry. Currently, we have very few people here by Friday. The TT is probably the only sporting event that could have its finale in the working week, having sent two-thirds of its audience home and having a very small broadcast.

“You ask about the two other great challenges; the course and the weather. One is the course itself, which is marvellous but it’s difficult. Another thing is the weather of course, which we are not in control of that.

“Probably the main reason why up until this point the TT has not been broadcast live is because of that, and technical. So, what we’ve seen is that the cost of the technology dropped radically and it’s more accessible.

“We moved to a point where we are becoming more and more used to accessing broadcasts digitally. Scheduling is less and less of an issue. We know we’re going to have to shorten the schedules, but we’re not tied to a broadcast. This will tell me that in thirty minutes, my broadcast is about to start. To give you an example, I subscribe to TCM which is run by Eurosport. I pay 40 quid a year. I get all my racing. It’s on when it’s on.

BSN: I might have thought you’d have had fewer races with maybe fewer, but higher quality, competitors. At the moment, you’ve got some very good and well-known riders, but not many of them. Of course, you’ve had people coming in from British Superbikes like Peter Hickman, Josh Brookes and now, Glenn Irwin. Could you get some more of these riders here? People only go because they actually want to go there but I assume money is not unimportant. Would it be possible to improve the quality of the field?

PP: “There is further evolution as I said which is not in the public domain. We’re in charge of our own timeline and all of this. We don’t have to go from zero to one hundred in a year, either. We just have to be on a proper, strategic route, led by intelligence and not good feeling and instinct. Otherwise, everything is subjective and it’s been too much like this in the past.

“We’ve made some mistakes here and we’ve thought one thing and we have the evidence now that we were wrong. In terms of attracting different people, I believe, and in fact I’ve already seen in this very short period, the impact that’s having on some of those protagonists who are at the front. I believe that a better, stronger TT that’s further up the table of motorsport properties in itself is a thing that attracts more talent to the event.

“The thing about it not being about money. I don’t think anybody would come just for money. I don’t think the opportunity exists, and that’s a great thing. When Peter came to the TT, he came and raced for nothing. Professional motorcycle racer, but he came and invested. He proved to us and himself and everybody.

“There are people who are marginal about the TT. Maybe the TT is for me. Maybe a better, high-profile TT that’s more lucrative for all of the people in and around it. Peter doesn’t get paid a little bit by the TT. He gets a little money from his sponsors. That’s what the TT does, the model. The idea that we don’t pay you for racing the TT. We support teams. We don’t pay riders to come and race here.

“To answer your question, I think over time. It’s not a quick fix, but I think over time a better, stronger TT with a higher profile will attract a better, stronger entry of a higher profile. Obviously, road racing has had a difficult time the past five years and it lost some quality to injury and fatalities. At the same time, there’s still some good, some young, guys coming at it. Rarely have I seen somebody so passionate and so excited about it as Glenn Irwin. It’s nice to see.

“You ask about safety, more riders, more racing? As far as the world is concerned, it’s an extreme sport. I know we aren’t going back to the days when somebody said ‘The twist grip works both ways’ all that sort of rubbish. We’ve said, yes, it is difficult, but that’s of course part of the appeal to the rest of the world as well as other things.

“There’s no other race quite like it. But not more riders. There is a piece of work that’s been ongoing for many, many months around risk management with the TT. In the near future, we will talk about that and tell people about that. It’s an exciting piece of work. We have some very interesting people involved who are very qualified to work in it.

‘Working with the teams and competitors, involving use of technology, use of sport science, etcetera. We will talk about that this summer, I hope. I would suspect that we’ll get the final bits across the line imminently. But it will begin changing stuff. It won’t change the entire risk of TT racing, but it will change the culture of risk management around the TT.

‘I don’t want you to think we’re not going to race motorcycles at speed around a road. We are. But there are avoidable risks in the TT, and it has to be upon us to absolutely and completely manage them at the TT, which is feasible.

“And spectator access? There is a basic thing around it. If a place becomes dangerous for whatever reason, and we can all say what we want about that, but the responsibility lies with the organisation to deal with that.

“What I’m talking about here is more around the act of racing. Not less around spectating, but accidents happen because of the races here. There are no laps attached to the races in the schedule and I’m not going to say one thing or another because we’re not there yet.

“One thing I will say, and it is a personal view. At the last TT we had five races in one day. All those were reduced laps and it was a very entertaining day.nSo duration is not the only factor of entertainment. I’m not suggesting for a second that races will be that short. They might be longer.

“People don’t understand perhaps just how good our medical response is compared to other events. One of the chaps that’s working on our approach to risk management is Dr. Gareth Davies. He’s from the Isle of Man. He’s best known for being head of the London air ambulance service, and he led the medical response to things like the 7/7 bombings and the recent terrorist acts.

“He is known globally as the world’s leading trauma doctor. He’s been in the background of TT but has now been elevated in the process, along with others. They’re doing some great work. They’re doing some really, really great, exciting, game-changing work, which we’ll talk about.

BSN: You were talking also about the success of Formula 1. Of course, many of these great sporting bodies become successful when they disengage from a governing body, when they’re allowed a proper professional to run them. What about the situation here, this is still kind of a government body, except you’re the man in charge?

PP: “It’s totally a government body. The policy is the Isle of Man government will deliver the TT. Currently, that is the policy in our government. That might be something that changes. There’s a new administration later this year. But it might not. There are lots of nuances with the island, with the event. Governments have spent lots and lots of money in various sectors to keep it closed in COVID times. We’re very lucky, I think, that we’ve got a government still willing to invest in motorsports and facilitating in a number of different ways.

BSN: Of course, they’re investing in the tourist industry. They’re not investing in motor bikes or whatever, but they know it’s the biggest draw the island has got.

PP: “The importance of the TT has gone just beyond the impact of the sector over two weeks. There are real issues. Somebody from the hospitality sector told me that having TT is like having thirteen months of trade rather than twelve, which is an interesting concept.

“I think what the TT does, which is often underestimated, is that these industries – hotel, travel – it allows them to be viable over a twelve-month period, which therefore supports other industries which are more important in their own right. Tourism is only about four per cent of GDP so it’s not that big. The TT supports that, but actually financial services and other things probably wouldn’t be as viable without some of the tourism infrastructure.

“The good thing from my seat is that the absence of the TT for two years has really shone a light for a lot of people who have got the ability to implement decisions. We’ve seen a lot of support that we probably haven’t traditionally seen because of that, to ensure that the TT comes back better and stronger, which is obviously a nice thing.

“I report directly to the Chief Executive of the department, Mark Lewin. He’s a great guy. He’s been very, very, very good to me over the past 12 or so months. I like working with people to teach me stuff that I don’t know. He’s a really good diplomat. He understands that you don’t always have to win the battles to win the war.

“The system has gone a long way. I don’t always understand that stuff brilliantly, but he’s the sort of person who is good at that and understands it. He has influence. People listen to him. He helps us get stuff. In the decade or more that I worked on the TT, the past year has probably been the most enjoyable I’ve had.

“We’ve got a lot of stuff going on, and a lot of stuff is through government. There is something stuff that still needs a little bit of signoff or rubber stamping and there’s some stuff which will have to go through various approval processes. Sometimes it’s a treasury approval on expenditure. Sometimes it involves council because it might be having an impact on legislation. It may sometimes be other departments because they’re responsible for certain elements.

BSN: Your belief is that the TT is more important to this island than anything else? Your presentation didn’t give much mention about the Classic or the Manx GP.

PP: “Not more than anything else, more than any event. Ultimately, it goes back to what I was saying earlier on about our reason for being. What the future of those events, ultimately policy decisions, there are challenges for the Classic TT and the Manx Grand Prix, many of which are different to the challenges facing the TT. But that does not mean either of those events don’t have futures. But like the TT, any other thing, change will have to come.

“My team deliver the Classic TT. We fund the Manx Grand Prix and facilitate that. We’re currently working with the Manx MCC and groups to go through things. 2022 may be unchanged, or may not. I think the timeline for us getting anywhere is we need to get something down, an agreed position between us all, in time for the start of the next administration which is September time. So, October I guess.”

BSN: If I ask you if you expect the Classic and the Manx are still here in five years’ time, would you have an answer to that or not?

PP: “I would say so, yes I would say so. You’re talking to me 18 months into a global pandemic, so who knows what the world is going to be like. One thing I’m convinced of, and it’s going to take a really good argument to convince me of anything else, is that everything always has to change.”

BSN: Your plan here is going to take a lot of investment. It’s a real act of faith and confidence in you by the government. It is going to take money.

PP: “It’s a change of business model and a change of business. So, what we’re doing is a 52 weeks of the year entertainment brand. And when the business model changes the investment changes but the income changes considerably as well. The basis of the model over a period of time that we all signed ourselves up to is significantly better in a positive way. That level of work hasn’t gone on but a review that we all take collaboratively is about to happen. Governments, quite rightfully, aren’t normally too excited about taking on risk. That’s not really their role.

“Does it or doesn’t it stack up? There might not be a light-switch moment at the end of it. The political environment that we are in, that doesn’t necessarily mean an instant turn-off, but it might take you on the journey towards…

“That’s why I keep using the word sustainable about the TT which is a kind of crappy word really. You always think about environmental sustainability, but that’s what we must want for the TT. It’s all right everybody thinking it will happen, but it might not happen just yet.”