This was posted in Sport Illustrated last week also...
Jonah Freedman: Who the heck is Valentino Rossi?
Who is this rich guy?
Odds are you've never heard of Valentino Rossi
Posted: Wednesday June 29, 2005 12:49PM
Do you know me?
At age 26, I'm Italy's highest-paid athlete -- and I don't play soccer.
I've won my sport's championship the last four years straight, and I'm well on my way to a fifth in a row.
My following is so rabid, fans who came to see me last year literally ignored Michael Jordan to get a glimpse of me.
The name Valentino Rossi probably means nothing to you. He's the biggest star in MotoGP, the world's top motorcycle-racing circuit -- which garners about as much interest in America as curling. But in that world, he's like Jordan, Tiger Woods and Babe Ruth combined.
"In Europe, [Rossi] can't walk down the street," says Chris Ulrich, a professional racer and columnist for Roadracing World magazine.
"In Italy, he's a god," says David Edwards, editor in chief of Cycle World magazine. "And quite legitimately so -- he's the best ever to compete in his sport."
With an estimated income of $24.5 million in 2005, Rossi clocks in at No. 3 on Sports Illustrated's list of the 20 top-earning non-American athletes in the world. That wad of cash puts him behind only ridiculously rich German Formula One racer Michael Schumacher and British soccer pretty-boy David Beckham. Rossi ranks ahead of Beckham's Real Madrid teammate Ronaldo, tennis' Maria Sharapova, even Yao Ming and Sammy Sosa. But you've heard of all them. Why don't you know Rossi?
Because you probably don't live in Italy, where motorcycle-racing is so big, it often eclipses soccer in popularity. Nearly every young Italian teenager starts riding a scooter long before he gets behind the wheel of a car, and the lure of an extremely dangerous sport in which young men ride machines at speeds that routinely exceed 200 mph is irresistable.
And Rossi -- his dominance aside -- is a giant-sized personality, with an irreverent sense of humor that makes him even more popular. He once concluded a win by leaping off his bike during a victory lap and skipping straight to a Port-A-Potty. He's also been known to don a giant afro wig at the winner's podium, or produce rubber chickens and stethoscopes out of his leather protective uniform.
Rossi won his first professional race at age 17 and vaulted up the ranks to MotoGP, the highest level of motorcycle roadracing, by 2000. After just one year, he started his unprecedented run of championships. That's when the riches began.
Rossi jumped ship last year, leaving his Repsol Honda team for the lightly regarded Gauloises Yamaha, which offered him an unheard-of yearly salary of $11 million to help the team win its first title since 1992. Rossi delivered -- and was paid a $5.5 million bonus for his fourth-straight MotoGP championship, cementing his God-like status and earning a level of Italian celebrity reserved for soccer stars like Christian Vieri and Alessandro Del Piero.
"He's considered a national treasure," says Edwards. "I've been to his hometown [of Urbino, in central Italy's Marche region] and they have banners strung across the street that say 'We Love You, Vale.'"
It's these kinds of accolades that have Italian companies salivating to sign Rossi as an endorser for their products. He earns $8 million a year from the likes of racing-gear manufacturers Dainese and AGV, telecom company Alice and chemical-maker Kerakoll.
More important, perhaps, Rossi has contributed to MotoGP's increasing success in Europe -- crowds at Grand Prix events often exceed 100,000. On July 10, he'll make his first American appearance when he races in the Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix at Laguna Seca in Monterey, Calif. The crowd is expected to be big, but don't expect a groundswell of interest in MotoGP in the U.S., where even NASCAR has only become a huge sport during the last 10 years.
"We put him on the cover of our February issue," says Cycle World's Edwards. "It was our lowest-selling issue in 20 years."
Luckily, Rossi has all of Europe -- literally -- to fall back on.
Valentino Rossi dominates a sport in which he's Jordan, Tiger and the Babe all rolled in one. He'll earn $24.5 million in '05.