The news that Spain’s coverage of Formula 1 is being switched to pay-TV is not good news, even if it ends up paying the commercial rights holder more money. What the people involved in the CRH do not seem to understand is that no-one wants to give them money and that the sport is losing supporters as a result of their desire for profit. One might say greed, but it is slightly different. They might argue that there is a longterm need to switch the sport – and indeed all sports – to payTV and that ultimately this is best for the sport, but one must also ask the question as to whether this is all just a bunch of smoke and mirrors and that all that is really happening is another piece of short-termism imposed by people who hope to be long gone and fully cashed-up by the time the sport starts to suffer from a lack of viewers, which will be inevitable if the current policies continue. It might work if there was a serious ramping up of social media activity, in order to alert new generations of fans to the existence of the sport, and a great deal more effort made to engage with potential fans. In order to get them to part with money to watch the sport, however, F1 is going to have to find ways to get their attention because they are no longer going to stumble on the racing while vegging out on the couch on Sunday afternoons, as previous generations did.
One likes to hope that there is a strategy here, but it could well be that there is no such thing and that the private equity people will just go on taking money until they find some schmuck to take the business off their hands, or they reach retirement age and pass the problems on to others.
The Spanish market is an interesting one in that it barely existed before Fernando Alonso came along. His success created a lot of interest in Spain, but one wonders whether the country may not follow the German model in the longer term, with fans not really being bothered about the sport once Alonso is gone. This seems to be what has happened in Germany, where the retirement of Michael Schumacher did enormous damage to the viewing figures and attendances, despite the fact that the country has front-running drivers in Sebastian Vettel and Nico Rosberg and a dominant team (in flag at least) in Mercedes AMG Petronas.
For those who look at the sport solely as a way to make money, there is probably a view that Europe does not much matter because there will eventually be racers from other nations who will do what Schumacher did for Germany and Alonso did for Spain. It is true that the Indian, Chinese and Indonesian markets are all huge, but there are no guarantees that we will see world class racing stars from these countries any time soon. Promoting the wrong people to levels beyond their ability does not help the situation greatly (a la women drivers). And maybe the whole idea will not work. Interest in F1 in Japan has tailed off massively since the days of Ayrton Senna and none of the young Japanese drivers who come and go in F1 have made the slightest bit of difference. Perhaps a competitive Honda with a driver like Alonso will do the job (if it ever happens), but the Japanese seem more interested these days in rugby and baseball.
The constant stories in the autumn about groups of investors looking to buy the Formula One business and exhortations to pet pressmen that the company would be sold before Christmas have all been shown to have been either erroneous or false. Nothing has been heard of the bids for a month or more and it looks like we are going to remain stuck with the same bunch of Sherman McCoys in charge for a while longer. The problem seems to be that they made some highfalutin promises to other investors, prior to a supposed IPO in Singapore, and these other investors are not going to look kindly upon them if they do not deliver the kind of numbers that they said they would. The only way to solve this problem appears to be to drive profits up at any cost for a period of time in order for the investors to feel that they have got sufficient returns to get out at a lower price than they were told they would see. This might work, but the damage it is doing to the sport could be irreparable.