I was aware of the Formula 1 world when I was perhaps eight or nine. I remember pushing plastic racing cars around imagined circuits on carpets, and knowing names like Clark, Hill, Stewart, Surtees and Amon. But that was it. I wasn’t that interested until I was about 15 and F1 arrived on our funny black and white television screens. I was fascinated that dashing young heroes would risk their lives to win motor races. It was as glorious and as crazy as medieval tournaments. At that point I didn’t even know that there were specialist magazines that covered the sport. I stumbled on them by accident and then, during my student years, I scraped and borrowed money each week to buy Autosport and Motoring News. I was excited when I discovered a kiosk at Baker Street station where one could get Autosport on a Wednesday afternoon.
The point of this story is two-fold: it shows the power of the television in bringing in fans; and the fact that not everyone is as rich as the people in racing.
Sport is all about emotion and aspiration. It brings joy and excitement to mundane lives. It is that little bit of sunshine for people who have a TGIF approach to life. It is the thrill of a weekend, the five minutes when one escapes the real world over a morning coffee. Some choose other means of diversion: art, theatre, literature, religion… Sport is in competition with all of these activities.
But people are fickle. They want bread and circuses and if a sport fails to deliver what they want, they give up on it. I used to love watching athletics until I realised that one cannot trust the result because of drug use. The world is creating alternative interests all the time: who knows what will be the next big thing: drone racing, virtual sports? There are a million niches: polo, fencing, caber-tossing, pétanque and so on. With good TV coverage these can all be interesting, but you have to find them and the coverage has to grab your attention. And you don’t put down money to watch anything until you’re pretty sure you want to see it. The more you have to pay, the less likely you are to do it. The critics may write that the three-hour Japanese version of Macbeth is a tour de force, but do you buy a ticket?
F1’s greatest asset is its huge number of fans around the world. These people – you – have given the sport muscles in the sports marketing world and inevitably, as in every gold rush, the snake oil salesmen have rushed in to sell dummies to dummies. As the sport has grown bigger, the entrepreneurs have gained suits, fancy shoes and fame and it’s been a ball, cinderellas and all.
But greed is a blinding thing and gradually these people have lost touch with the real world. They think that $1000 is pocket change. Out there in the real world, it is not like that.
Fans resent having to look through wire fences at the stars, they resent being forced to pay huge sums for tickets, and now they resent being forced to pay to watch the sport they love on television. The audience that F1 has is now crumbling. The most recent TV report from the Formula One group resorted to vagueness when it came to figures: “around 400 million” viewers is fluffier than cumulus and probably means that the real number is now 375 million…
The older folks, who make up most of the audience, are unhappy because they have grown up with free-to-air television and they don’t want that to change. Younger folk cannot afford it, don’t want to afford it, or have no interest in a sport that chugs along in its old-fashioned ways: the canal system in an age of motorways; the horse prancing around Cape Canaveral, the eagle that doesn’t know how to tweet.
“Sky’s commitment to the sport and standard of coverage is second to none,” said Bernie Ecclestone in a statement announcing that the pay-TV company will be “the home of Formula 1 in the UK and Ireland from 2019 to 2024”.
So we have a few years left in the UK before the gates slam shut.
The reason that this deal has been done is to load value onto balance sheets, to try to sell the shares in this sport to schmucks who will not see that the trajectory has to change.
What is the point of good coverage when it is hidden behind a pay-wall that people don’t want to climb?
F1 has lost the plot. Sky’s figures are sufficient to drive better revenues for the greedy old men who run the channel and the Formula One business, but they are tiny compared to the remaining free-to-air channels. Unless they change the pricing and social media policies, it will become a wall that will keep the world out. In time, the Bernie, Donald and Rupert Show will turn into a fading mansion on Sunset Boulevard, where the former stars will end up with fan letters written by the butler. What good is a home in which the corridors are piled high with stacks of cash, but only a few old folks and their deluded retainers haunt the corridors?
Shutting out the fans will, I fear, drive people away and they will never return. New generations will never discover the passion that the sport gave us. And it is all down to one thing: short-sighted greed. One day people like me will have our revenge, writing the obituaries that these characters heartily deserve, but they don’t care. They have their money and their games and they see the public as being sheep who exist only to be fleeced.
I find the whole concept vaguely disgusting. They have kidnapped the sport, stolen the passion from its rightful owners – the people – and it is all so utterly pointless. The thing about wealth is that beyond a certain point, it is worthless. You can pack your coffin with rolls of banknotes and only the worms appreciate the gesture. You can give your money to your children and watch them go off the rails. Few can handle it. What’s the point? It is better to go away and dig in the garden, grow some carrots and do something useful…
We can stand before the gates and scream about what is wrong, but it changes nothing. Fans can vote with their feet – and will, but these people don’t care. It won’t be their problem.
The drivers are now beginning to rumble, but can they ever be united? They tend to be blown away like chaff from wheat.
Those who are supposed to protect the sport have sold out, so they can use the money to paint zebra crossings in Uganda, hoping to win Nobel Prizes for road safety.
So who can fight? The answer can only be the players. They stand to lose the most and so they must be the ones to lead the way. They must take this great sport and kick the money changers out of the temple.
Mr Marchionne, Mr Zetsche, Mr Ghosn and the rest of you, the time has come for revolution.