Over the weekend I went to visit a former F1 journalist colleague, who retired from the scene more than a decade ago. It is always agreeable to see old friends, although the F1 timetable does not make this an easy thing to do. Nonetheless, we spent the weekend in a world of bucolic splendour, disturbed only by cocks crowing and the occasional passing of vast yellow machines, build by Ropa, which tear innocent little potatoes from the ground before they shipped off to pommes frites factories.
There was time to discuss all manner of things, from the price of fish to the future of journalism. When he was still in the F1 business, my pal decided to collect all manner of computer machinery when it came along and he now has a veritable museum of “modern” technology including, I discovered, my Tandy 200 that I first used back in the 1980s, complete with stickers from the era.This was the Model T Ford of the lap top computer, with its stunning memory of 12,000 bytes (as I recall). One could write an entire race report on it and despatch it to the office (in theory), using crocodile clips, acoustic-couplers or local telephone plug converters if you could find one. We would transmit at 300 bits per second (yes, you did read that correctly). I had forgotten that I had given him this venerable machine and it was a bizarre flashback for me. Little did we realise in that innocent age how these machines would revolutionise the industry in which we worked, make our lives far busier, and ultimately begin to kill the business.
Today, anyone and everyone can pretend be a journalist, once they have mastered the cut and paste procedures, and that means that demand for material from real F1 correspondents who are out in the field has died out and it is more and more difficult to sustain the job. This year, the Fleet Street pack of F1 reporters is being decimated because their papers can cobble something together from the Internet. One scribbler has gone already and at least three more will go at the end of the year. One, a bright youngster, is quitting to join the Foreign Office because he sees little future in being a sports reporter. If they are replaced, it will be with folk who know nothing of the sport. Specialist magazines are fading gradually away and publishers are trying to lure fans behind pay-walls, but as there are so many amateurs flooding the market with stories, there is little original content left. Everyone claims to be an expert and how does the reader know? How do newspapers know? This means that smart operators in the F1 world can play games and use the media to further their own goals, using unscrupulous wanabes who do not trouble themselves with journalistic integrity.
There is, you may have noticed, an apparently concerted attempt going on to make people think that the EU should investigate the takeover of Formula One by Liberty Media. This is a daft story because it will happen anyway, whether people want it or not. And, yes, one can argue that there are things that need fixing in the eyes of the EU because some of the goings-on in recent times, and the resulting structures of decision-making and revenue splits, are right out over the cliff edge, like Wile E. Coyote running in mid-air. But what these stories fail to understand is that, rather than being a pain that the EU wishes to avoid, F1 has now become an easy victory for the bureaucrats in Brussels. All they now need to do is to tell Liberty Media to fix the problems and the clearances will come.
It is in the interest of all concerned – even the teams – to find solutions to allow the new owners to take over the business and start working to expand its revenues. There may be a need for some slugging matches in respect of some of the bigger teams, but when all is said and done they need to be in F1 and while they might rattle their spaghetti sabres and twiddle their moustaches, they will inevitably also have to accept that there is no real alternative global method of promotion in motorsports, as the IndyCar Series and the World Endurance Championship do not get the same level of coverage as Formula 1. So, they will find deals that allow them to continue.
There was a Citi analyst report a few days ago that recommended that investors buy Liberty Media shares. This was based on analysis of the figures and investigations into the potential of the business. The conclusion was that Liberty has managed to acquire “passive stakes” in an undervalued company which it will turn into an operating businesses under its controls which will generate cash. There was a slight worry about the volatility of the team line-up, but the conclusion was that if teams disappear there will always be others to replace them. Of course, if you want to reduce the volatile nature of this side of the business, you can create budget caps that will turn each team into a profit centre rather than being a money pit. The other thing that was really interesting is that Citi believes that Chase Carey is right man to lead the company because of his understanding of the value of franchises and brands; his attention-to-detail and his aggressive approach to driving revenue growth forward. Citi admitted that it was surprised by the appointment because Carey brings “extraordinary managerial firepower to a relatively small asset”.
People in F1 always tend to think that the world ends with Formula 1 and that there is nothing beyond it, but the truth is that it isn’t that big a deal when one looks at some of the business being done today. Last year John Malone and his troops did a $78.7 billion deal to acquire Time Warner Cable, so a measly $8 billion deal is not that impressive.
It is an exciting time for the F1 world and one wonders where the sport will go in the years ahead, as new technologies and new ideas are applied.
My favourite promotional activity in motorsport at the moment is the involvement of IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe on ABC’s ‘Dancing with the Stars’, a reality competition featuring contestants, celebrities and other people from all the walks of life with professional dance partners. This show pulls in 13 million viewers per episode, which is many times larger than the audience that IndyCar is able to draw. It will be interesting to see whether the viewing figures go up as a result…
It got me thinking, however, if Formula 1 did such things, who would be the best dancer on the F1 grid and who would wear a lurid green suit as Hinchcliffe (right) did? Have a think about it, you’ll find yourself giggling…
While I think about it, there is also a new Sidepodcast show, for those who like to listen to discussions about the F1 world. Click here to go to the broadcast, or you can read the transcript here if you so desire.