The commercial rights to Formula One have been sold to Liberty Media for $8.5 billion, subject to approval from European Union regulators. Many fans had hoped the sale would mean the end of Bernie Ecclestone’s more than three decades as the major domo of the sport, during which time he has earned their emnity for his autocratic management style and insistence on silly policies they feel degraded the sport to little more than a high horsepower version of Roller Derby.
“They want me to be here for three years,” the 85 year old Ecclestone announced to the British press this week. “I’ll be 89 by then and probably then I might want to retire or do something else. But I’m carrying on. I’ll just have a bit of help.”
The help will come in the form of a new chairman, Chase Carey. He is currently vice chairman of the 21st Century Fox conglomerate. A relative youngster compared to the ancient Ecclestone, Carey was born in 1954. As if to remind people how clueless he is when it comes to the digital world, Bernie said, “He can do lots of things that I haven’t done with this social media, which he seems to be in touch with.”
Carey got right to the heart of his digital media plans this week. “There are multiple dimensions to developing the digital opportunities in Formula One,” he said. “There is the marketing potential in telling the Formula One story, and it’s a great story with some of the most attractive stars in the world — great drivers, great teams, great brands, great technology. So it’s taking advantage of that and making it successful, really exciting that fan base, and using the data capabilities of digital media.”
Unlike Ecclestone, who has said repeatedly that traditional race venues in Europe would have to pay up or be dropped from the Formula One calendar, Carey seems be more interested in preserving the connection between the sport and the tracks where its reputation was forged, while expanding in the US and Asia.
“As a global sport there are opportunities, and we’re excited about the opportunity to grow the sport…in the Americas and Asia. [But] I want to be clear that the established markets that have been the home and foundation of Formula One, with Europe in particular, are of critical importance. Building the sport in Europe, on that foundation, has to be second to none,” Carey said. “We do want to continue to take advantage of the global footprint of this sport, and think there are those growth opportunities, and those markets in the U.S. and Asia are ones for us to develop.”
What does all this mean? Carey served as CEO of pay TV subscription service DirecTV in the US from 2003 to 2009. He also has served as a director of European pay TV service Sky. Does this hint that that Formula One will once again only be available to US viewers on a pay per view basis? Its contract with NBC Sports expires in 2017.
We could see a new, reinvigorated Formula One as a result of the sale of the commercial rights to Liberty Media, or Formula One could indeed become just another sports marketing enterprise filled with gimmicks like Roller Derby. Time will tell.