During Canadian Grand Prix weekend in Montreal last month, the McLaren team arranged a special screening of the documentary Senna.
A night earlier, the Formula One Teams Association (FOTA) held a fan forum where enthusiasts and insiders mingled to discuss the inner workings of the sport.
Both events punctuated the simple fact that it’s time for F1 commercial boss, Bernie Ecclestone, to go.
Now, there’s little doubt that the diminutive octogenarian and his business acumen has made many people in the paddock rich beyond their wildest dreams. The former Brabham owner turned F1 ringmaster has essentially run the commercial side of the sport since the late 1970s when he assumed control of its television rights.
Along the way, he and the team owners happily filled their bank accounts as the sport’s popularity grew and revenues increased along with it. There’s no criticizing his ability to rake in the dough. Ecclestone is ranked among the top 25 richest people in the U.K. Team owners like Ron Dennis of McLaren have used the base of F1 involvement to fund massive technology centres for his team and to create super car programs to develop high-end machines for the private jet set.
Unfortunately, Ecclestone also has a penchant for doing and saying things that would get most fired. Witness the comments in 2009 where he mused that Adolf Hitler, who sent six million mostly Jewish victims to their graves during the Second World War, delivered results.
“In a lot of ways, terrible to say this I suppose, but apart from the fact that Hitler got taken away and persuaded to do things that I have no idea whether he wanted to do or not, he was in the way that he could command a lot of people, able to get things done,” Ecclestone famously told The Times of London.
A few years earlier, he likened female racer Danica Patrick and women in general to home appliances when responding to a question about the IndyCar driver’s performance at the 2005 Indianapolis 500.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Fast forward a few years and Ecclestone has recently become embroiled in a bribery scandal that has the potential to bring down the F1 supremo.
German authorities allege Ecclestone paid a $44-million bribe to a banker during sale of BayernLB bank’s stake in F1 to CVC Capital, the venture firm that owns the sport.
But even without the chronic foot-in-mouth disease and the scandals, evidence suggests Ecclestone’s approach has simply outlived its usefulness.
It all comes back to the film about the life and death of F1 legend Ayrton Senna and FOTA’s attempts to reach out to fans with its forums. Both highlighted the simple fact that Ecclestone clings to the idea that exclusivity is the key to making F1 a success.
“There are two things that Bernie thinks about,” Williams F1 chairman Adam Parr offered at the FOTA forum in Montreal.
“First, he likes to control the amount of material that’s available. He believes that rarity is an important characteristic of our sport. Second, he believes that if he sells the rights to the BBC in the U.K., for example, they should have the rights to everything. He thinks that’s the way to maximize revenue.”
The problem with Ecclestone’s approach is two-fold: First, it robs F1 of competitive bidding for the sport’s rights, such as television and merchandise, and of hugely valuable fan-building tools, especially with the upload-everything-to-YouTube generation. And second, keeping an iron grip on access to the sport is a recipe for disaster as F1 tries again to crack the lucrative U.S. market.
The Senna film perfectly illustrates the gold mine Ecclestone keeps locked away in his vaults. The filmmakers were allowed unfettered access to the immense video cache Ecclestone hides away in his London headquarters and the result was a stunning and compelling documentary that is an incredible advertisement for the sport. But, Ecclestone’s refusal to open the doors to his archive means this kind of endeavour is rarely tried and thousands of hours of compelling footage sits in the dark while a content-hungry world watches something else.
F1 teams and sponsors should think it’s absolutely scandalous that Formula1.com, the official website for a sport that sells itself as the most technologically advanced on the planet, has only just begun to offer video clips.
In the end, Ecclestone’s modus operandi means that the total annual commercial revenues flowing into the sport are just a shade more than $1.6-billion. Not bad indeed, but in comparison, NASCAR gets $600-million alone from dividing and selling its rights to three U.S. networks: Fox, ABC, and TNT.
Although the stock car series has nowhere near the global audience of F1, grand prix broadcasts bring in a total income of less than $500-million. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the National Football League, which boasts annual revenue of roughly $3.8-billion from its TV deals alone, an amount that more than doubles F1’s total global income. The last time the NFL made less than $500-million from TV rights was 1989.
But the bigger issue is that F1 remains a blip in the sporting landscape of the key U.S. market because of the attitude Ecclestone fosters. The mystique and exclusivity F1 thrives on in Europe and other markets simply makes it an elitist and snobby afterthought in the U.S.
When F1 raced in Indianapolis from 2000 to 2007, fans saw the IndyCar Series with its open paddock and approachable drivers during the month of May run-up to the Indianapolis 500 juxtaposed with F1’s total lockdown of Gasoline Alley for its weekend in June, complete with screens fixed to all the fences so nobody outside could even catch a glimpse of their favourite driver.
Unfortunately, many of F1’s insiders share Ecclestone’s view that they can simply win U.S. fans with their cool cars. In reality, all they need to do is look at NASCAR’s boxy vehicles, rubber mallets, and duct tape to realize the fancy rides in F1 won’t convince anyone in the U.S. to watch.
Like fans of just about every sport in North America, whether its football, hockey, golf, or NASCAR, those who might give F1 a shot want access to the stars, a few outrageous personalities, and lots of real, honest emotion.
It seems F1’s insiders already know this, but they don’t realize it.
“We need to give people the experience that gives people the tingles on the back of the neck,” McLaren Group brand director John Allert told fans in Montreal.
“It’s a sport that’s very difficult to appreciate only on TV. Seen up close, heard and smelt, it’s extraordinary.”
Unfortunately, that’s an experience an Ecclestone-controlled F1 simply doesn’t offer to the ordinary fan.