From his modest office in the concrete-walled confines of Canada's Formula One Grand Prix headquarters near Montreal's Île Notre Dame, race promoter François Dumontier is trying to solve one of the world's enduring business riddles: How to get a new generation of customers interested in his product.
It's been nine years since Canadian fans had a local driver to cheer for, after Jacques Villeneuve's fallout with BMW-Sauber in 2006. It will likely be a few more before it has another in Montrealer Lance Stroll, 16, who's part of the Ferrari F1 driver academy. As he prepares to welcome the world to his doorstep June 4, no one is more aware of those facts than Mr. Dumontier.
That's why, as head of Octane Racing, the promoter with the rights to host the Canadian Grand Prix for the next 10 years, the Montreal businessman is looking to the future with both confidence and trepidation. He's already got $219-million in financial support from all three levels of government secured – an announcement made last year on race weekend. Now he's trying to figure out how to keep the clients coming while lessening his own financial risk.
If F1's own problems are any indication, it might not be that easy. Germany's Grand Prix this year was cancelled. Spain's race was flush with empty seats. The circuit's controlling ringmaster, Bernie Ecclestone, paid a fine to end a bribery court case against him. Meanwhile, as competition grows for sponsorship and TV rights, financing problems are ever present. The top teams such as Ferrari and Mercedes make money while the bottom ones don't. According to credit-rating company Moody's, Formula One itself was hobbled by a debt of $4-billion (U.S.) as of the end of 2014.
Mr. Dumontier, however, says he's only focusing on what he can control. That's putting on the best show he can for four days in Montreal while still earning enough profit to make it worthwhile. He says the Montreal race is "part of history" and an important stop on the F1 circuit.
"In private business, the goal is always the same – to make money," Mr. Dumontier said in an interview earlier this month. "We've got a good strong base of fans. Some were there in 1978 when Gilles [Villeneuve] won his first race. Now we need to think about renewing our clientele."
Efforts have already begun to that end. As part of a five-year strategic plan focused on making the event more accessible, privately held Octane has widened its price range for tickets in the grandstands this year and says fans can get a seat for less than $60 a day, on average. In Grandstand 33, kids under 15 accompanied by a parent get in free. Adults pay regular price but seniors over 65 pay half. Octane says to its knowledge, it's the only such multigenerational ticket offer among all Grand Prix races. The grandstand will also feature a family zone.
Whether that will be enough remains to be seen. Manufacturers such as Honda and Toyota warned the world years ago the younger generation coming into adulthood now is much less interested in cars than their parents were. And when organizers of video game sport competitions can attract more people to a stadium than real sports, as they do sometimes in places such as South Korea, you get a good sense of how the priorities of the world's teenagers are shifting.
As Sam Mathews, chief of European e-gaming house Fnatic put it recently: "Eventually, [e-sports] will become much bigger than 90 per cent of world sports. I really believe that." The team has two million followers on social media, about the same as F1's Sahara Force India and Sauber teams combined.
For now, Mr. Dumontier's most immediate challenge is finding a title sponsor for the Canadian Grand Prix event. Air Canada was the last major sponsor in 2003 but pulled out as it filed for bankruptcy protection. Mr. Dumontier says this is the first time in years that he can offer a potential sponsor the kind of lengthy contract association with the event most advertisers are looking for.
Sources say Mr. Dumontier has also held talks with potential strategic investors including Evenko, the powerhouse event promoter controlled by Canadiens hockey team holding company CH Group. As organizer of the Canadian race, he has rights to all ticket sale receipts plus income from corporate hospitality. A partner such as Evenko could broaden his revenue-generating power in both respects.
Mr. Dumontier denied he's looking for a partner but said he's always open to discussions. Octane declined to provide race attendance numbers. Roughly 52 per cent of ticket buyers for the Canadian Grand Prix come from outside Quebec.
As a spectacle, Formula One needs a complete "rethink" because of changes over the years that have slowed the race down considerably, said Mark Gallagher, former marketing chief for Jordan Grand Prix and subsequently Red Bull Racing. However, he believes the sport as a business is in better shape than a lot of the more hysterical commentators make it out to be. Still, he said, "young audiences currently are not engaging in Formula One in a significant way."
Where others see video game sports undermining their physical counterparts, Mr. Gallagher sees a merging of the real and virtual worlds, at least for F1. He notes car racing remains hugely popular among gamers, adding that F1's analytics lend themselves perfectly to a confluence between the two spheres.
Says Mr. Gallagher: "Formula One has it within its own capacity in the next 10 years to create the most unparalleled sporting online gaming experience where you can, in a virtual environment, race the real drivers. There's no reason this cannot be done. And I think that's the kind of innovation the sport really needs to drive to the heart of its future market."