The decision by U.S. cable company Liberty Media to buy motor-racing business Formula One is fueling speculation that the sport is preparing to accelerate its drive into the U.S. market and to rev up its social-media profile.
One of the most notable aspects of the takeover, unveiled Wednesday, was not the high value placed on the Formula One – the $8-billion price tag makes it one of the biggest deals in sports history – but Liberty’s choice of chairman, Chase Carey. (Bernie Ecclestone will remain chief executive.)
In a presentation for investors Wednesday, Liberty played up the key role that Carey, vice chairman of 21st Century Fox, played in “building global sports businesses at Fox and its affiliates,” particularly his position as CEO of U.S. pay-TV service Directv from 2003 to 2009 and as director of pan-European pay-TV service Sky. That experience makes him a strong asset for a sport that relies on TV rights for 30% to 35% of its annual revenues, which stood at $1.7 billion last year. Under Carey, Formula One is likely to keep the pedal to the metal in its stronghold, Europe, as well as attempt to make bigger inroads in one of its target growth markets, the U.S.
Motor racing is the second-most valuable sport, in terms of media rights, in the European Union’s top five markets, with a 4.4% share, although it lags miles behind soccer, which dominates with a 79% share. In the investors’ call, Carey emphasized that, while Formula One was eyeing the U.S. market, it wouldn’t neglect Europe.
“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.”
Clear challenges lie ahead. Although Formula One rarely lacks bidders when TV rights become available, there is a downside when the winner is a pay-TV service. A sizeable 15% of Formula One’s revenue comes from track-side advertising and sponsorship deals, which count on the sport’s ability to reach a mass audience. Pay-TV companies, with their modest ratings compared to free-TV channels, can dampen revenue potential.
Since 2008, the sport’s TV audience has fallen from 600 million viewers to 400 million, a drop that owes in part to the increasing shift to pay-TV. In key market Britain, pay-TV operator Sky will assume exclusive rights to coverage starting in 2018, after having shared the rights with free-TV channel Channel 4.
The decline in popularity has other causes, such as a perceived lack of competition between teams, with the domination of Mercedes. Also, technical changes, such as moves to make engines quieter and hybrid rather than purely gasoline-powered, are unpopular with the “petrol-head” crowd.
Another area that needs development is social-media traffic, Ecclestone has said in recent interviews. In Wednesday’s call, Carey underscored the dramatic storylines generated by the sport, which can feed social-media conversations.
“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.”
The rise of video-streaming online can also increase the market potential for sports like Formula One, with digital players like Netflix and Amazon able to move into live-sports coverage in the same way they have been aggressively acquiring rights to or commissioning original TV series and films. The recent deal between Twitter and the National Football League recently hinted at the possibilities offered by digital. Twitter will stream 10 Thursday Night Football games to a global audience for free during the 2016 NFL season.
Carey said: “No question the digital platforms are essentially becoming a part of the larger video marketplace. It’s creating new competition for these rights, new opportunities to exploit these rights in different ways, to take advantage of what each of the platforms has to offer.”
Despite the Liberty Media takeover, Robin Jellis, editor of research firm TV Sports Markets, warned that swift changes to the Formula One rights business were unlikely.
“We don’t expect to see an immediate impact on the value of its media rights,” he said. “Many of its most valuable deals are tied up in the long term – it has deals with Sky in the U.K. from 2019 to 2024, and separate deals with Fox Networks Group covering Latin America until 2019 and Asia until 2022. Deals in most territories run until at least the end of 2017, when the rights become available in France, Germany, Italy and Spain, among others.”
Jellis said it was possible that platforms owned by or linked to Liberty and its owner, John Malone, including Liberty Global and Discovery’s Eurosport, could eventually acquire the rights in these territories. But the real potential lies across the Atlantic, where NBCUniversal’s exclusive coverage lasts only through 2017.
“We feel there is room for growth in the U.S.,” Jellis said.