Bernie Ecclestone is a shrewd operator, so there may be a hidden agenda behind his latest controversial comments about the sport he runs. But on the surface it appears to be more evidence that he doesn’t understand what it would take for Formula 1 to remain successful.
It has been a difficult year for the sport. TV audiences are broadly down, and attendance at some circuits has been alarmingly low.
The penny appeared to drop when the grandstands in Germany were embarrassingly empty. In the early 2000s Germany was the success story for F1 as a business. The country sustained two grands prix a year, with hundreds of thousands attending each at the height of Michael Schumacher’s popularity.
This year, despite Germany having another four time world champion in Sebastian Vettel, and Nico Rosberg in contention for this year’s title, barely 50,000 spectators went to Germany’s sole race of the season.
Meanwhile, the sport has lost two teams to financial extinction. A number of other teams are believed to be on the brink of following suit. F1’s business model, which disproportionately rewards the teams that were the richest anyway, is coming under scrutiny.
Moreover, Formula 1’s crisis of identity shows no sign of being resolved. Is it a sport? Is it a business? Is it entertainment? We all know it is all three. The trouble is that the emphasis on the latter two has now well and truly diluted sporting aspect almost to the point of meaninglessness.
Today F1 is all about “the show”. And here is where Bernie Ecclestone can take credit. If we are all being honest, we know that F1 wouldn’t be the massive draw it is without some of the decisions Bernie Ecclestone has made in the past 40 years.
Bernie Ecclestone is a master at understanding the mass media. His emergence as a major power in the sport coincided exactly with the advent of satellite television. With improvements in technology enabling pictures from one side of the world to be beamed to the other side within seconds, Bernie Ecclestone seized the opportunity.
TV was the dominant cultural medium of the late 20th century. So Bernie Ecclestone gradually turned Formula 1 into a made-for-TV extravaganza. It was the perfect platform on which to grow a global sport.
The trouble is that TV is now on the decline. That has left F1 exposed and looking for answers.
The answers that come from Bernie Ecclestone still largely seem to revolve around TV. He dismisses the idea that the internet or social media might be part of the solution. It is well known that he has long been suspicious of the internet, unsure how to monetise it.
Advances are being made in this area. The official Formula 1 mobile app with live timing and other data is now an indispensable companion for those willing to fork out for it (although a web based version would be preferable). And this year Formula 1 has officially taken its first baby steps in the world of social media.
But these are fig leaf gestures in the grand scheme of things. Disturbingly, F1 still seems mainly focused on polishing itself as a TV product, rather than thinking seriously about how to engage fans.
The sport gleefully moulds itself to the whims of the broadcasters. Take the qualifying format. While there is something to be said for the tension it can create, it is basically a gameshow with cars. It lasts an hour, with enough gaps in the proceedings to allow broadcasters to show commercials. The stakes get higher as “the show” goes on, just as if you are watching an episode of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
Double points for the last race of the season is a deeply unpopular initiative among the fans. It was designed to help ensure a close championship for the sake of the broadcasters.
Even rules suggested by the teams themselves, such as DRS, smack of a race to the bottom. It is an attempt to appeal to mass audiences F1 seeks via TV, at the expense of the quality of the product.
As the sport felt the squeeze amid the global economic crisis, it is allowing small teams that are in it for the racing to go under. To fill the gap, it is placing its faith in a handful of car manufacturing companies and one soft drink company to fill out the grids.
These organisations pay for F1 out of marketing budgets, and they do it to sell their product on global TV. If the whims of their marketing departments change, they will pull out faster than Lewis Hamilton can drive.
Meanwhile, the broadcasts themselves are moving to pay TV channels across the world. Companies like BSkyB can pay the big bucks today. But this is severely short-termist. On pay TV, potential new viewers have no hope of discovering F1. Casual fans won’t shell out for a pay TV subscription.
Unless F1 can stop relying on TV-centric ideas, it risks becoming irrelevant. TV still has a place, but the medium is becoming less and less relevant to younger people.
According to Bernie Ecclestone, F1 has to rely on TV because its sponsors like Rolex and UBS demand it, and those brands aren’t relevant to younger people anyway. This is where he misses the point spectacularly.
F1 has increasingly sought to become an upmarket brand associated with other upmarket brands. But the story of the internet age is of the democratisation of communication, and the subsequent destruction of brands or even entire industries that no longer meet their customers’ needs. If F1 is to remain relevant, it needs to become wise to this reality.
Bernie Ecclestone has been a genius when it comes to exploiting TV for the benefit of F1. Unfortunately, he appears to have no idea how to help F1 when TV is no longer the answer.