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Why Liberty Media can help Formula 1 build for the future

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Formula 1 is a passion industry. Few branches of the automotive industry are so competitive, so glamorous and so well-placed to attract top talent. Being a hugely popular sporting fixture with massive global media exposure, Formula 1 is a rolling advertisement for itself, able to capture the attention and stir the dreams of wannabe-drivers, petrol-heads and - crucially - its own future workforce.

In my opinion and that of many others, under Bernie Ecclestone the appeal of Formula 1 was starting to become more selective in favour of those who could afford to watch it or participate. In both cases, the pool was diminishing.  

New Formula 1 owner Liberty Media has a great opportunity to reverse trends that were beginning to alienate fans and potential competitors. It can make the sport a more engaging, equitable and above all accessible one that can once again capture the hearts and minds of new generations and perhaps, by so doing, ensure its own longevity. If it fails to do this, it may seriously endanger the future of the sport. The trends have to be reversed.  

People who work within Formula 1 are fans. So are the people who broadcast and commentate on it, the paying spectators and the future engineers and drivers who will ensure the continued lifeblood of the sport. To remain competitive, relevant and healthy, the sport needs an expanding fan-base, not a shrinking one.

The roll-call of teams that have exited the sport is depressingly long, the falling numbers of spectators well-documented. Just as increasingly exclusive broadcast rights and on-track rules were alienating would-be fans, the sport’s huge rule book and questionable distribution of wealth discouraged potential new entrants to the competition.

Sport needs talent everywhere, not just on the track

Since it bought the sport for over £6 billion, Liberty Media’s early management has been encouraging.  As a recruitment professional I regard strategic hires as a strong indication of intent. The talent within the administration of Formula 1 has as much part to play in its future success as the talent on the grid. So I was encouraged to see the group appoint Ross Brawn as Managing Director of Motorsports.

Brawn is a popular and well-respected figure, and by hiring him Liberty Media has made a declaration of intent; putting the right people in the right roles is a key task for any new business or project, and Brawn’s pivotal role is a tick in the box. As owner of Brawn GP he won the Formula 1 Constructors’ and Drivers’ championships in 2009. He has further experience of winning as technical director at Benetton and Ferrari and built a winning platform at Mercedes. He is a positive personality who has started well.

New platforms = new audiences = new talent

Just a few years ago, Formula 1 was broadcast on terrestrial TV for free. Years of deal-brokering between Ecclestone and media giants have led to F1 becoming increasingly inaccessible. Ecclestone spurned digital media, a new world ready and waiting to play a part in increasing exposure and engagement for global fans.

Last year, under Liberty Media’s direct stewardship for the first time, Formula 1 increased its following on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and You Tube) by 54.9%. The group has shown a marked desire to engage with new audiences. Its Formula 1 Twitter video content received over 64 million views, a 165% year-on-year increase. Consumption of the sport has increased significantly in China, Italy, Brazil, and across Europe.

Senior people within the industry agree that Formula 1 needs to be made more easily (and cheaply) available to the general public so that new generations of people across the world can fall in love with it. Ecclestone’s business model involved simply selling television rights to the highest bidders. If his new race rules were an attempt to stem the sport’s declining audience, surely it would have been better to acknowledge that it was the move away from free TV that was causing that decline in the first place.

As for the teams themselves, a more equitable division of revenue could re-energise the entry end of the market, allowing new teams and, with them, new talent, to emerge. Simplifying the rules for participants and viewers alike will also help.

It would be wrong not to acknowledge the huge impact Ecclestone had on Formula 1. He did much to popularise what was once a relatively obscure sport. But Liberty Media/Formula One Group has an opportunity to learn equally from his good decisions and his less popular ones. What remains to be seen is how well the group can grasp the many opportunities that lie ahead. But I for one am excited to see how this great sport unfolds.