SKY’s the limit for BBC fans

August 4, 2011

There are few things that create such a storm in the proverbial tea cup like the distribution of rights from Bernie Ecclestone’s Formula 1 mega-empire. There have certainly been some that stirred the emotions of the British public in the sport’s history but the Beeb’s fraternising with the enemy has caused more commotion than ever before…at least on this little island.

I feel the need to preface this blog with a disclaimer that I have been a fan of the BBC’s coverage over the past few years. The entire team has covered the sport from all angles and has given the viewing public the chance to experience the season across pretty much every platform available. Perhaps the on-the-ground crew seem to favour talking about the British drivers a little too much to the incredibly knowledgeable audience, most of whom are interested in the majority of teams, but maybe that’s just me.

Back to the issue at hand. Was this the right move for F1 fans in the UK? Was this the right move for F1 in the UK? Does the UK have a right to claim such an ownership of F1 that FOTA should take action?

The BBC has managed to retain the rights to broadcast F1 for a period longer than its original contract – not such a bad thing in isolation. The sharing of the rights with SKY, however, has caused so much concern among the British public because we are now being asked to pay for the right to watch an entire season. Is this fair? To our mind this is not because we pay our licence fee every year and we expect to be able to watch what the licence fee-paying public want and with audience figures through the roof in 2011 does this represent a suitable way to cut costs? I think it’s very difficult to analyse where the broadcaster could have saved money without knowing the extent of budget cuts, balance sheets and other financials that include channel costs, programme creation budgets etc.

The argument from Bernie that “This will open F1 up to a much wider audience” and “Be good for the sport” is perhaps not true. Let’s not forget that the UK isn’t the only country in the world that receives the BBC’s feed. To look at numbers and see that an average of 6 million people (to be generous to the Beeb) tune in to watch Jake, Eddie, Martin and DC chew the fat throughout the season and then reflect that just over 10 million people are signed up to SKY is not an accurate way to look at the spreading of the rights. Not all 10 million SKY customers have SKY Sports, let alone the SKY HD package.

The BBC have defended themselves by drawing parallels with their Match of the Day programme that summarises the day’s/weekend’s football action and there is certainly a case there. The viewers for that programme are, however, at around the 3 million mark and this is for a sport that is infinitely more popular than F1. Who’s to say that over 50% of the current viewer will watch the highlights?

But what about the level of coverage that SKY will give us hard-working, knowledgeable UK F1 fans? Well, who’s to say? In 1992 they delivered top flight football like we had never seen before, but let’s remember that they, along with the Premier League, produced an entirely new sporting proposition. Even if this is the first step towards purchasing the sport from CVC, they are not doing that here and will have to report within Bernie’s guidelines. We can be sure though, that some £125 million (or so) will not be wasted and the entire production will be of the highest quality.

Without question, the UK is the sport’s home but for a long time now, it hasn’t been the most important market for either the teams or the sport as a whole. Although as a fan I don’t always like to admit to it, the sport is governed by an exhaustive combination of factors including circuit fees, sponsor pressure, team pressure and national governments. Why is F1 going to America? Because so many sponsors have the USA as one of their key markets. Why is the track in Sochi being built to launch Russian F1 just months after the city holds the Winter Olympics? Because Vladimir Putin is looking to re-establish Russia as a destination and stabilise the near-10% financial growth they have experienced over the past few years. How did Sergio Perez or Pastor Maldonado get their respective feet in the doors at Sauber or Williams? An equal measurement of talent and sponsor dollars.

I think that as an audience the UK is entitled to a view and a voice, but I don’t believe it will be heard. The Concorde agreement (and Bernie’s deal with the European Commission) says that the sport should be shown on free-to-air television and this agreement honours that. As such FOTA doesn’t necessarily have a leg to stand on should it want to dispute the recent deal as the Great British public can still watch their fastest sport on the Beeb.

So in answer to my own questions above, this is certainly not the best development for F1 fans in the UK but it may just be the best compromise. We might just have to take solace in the fact that we still get to see half of the races without paying, unlike most of the world. I’m intrigued to find out if this is the best thing for F1 in the UK, especially from a sponsor’s perspective – more viewers equals more money for the teams and for F1 through Allsport (who sells circuit signage and hospitality packages).

But how about this to finish off: SKY buys into the BBC’s rights deal starting in 2012. Come the end of that year, when the Concorde Agreement reaches a sticky conclusion, SKY throws its name back in the ring for the purchase of CVC’s shares and now owns the sport. With a better financial package for the teams (because who could negotiate as successfully as Bernie with 12 warring factions?) they agree to signing the new Concorde Agreement which now allows F1 to be broadcast on pay-per-view channels. A lengthy but ultimately successful buy out from SKY. Is this the first rung of the ladder for the broadcaster?

I know I’ve been a little controversial in places here but I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts, especially now that the dust has settled a little.


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