Thursday 23 November 2017

Money talks as TV deal leaves fans in a spin

Giles Richards

After facing a potential court case in Germany, Bernie Ecclestone has returned to the spotlight in Hungary but this time by doing what he does best -- making deals. Fans' anger at the joint Sky-BBC TV deal was still bubbling away in the UK yesterday but at the Hungaroring, it was difficult not to sense that the teams like it when Bernie the dealmaker is in action.

There had been talk that the new contract was in contradiction of the Concorde Agreement. But it emerged yesterday that not only had Bernie covered that base, but that the very nature of the deal had been dictated by it.

An appendix of the Agreement reads: "The Commercial Rights Holder may not permit Formula 1 events to be shown only by pay television in a country with a significant audience if it would materially adversely affect audience reach in that country."

It is virtually impossible to prove in advance that it would necessarily affect audience reach, and no doubt Sky, the BBC and Bernie believe it will not. By including the BBC as a part of the deal it neatly sidesteps that awkward "only" in the clause.

Which at least partly explains this ugly compromise. Fans are rightly cross -- no one wants to pay for something they used to watch for free, and the BBC, having invested in and made such a good job of broadcasting F1, wanted to hang on to something, anything, but ultimately, this suits neither.

F1 fans will not want to miss a race, and even the idea of deferred re-runs, which remain unconfirmed, will not be acceptable to many. They will simply have to buy Sky while, at the same time, paying for the BBC coverage in the form of the licence fee. Coverage that includes the expense of showing 10 races, but that will be of interest only to casual fans -- hardly likely to increase viewers.

These do not appear to be concerns within the paddock, however. The global nature of F1 means its sponsors are largely unconcerned about the anguish of a single territory; the marketplace for the brands in the sport, especially the larger ones, is worldwide and it would take a massive collapse in viewing figures for them to exert their financial muscle.

For the teams, very simply, it means more money, estimated at around £1m a season. The HRT team principal, Colin Kolles, said: "If you would ask my colleagues after the meeting with Bernie Ecclestone, everybody is very happy." And McLaren's Martin Whitmarsh noted that they "assume Bernie has got the best deal he can for the sport".

Inevitably, it is iron-disciplined business principles that drive these organisations. It is not that there is disdain for the fans, just the realpolitik of modern F1. Hence the refrain 'look how Sky transformed football' being bandied around the paddock. But for all that Sky have revolutionised sports coverage, 'transformed' in this sense, is from small dollar signs to large pig-shaped dollar signs.

It is not a necessarily a good comparison. Football boasts the tribal bonds that automatically bring new generations to the fold. F1 does not.

So, while in the short term there may be but a blip, a lack of easy exposure to a new audience could have far worse long-term consequences.

Would it have been too much for a sport as rich as this one to have come up with a plan that allowed the BBC to keep its coverage but for the sport to make slightly less money? Sadly, F1 and Bernie don't do those deals.

Meanwhile, on the track, Formula One champion Sebastian Vettel roared back to form to grab pole position for today's Hungarian Grand Prix after his Red Bull mechanics worked through the night to get his car up to speed.

The German had failed to win the last two races but made sure Red Bull snapped up their 11th pole in 11 races this season, and 12th in a row, with his eighth of the campaign and 23rd of his career.

Australian team-mate Mark Webber, second in the championship but a massive 77 points behind Vettel, qualified down in sixth place.

"I felt much more comfortable this morning," Vettel said. "I'm very pleased with the result, we changed a lot on the car overnight. The boys were working pretty hard and didn't get much sleep. I've got the confidence back."

Lewis Hamilton, who won in Germany last Sunday when Red Bull's dominance from the first half of the season continued to ebb away, was quickest early on in the final session but had to settle for second on the grid after Vettel's flying last lap.

"Still, I think it is a great achieivement for us. Today they seemed to pick up a bit of pace," said the Briton.

Jenson Button was pleased with third on the grid for his 200th grand prix after recent woes but double world champion Fernando Alonso could only manage fifth for Ferrari behind team-mate Felipe Massa.

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