Saturday 18 November 2017

Formula One 'bought by Irish-American businessman John Malone' in massive €3.9bn deal

Irish-American John Malone is keen to add the power of F1 to his Olympic Games deal
Irish-American John Malone is keen to add the power of F1 to his Olympic Games deal

Liberty Media, a U.S. based media and communications company with interests in Atlanta Braves baseball team and satellite radio service Sirius XM, said it would buy the cash-rich sports Formula One Racing for €3.9bn ($4.4 billion).

Irish-American businessman John Malone-led Liberty Media will buy Formula One from a group led by private equity firm CVC Capital Partners.

Irish-American John Malone is keen to add the power of F1 to his Olympic Games deal
Irish-American John Malone is keen to add the power of F1 to his Olympic Games deal

Liberty Media is the world's largest international television and broadband company, operating in more than 30 countries in Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean through a series of different brand names.

The deal, which has an enterprise value of $8 billion, heralds a new era for a European-dominated sport that has long sought to break into the US market and win fresh audiences.

With F1 valued at more than €7.1bn ($8 billion), CVC's stake will cost Liberty Media at least €3.9bn, although it is unclear if it will command a premium for its voting rights or if Liberty Media will try to buy out the remaining shareholders.

One of those shareholders is F1 chief executive Bernie Ecclestone, the 85-year-old former car salesman who has run the sport for 40 years and built it into the global entertainment business it has become.

Ecclestone has been asked to remain in his role by the prospective new owners.

"They want me to be here for three years," he told Reuters news agency on Wednesday.

Ecclestone's business model of exclusive broadcasting deals based on national territories and big fees from race hosts has clearly been very successful - as the huge dividends CVC Capital Partners has earned from the sport would suggest - but there is an inescapable feeling that it has run its course.

Liberty Media, which is owned by Irish-American media mogul John Malone, and its sister companies have interests that span from baseball's Atlanta Braves to Virgin Media, and Malone owns shares in ITV, Eurosport and Formula E.

As a major investor in the internet, many observers expect Malone to move F1 more in that direction, which would not be difficult as Ecclestone has made no apologies about ignoring the digital revolution.

Liberty Media will also want to grow F1's presence in the United States, where it has traditionally struggled against home-grown alternatives, although the US Grand Prix in Austin has been a relative success.

And F1 fans should expect more innovations with gaming technology and virtual reality, as well as a much more coherent marketing effort with the drivers and teams. But the days of terrestrial broadcasters like the BBC, ITV or current domestic home Channel 4 providing free-to-air coverage on Sunday afternoons might be numbered.

That said, there are still hurdles for Liberty Media to clear.

Malone's many interests mean the proposed deal could run into competition law problems with British and European Union regulators, and there is already an EU investigation into how F1 allocates prize money between the teams, many of whom are losing money hand over fist.

The same can be said of the venues that host the races, as crowd numbers have dipped in recent seasons as ticket prices have risen and the racing has become more predictable. Even Ecclestone has noticed that, which has led to a testy relationship with CVC Capital Partners, who have given a good impression of an owner more than happy to watch its prize asset sweat while it counts the money.

Another potential obstacle for the takeover is the fact that motor sport's governing body the FIA holds a 1 per cent stake in Delta Topco, although it is hard to see how it could make a conflict-of-interest complaint when it is so clearly conflicted, too.

And then there is the need to negotiate a new prize-money-and-rules deal with the teams in time for the 2021 season.

But one thing is certain: this deal marks a crossroads moment for the sport and Ecclestone, who turns 86 next month. F1 is about to change one way or another.

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