Reach for the Sky: Dissecting the Sky Sports/BBC Sport F1 Partnership

On Friday, the Formula 1 world was rocked by news that UK Television Broadcasts of the sport would be fundamentally changing starting from 2012. The state-supported and industry-leading BBC had originally been expected to hold exclusive rights to Formula 1 through the end of the 2012 season, after securing the rights from rivals ITV, who ditched them as a result of their almost perpetual cash-strapped nature.

More incredible was the new primary rights holder: technically, Sky Sports. This despite the fact it was generally accepted the rights had to be in the hands of a free-to-air broadcaster. How did FOM get around this? The rights actually went to a Sky Sports/BBC Sport Co-Operative deal. A deal which will give the BBC 10 races, or 50% of the season (Though in the event of 21 races, the extra race would be Sky exclusive). The two broadcasters will share commentary and some other resources, but use different presentation packages.

For the 10+ races the BBC is not showing live, they are showing…Well, what exactly? Bernie Ecclestone has apparently led the members of FOTA (Formula One Teams’ Association) to believe that they will be showing the full race on a time delay. The BBC, however, has seemed to play down these reports – they indicate an extended highlights show, clocking in at around 75 minutes. Either way, the show or taped race would air in prime time on Sunday – AKA the least valuable kind of prime time.

Still, the BBC package will air the day of the race, whatever the minutiae are.

This bizarre setup with the BBC acting as some kind of “Sky Sports Preview” is unique. No other sport, Motorsport or otherwise, operates this way, and the BBC agreeing to play second fiddle to Sky has made some observers distinctly uneasy.

Setting aside the practical and TV industry implications for a moment, let’s consider the financial impact of the deal. The Sky Sports/BBC Sport Partnership is paying out a combined £55 Million, up on the £40 Million the BBC had been paying out for the exclusive rights. The teams have been told this will factor out to about £1 Million per season extra paid from FOM to each team.

In F1 terms, £1 Million a season is…Not a huge deal. Even the back markers reportedly blow throw more than £30 Million to just show up and not completely embarrass themselves. For frontrunners McLaren, this is chump change. So one could reasonably wonder why they are going along with this so readily?

Consider also, McLaren (In particular) are majority funded by sponsorship revenue. This means they in particular should be concerned about any potential decrease in viewership. It seems like hubris to claim (As FOM, amongst others, have) that this deal might grow the F1 audience in the UK. The idea seems to be that being in BBC1 Prime TIme will inherently draw more people to the sport.

That…Sounds like a huge assumption. The argument seems to be casual fans will be more interested in a prime time highlights reel than in watching the race at midday (or odd hours for fly-aways). There is some merit to that idea, but it still seems like there is room to question it. We’re talking about a delay of six to, potentially, 12+ hours. It seems…Unlikely – to say the least – casual fans will go out of their way to avoid spoilers, but counterintuitively one could also reasonably question whether they’d bother watching the highlights reel once they knew the result?

Smaller teams also look set to get screwed – hard – by this. They get their best exposure for sponsors during qualifying and the exact kinds of “boring” bits the BBC’s editors are likely to cut for the highlights reel (For example, the leaders putting a lap on them). These losses will not in any way be mitigated by Sky Sports viewerships. Consider…

Sky Sports 1 enjoys a whopping 0.9% Audience share. This is HALF the audience share of BBC Three. It’s barely 0.2 more than the anaemic share held by BBC Four, which this deal is widely believed to have been orchestrated to save. Sky Sports 2, which will share Sky Sports 1’s duties as F1 broadcaster, has an eye-watering-ly small 0.4% share.

For comparison, the BBC’s F1 audience has averaged 4-5 million viewers, with peaks in excess of 6 Million – which is 10% of the UK Population, never mind UK TV Audience. And there is very little demographic overlap between existing F1 fans and Sky Sports subscribers – who are typically more interested in ball games like Association Football and Cricket.

So then, there is a strong argument that this deal will massively reduce the audience for Formula 1 in the UK. And it raises big questions about the financial impact of the deal on teams. There is one other area this deal could potentially have a massive impact, as suggested by Ewan Marshall at GP Focus: the prestige of the Championships.

By making only ten races live on free-to-air television, this deal implicitly adds prestige to the already prestigious Monaco and British Grands Prix. It will possibly have a similar effect on other events (Potentially including, regrettably, poor Grands Prix like the Singapore Night Race if they are included amongst the ten). What can’t be known at this stage is what impact this shift in emphasis to fewer, “marquee” races will have on the public’s perception of the Championships.

In American Motorsport, there are several Championships in various categories. What’s interesting, though, is that unlike in Europe (Where even casual fans tend to idolise championship winners like Jenson Button or Fernando Alonso), a lot of casual fans are more interested in which drivers win certain marquee events – like the Indy 500. Is it possible that, at least amongst casual British fans, this deal will decrease the importance of championships?

Are we looking at a future where casual viewership for most of the Grands Prix (Even most of the free-to-air Grands Prix) decreases because winning the big-name events like Monaco and Silverstone are seen as more important than winning the championship? Such a shift would take us back to the pre-fifties era of rand Prix racing, before the inception of the World Drivers’ Championship.

It’s a big if, but do we really want to go back there?

So there’s just a few points of interest from the Sky Sports/BBC Sport Joint F1 Broadcast deal. The crazy thing is, this is such uncharted territory, we have little to no way of knowing what the potential ramifications are. It could affect things we’ve not even considered.

WORLD CHAMPION

I always knew he could do it. Through all the years of uncompetitive cars, and with so many people calling it into question, I always knew, deep down, Jenson Button was born to win the Formula One World Drivers’ Championship. And so I stuck stubbornly to supporting him, even as the rest of the world seemed to write him off as a has-been.

And finally, for those of us who dared to believe, for Jenson himself, for Brawn GP (The finest team ever to field an F1 Car), for their friends and their families…It all came good. This past Sunday, Jenson stormed from 14th on the grid to a 5th place finish, clinching the 2009 Formula 1 World Champion.

Simultaneously, Jenson’s Brawn GP Team sealed the World Constructor’s Championship when Red Bull failed to score the 1-2 finish they would have needed (And that would have required Jenson and Rubens to not score – both men did).

I can’t adequately describe the enormity of the difference in my emotions from Saturday night to Sunday night. Saturday, after JB was given junk tyre pressures and went out in Qualifying 2, down at 14th on the grid, with Rubens on Pole…I was distraught. It seemed, through poor luck, JB might yet be denied the title he so deserved. Sure, Abu Dhabi was there as a safety net, but like Jenson himself, the newfound enormity of that task hit me and hit me hard.

It was so bad, I had to take part in a Halo 3 Giant Bomb Community Game Night (AKA a Bombing Run) to cheer myself up enough to sleep.

Once I got up on Sunday, I resolved myself to a positive outlook – again, like Jenson himself. I knew JB had overcome hurdles this size before and gotten decent results, I knew he’s the fastest man in racing trim and I knew he was the master overtaker.

And so it proved, and it led to me being as elated that night as I was inconsolable the previous one. It was magical, and it capped off the best week of my life – no work, 18th birthday (Hence booze amongst all the other great stuff), MacBook Pro and my driver, my team taking the World Titles.

But of course things ain’t over yet. After 4 days of school this week, I have a half day of Work Saturday, then I have the Green Day Concert in the evening. And then on Sunday it’s off to Paris – which means Disneyland on Monday and Friday.

October 2009 is the greatest month of my life.

The Month Of My Life

And so begins the month of October. Always one of my favourites – not least because my birthday happens to fall in it. There are other reasons though! I AM complex. I AM. I also enjoy the weather (It’s cool, but not yet cold), the ambience (Autumnal and airy, very relaxing). It also contains Halloween – which is always good for a laugh, candy.

So at the best of times, I think October makes all other months (Except December) its bitches. And December is at the very best October’s subordinate…Okay, it’s right-hand man. But I digress. The point is, October 2009 is even better than most Octobers. I will go so far as to predict it will be the best month of my life to date.

But naturally, you are sceptical and require me to furnish you with details. Very well! First, I get paid twice this month. Once on the 2nd, and then again on the 30th. That means I make lots moolah this month, guaranteed.

Second, I’m only working 1 and a half days this month – the 3rd and half of the 24th. Time away from work is how we as humans simultaneously stick it to the man and uncaringly kick it. As an aficionado of both sticking it to the man and kicking it, I love that.

Then, obviously, there is my Birthday. I know I mentioned that earlier, but this is my 18th birthday. That means booze and an ability to look down on people as children without the irritating sense of empathy.

There’s also a strong chance that my hero Jenson Button and my F1 Dream Team (Brawn GP) can wrap up the F1 WDC and WCC this month. Both could go to the very start of November, but I sure hope not. I’m torn between wanting JB to nab the Title at Suzuka on Sunday or Interlagos on the 18th.

On the one hand, the sooner the better. On the other hand, the 18th is a mere 5 days from my birthday, meaning it’d be sort of like a present for me! Either is pretty awesome for me though, so I’m not too fussed.

The crazy part is, that’s not even close to all.

On the 24th, after my half day at work, me and a mate are heading down to The O2 in London to see my favourite band, Green Day, live in Concert. And as we’re both 18, we can also drink alcohol whilst there. Alcohol and punk rock…I’m living the dream.

As if THAT weren’t enough to make this the best month in the history of months (Which i suppose means ever), the next day me and the folks are off to Paris.

Paris, France. France the European Country! Now Paris is pretty awesome on its own, seeing as it’s one of the world’s great cities. But it also happens to mean I finally get to go back to Europe’s largest Tourist attraction…

I’m going back to a Disney Park! Now if you think that doesn’t clearly top it off as the greatest month in the history of like ever for me, you’re either crazy or you don’t know me.

On a side note, I want my UCAS Application done this month. Wish me luck.

The Wheels Are Off

So as you probably guessed from my internet pseudonym and the prevalence of Formula One merchandise in my room, I am a massive Formula One fan and a Jenson Button supporter. I’m also not one to take people screwing with things I like lying down.

And now, Formula One is headed in a dark direction and I’m not sure if I can follow it. North America is out. France is out. United Kingdom is (All but) out – no way can they finish the new circuit in time, it’s a decoy. Bernie has lost it. Mad Max has gotten madder.

Bernie has decided that rather than a sensible solution to the devalued win (Such as replacing the 10,8,6,5,4,3,2,1 system with 12,8,6,5,4,3,2,1), he wants to replace the points system entirely. With medals. For the podium only. Whoever wins the most races is crowned campion. God help us.

Bernie has developed a “win is all” mentality. A lot of us in F1 like to see the lower down teams hitting the points once in a while. They have very little chance of earning a medal! It’s not all about who’s at the front, it’s about the whole field.

Mad Max, meanwhile, has decided A1GP is a better sport than F1 (In fact, it is a rubbish sport) and so is attempting to standardise engines, wings, anything he can think of. I think at some point he’ll try and standardise drivers. Standardised parts are not Formula One. They are the mark of a second-class Formula.

And yet, the sport marches on along this path. It’s not what the fans want. But the fans now seem irrelevant. I mean, look at the prices of tickets to see a race! They’re unbelievable, especially considering the terrible seats and poor views (Most seats can’t even see a screen to follow the races on).

And so as LG ink a global partner deal and BBC finally wrest the rights back from ITV, Formula One is on the precipice of doom. I don’t like where this is going. Not one bit. The manufacturers are already threatening to quit over the standard engines rule. Honda and Formula One’s bread and butter, Ferrari, are particularly opposed to the idea.

And who can blame them. The manufacturers are in it to show off their prowess as car makers. If they’re not making the cars, then what, exactly, is the point? Max and his lot have spent too long fretting about the fate of the independent teams. They are failing to see that their attempts to help those teams are hurting the majority of the teams, the manufacturers. And losing them wold be a far larger blow.

Independents can be bought by Multi-Nationals like Red Bull looking for an advertising vehicle (No pun intended) with global appeal. Manufacturers pulling out en-masse would leave far too many teams looking for buyers. Ferrari wouldn’t even sell their team, so even if all others found a buyer, the grid would be piddling.

And not all the teams would get bought. There aren’t 5 multinationals looking to do a Red Bull. 2, maybe. Honda and the Mercedes-owned part of McLaren would be the hardest to offload.

And it looks like Honda, mindful of this, might be getting out first, leaving the other 4 manufacturers to trip over each other in a desperate bid to find buyers. But there are no guarantees. The teams may simply fold, or else become tiny independents.

Formula One is being destroyed by out of touch old businessmen and lawyers with no interest in sport. They are making changes without giving even a thought to the consequences and the sport is only going to suffer for it.