How Ec­cle­stone saved F1

. . . and made ev­ery­one hate him in the process

Lesotho Times - - Sport -

LON­DON — While it’s highly tempt­ing to say “good rid­dance” to For­mula One’s in­fa­mous loose can­non au­to­crat-gnome Bernie Ec­cle­stone, we prob­a­bly wouldn’t be ar­gu­ing about F1 at all had he not been there. Ec­cle­stone was in­stru­men­tal in sav­ing the sport in the 1970s and mak­ing it the in­ter­na­tional busi­ness pow­er­house it is in the process — no mat­ter who he burned along the way, in­clud­ing the fans.

Ec­cle­stone started as a For­mula One team owner and driver, hav­ing first ac­quired two F1 cars in 1957.

How­ever, it was his lead­er­ship of the For­mula One Con­struc­tors’ As­so­ci­a­tion, or FOCA for short, that led to Ec­cle­stone’s con­trol of the sport as we’ve known it for years.

Ec­cle­stone bought the Brab­ham F1 team in 1971 for $125,037 af­ter a dis­mal sea­son for the team, per ESPN. From there, he be­came in­volved in FOCA. FOCA, which was led by the team prin­ci­pals of non-man­u­fac­turer teams Brab­ham, Lo­tus, March, Mclaren, Wil­liams and Tyrrell, even­tu­ally let Ec­cle­stone start ne­go­ti­at­ing broad­cast rights for the sport, ac­cord­ing to the BBC.

Ec­cle­stone pi­o­neered the prac­tice of sell­ing the rights to en­tire sport of For­mula One to a broad­caster, rather than in­di­vid­ual races.

This put F1 on tele­vi­sion sets across the globe, el­e­vat­ing it from a fad­ing rich-dude pas­time to an in­ter­na­tional phe­nom­e­non. Races were eas­ier to find when they were rou­tinely on the same chan­nel, and the sport blew up ac­cord­ingly.

Over time, power con­sol­i­dated more and more into Ec­cle­stone’s hands, per the BBC. In the mid-1990s, Ec­cle­stone’s com­pany took over the rights to For­mula One from FOCA — just as Lib­erty Me­dia is do­ing now from its cur­rent suite of own­ers.

In 2000, Ec­cle­stone’s com­pany pur­chased the com­mer­cial rights to For­mula One through the year 2110 for a mere $360 mil­lion. (I say “mere” as the BBC notes that the sport’s global rev­enue to­taled $1.5 bil­lion in 2011 alone.)

For bet­ter or for worse, Ec­cle­stone’s sys­tem of ne­go­ti­at­ing broad­cast rights lives on to­day. Ec­cle­stone’s keen po­lit­i­cal ma­neu­ver­ing as head of FOCA led to the teams re­ceiv­ing an an­nual cut of the broad­cast rev­enue, which they re­ceive in ex­change for let­ting Bernie ne­go­ti­ate broad­cast deals on their be­half.

How­ever, Ec­cle­stone’s ten­dency to guard For­mula One’s sta­tus quo at the top of in­ter­na­tional mo­tor­sport fre­quently won him en­e­mies out of rac­ing fans who may have oth­er­wise en­joyed F1.

His keen pol­i­tick­ing to keep F1 on top has been blamed for ev­ery­thing from the demise of Group C sports car rac­ing to the ru­inous spin-off of the Indy Rac­ing League from CART.

Plus, Ec­cle­stone’s ca­reer was filled with con­tro­versy away from the track. He never seemed to pass up an op­por­tu­nity to den­i­grate women, or to bring up his dis­dain for democ­racy, or to pal around with his au­to­crat buddy Vladimir Putin. He once praised Hitler as some­one who was “able to get things done,” with­out giv­ing a sec­ond thought to what those things ac­tu­ally were.

He never seemed to care much for where races were held or the fans’ ex­pe­ri­ence, so long as the money kept pour­ing in. He be­came syn­ony­mous with the sport it­self, and that in­cluded its fail­ures as well as its suc­cesses.

More re­cently, a pe­cu­liar bribery scan­dal sur­rounded the sale of a 47.2 per­cent stake in F1 to Ec­cle­stone’s CVC Part­ners, how­ever, Bernie was able to pay his way out of trou­ble thanks to a loop­hole in Ger­man law.

Bernie kept his power and F1 largely as it has been, how­ever, he looked like more of a comic vil­lain than ever be­fore.

It’s be­come in­creas­ingly clear that Ec­cle­stone’s broad­cast deals have be­come out of date, and his at­ti­tudes too old-fash­ioned, con­tro­ver­sial and can­tan­ker­ous to be a cred­i­ble head of an in­ter­na­tional rac­ing jug­ger­naut any­more.

For­mula One is left with much the same is­sue of rel­e­vance and ac­ces­si­bil­ity to fans it had when Bernie rose to power in the 1970s.

Fans no longer solely watch sports through tele­vi­sion; they also want to con­sume rac­ing con­tent through on­line streams, apps like Twit­ter and Snapchat, and all man­ner of re­lated dig­i­tal con­tent.

Many also de­sire to see more cross-overs be­tween se­ries, the likes of which can’t hap­pen when, for ex­am­ple, For­mula One guard­edly books a race right over the end of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

New F1 own­ers Lib­erty Me­dia have placed im­prov­ing For­mula One’s dig­i­tal pres­ence at the fore­front of their plans for the sport. What they’ll need is a group of mod­ern-day Ec­cle­stones — ones more in tune with what fans want to­day — who are as vo­ra­cious in see­ing F1 rise in promi­nence as Bernie was in the 1970s and ‘80s. — Jalop­nik

BERNIE Ec­cle­stone (left) chats with Bri­tish driver Lewis Hamil­ton at the 2015 Bahrain Grand Prix.

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