It was announced on September 7th that Liberty Media have agreed to acquire the Formula One Group, a move which could have ramifications in the months and years ahead. The agreement needs to be go through numerous hurdles, and there is a chance that the deal could fall through at any of those stages.
In the short-term, there is unlikely to be an immediate change. However, there will be areas that Liberty Media may try to put their footprint on going forward, such as social media and content distribution.
Although it does not face an acquisition, MotoGP itself has issues to contend with going forward. Whilst the motor cycling series has equalised the championship somewhat with a series of technical measures to make it a more exciting show for the fans, there are obstacles that lie ahead.
Social media remains an area for MotoGP to exploit further. And, MotoGP has to ask the question: how does it replace Valentino Rossi? Can it replace Rossi without suffering decline?
The calendar and race weekend format
From the outset, I think it needs to be established that any move Liberty Media makes with relation to Formula 1 should cater to the fan of tomorrow and not necessarily the fan of today and yesterday. Does Liberty Media want to please the fifty-year-old who has been watching Formula 1 for thirty years, or do they want to please the twenty-year-old who has only just started watching the sport? Arguably, their decision-making should be tailored towards the latter group of people, and that should be the case for all motor sport series.
Yes, that may upset some of the veteran fans the sport, but it is fundamental that Liberty tries to sustain Formula 1 for the next generation moving forward. It is why I expect the format of the race weekend to be one of Liberty Media’s first points of enquiry. The traditionalist fan likes the 90 to 120 minute races. But would two x 45 minute races or some other variation generate a larger audience for the sport, or a more diverse audience?
If there was interest in doing that, broadcasters would benefit as a result: Sky for example would be able to maximise air-time out of two x 45 minute races than one x 90-minute race. You could also flexibly schedule, for example, racing at 17:00 during the European season when sunset is not until 21:00.
What I don’t think should happen, and something I’m firmly against, is expanding the calendar to 25 race weekends, something that applies to both Formula 1 and MotoGP, but is mooted in Liberty Media’s F1 presentation. If it did get to that stage, I think I would pick and choose which races I watch as opposed to watch all 25. I also think that, with 25 races, the audience actually becomes more dispersed. Picking and choosing what you watch would not open the sport to a larger audience.
Liberty Media need to be clever about the scheduling and not turn F1 into something that becomes over-exposed. 21 races push it to the boundary already and I fear 25 races would send it over the edge, and that is even without considering everyone associated with the F1 paddock that is on the road for those races. MotoGP have currently got it right: I’m left feeling that I want more with 18 races and wanting less than 21 races with F1 – although the state of the respective championships tells the story.
Aside from Formula 1, I wonder what Liberty Media may want to do with GP2 or GP3. Although GP2 and GP3 are miniscule in the grand scheme of things, the relationship between the feeder series’ and the main series’ is significantly different with F1 compared to MotoGP. Should GP2 and GP3 be integrated more into the main package in the same way Moto2 and Moto3 are with MotoGP, thus increasing the reach of GP2 and GP3 and benefiting F1 in the longer run? Should Liberty Media start from the ground upwards as opposed to ‘changing’ F1 straight away?
These are questions I anticipate Liberty Media will ask, there’s no right or wrong answer. I can foresee a full review of the race weekend being conducted, although the racing on track is only as good as the design of the car itself. A poorly designed car not suited to overtaking means that the racing will be boring as a result unless you bring gimmicks into the show.
Social media and television rights
One of MotoGP’s biggest strengths over Formula 1 by some margin is social media, thanks to the rights holder working with the teams in order to generate the best result for the championship.
Even better for us is the past two years have seen a fundamental change in how [Dorna] interact with the teams via social media. In the past it has very much been standalone. MotoGP and social media, it’s to promote the championship, it’s to promote MotoGP. The teams had been left to themselves, we don’t have that audience at all. Even the biggest team here does not have the audience that the championship has across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Now, they couldn’t help us anymore than they are. – In conversation with Ian Wheeler (part 1)
MotoGP is several years ahead of Formula 1 where social media is concerned, something that Liberty Media should recognise. Social media was previously a ‘dirty’ word for both Formula 1 and MotoGP, but the latter adopted earlier. Formula 1 has been hindered by previous reluctance of those higher in the chain to exploit social media. I’ve spoken before about what Formula 1 needs to do in the new media space: short-form present day relevant video (see below for more on this point), genuine synergy between on-screen and social media and the creation of an over-the-top network, similar to the WWE Network or, a bit closer to home, the MotoGP Video Pass.
The Liberty Media purchase makes an over-the-top network more likely in my opinion. Their presentation to investors makes reference to opportunities including “enhancing distribution of content, especially in digital” and to monetise the digital space where possible. Again, this will not be an overnight shift but one over the next year or two. The problem for Liberty is that the world around us is moving at a fast pace: Formula 1 is already behind the curve. F1’s job is not to implement the trend of today or yesterday, but to look at the trends that are starting to emerge.
Dorna held a social media workshop for MotoGP’s teams, which included representatives from Google, Facebook and Twitter. Liberty Media should strongly consider doing the same for Formula 1 if Formula One Management (FOM) have not already. Evidently Dorna’s workshop has helped MotoGP significantly in the past two years to move onto the right track.
Hand-in-hand with social media goes the television rights of today and tomorrow. Should Formula 1’s television rights be less restrictive, meaning that FOM can post more video content during each race weekend? Arguably, yes. This works to the advantage of MotoGP which posts a race incident, in turn going viral to the benefit of all who work within the championship. #SepangClash is the incident I always mention, 15 million views on Facebook is simply an amazing example of something on track going viral. Formula 1 has missed so many golden opportunities to go ‘viral’ this season, thanks to the restrictive television deals in place with the likes of Sky Sports.
To start with here, the idea that Liberty Media is going to rip up any contract in place now or scheduled to begin in the future is nonsense. But, there does need to be a way to allow Formula 1 to flourish on social media with new, innovative and informative content, yet get the big bucks from pay-TV, whilst also keeping the sport accessible to the widest possible audience. It is a fine balance to try to achieve. MotoGP appears to have the social media element built into its television contracts (saying that Dorna is free to exploit MotoGP in video form for X minutes of content on social media), whereas FOM doesn’t have this built into contracts.
Should Formula 1 and Liberty Media take a (slight) financial hit by reducing pay-TV income, thus loosening up on their social media as a result? I think so, but it is not a simple yes or no answer.
Creating global superstars
The ambition of both Formula 1 and MotoGP is to reach as many viewers as possible. Each series has drivers or riders. But beyond them, there are stars that transcend motor sport: Lewis Hamilton, Valentino Rossi, Fernando Alonso and Marc Marquez to name just a few and there are many countless names that have previously done that. A good percentage of viewers watch Formula 1 and MotoGP for the household, blockbuster figures. The ‘Bolt’ of the field. But, what happens when one of those names disappears?
Valentino Rossi has been a house hold name for MotoGP fans for two decades. Soon, his time on the racing circuit will come to end, but MotoGP will continue. Rossi’s reach in MotoGP is comparable to the likes of Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher in Formula 1. What will happen to MotoGP when Rossi retires?
There’s lots and lots of talent [coming through the MotoGP ranks], the problem is: how do you replace an icon like Valentino Rossi? The honest answer is you don’t. What you have to do is mitigate the effect. So what you want when he goes is a stable, attractive product in place which will retain some of the existing fan base. The idea is people come and see Valentino Rossi, but they stay because they find MotoGP an interesting and exciting sport. – In conversation with David Emmett
In my opinion, an opinion shared by leading paddock voices, is that MotoGP will suffer a short-term dip. But, thanks to the moves Dorna have made in the past few years technically, they are in a much better position to keep their current audience. Can MotoGP have another global superstar like Valentino Rossi? In the next five to ten years it is highly unlikely, but you never know what is around the corner.
Max Verstappen could become Formula 1’s next superstar. Whilst is in everyone’s interests to create a global superstar, as it boosts the sport as a whole in every metric possible, what isn’t in everyone’s interest is to try to force the next superstar onto us. The emergence of Max Verstappen should happen naturally over the next few years, but there is a worry that the bubble could burst before it has started, thanks to the early hype surrounding his Spanish Grand Prix victory and everything following that. Trying to replicate an aura from someone beforehand is dooming to fail.
Overall, although Formula 1 is significantly bigger, MotoGP feels more confident about the direction it is going in thanks to moves made across the board in recent years to increase the competition on the track, whilst increasing pay-TV revenue, yet keeping the sport open via social media. It will be fascinating to see what effect Liberty Media has, if any, on the state of the Formula 1 circus.