Cornering the market

Spacesuit-Media-Shivraj-Gohil-Formula-E-Donington-Park-August-2016.

If you thought 2016 was seismic for world events, it threw up something of a tsunami in the world of motorsport, too.

Motorsport has always been a pretty intimate community. It’s now closer than ever before, thanks to a recent series of breathtaking moves which would leave the best racing drivers shaking their heads in wonder…and in the dust. At its heart, the story is something akin to the best game of Monopoly ever played. 

The headlines are as follows.

In January 2016, marketeer and racer Zak Brown becomes non-exec chair at motorsport.com. 

Fast forward to September, and news breaks that Liberty Media is buying F1. (If the Liberty name seems familiar, that’s because it’s closely related to Liberty Global which, together with Discovery Communications, owns the largest individual chunk of Formula E. The companies are all connected by tycoon John Malone. Interestingly, Liberty Global is a shareholder in TV channel ITV, which carried Formula E for its first two seasons.)

September also brings us word that Formula E’s battery tender has been won by McLaren’s technology arm. All race batteries from season five will be supplied by the British engineering group.

Then, in October, media group Motorsport Network buys a whole raft of brands from publishing house Haymarket, including venerable and revered motorsport title Autosport, photographic agency LAT and international magazine F1 Racing. Motorsport Network already owns motor racing website motorsport.com which has been busy setting up different language versions all over the world; the acquisition creates a “super group” of racing media.

McLaren then hires Zak Brown to head up its technology division, to give us something to talk about in November. (He retains his Motorsport Network position.)

The tidal wave hadn’t quite finished, however.

In early January, two more news headlines land. First, that the Motorsport Network is buying a stake in Formula E (later confirmed at motorsport.com and Autosport). And second, that Mr Ecclestone, the man who ruled F1 in a no-nonsense, vicelike grip for four decades, has been pushed out by Liberty.

Have you got your head around all those connections? Formula E and F1 effectively now share a single owner in John Malone, through his various companies. Formula E is also now part-owned by the parent company of the two most-known international motorsport media outlets. The chap who is chair (albeit non-exec) of those two titles is now running the company which will supply all of Formula E’s race batteries. Cosy. 

There’s more to come. A report in Sports Business Global says: As a result of its newly acquired equity stake in the series, Motorsport Network will “ramp up” its Formula E efforts across its media portfolio, Brown said. “With Formula E, content is king,” he said. “It’s very innovative and digital savvy, and that’s obviously the space we are in. We thought investing in it would give us the ability to bring some unique, proprietary content to the fans over time.” Motorsport Network could also be interested in securing Formula E broadcast rights. The company is currently building its OTT platform Motorsport.tv. “[Formula E has] got some existing agreements in place, so we need to navigate through those,” Brown said. “But, over time, absolutely you’ll see us get more involved with broadcast, not only Formula E but other motor racing properties as well.

What does all of this mean for Formula E and for sports journalism in motor racing? Like colonialism, it rather depends upon your point of view.

Autosport and motorsport.com have been among only a handful of journals to send writers consistently to Formula E races, which they have both done since partway through the first season. (Current E beat them to it, as we’ve had a team at every single championship round since the very first race, back in 2014.*) In terms of coverage in those outlets, Formula E already does pretty well.

As a stakeholder, Motorsport Network will now benefit from any improvement in Formula E’s profile and earnings; in turn, Formula E, as a new sport, will benefit from any rise in profile (more visibility makes sponsors happy and gets the ticket money rolling in).

The media team at Formula E (led by a former Autosport editor-in-chief) is small and has been tasked with producing a huge amount of content with few resources to hand. They’ve done an admirable job. With this new shareholder, we could expect to see a lot more content coming up through motorsport.com and Autosport, which is good for Formula E fans. With the mass-media motorsport broadcast reach effectively sewn up with those two outlets used as a sort of outsourced content machine, the Formula E media team can refocus on other avenues, to reach outside the motorsport world to a much wide target audience of techies, gamers and sports fans. This will help Formula E grow much faster than it may otherwise have done.

Then there is the prospect of some sort of closer collaboration between F1 and Formula E. Two or three years ago, this would have seemed fanciful. Now, it seems sensible. Regardless of the difference in front ends of each sport, the back end of both could be better serviced by amalgamation. It’s not too far-fetched to see some sort of cross-platform selling when it comes to sponsorship deals, broadcast rights, advertising and so on. Even the more mundane operations, such as security, ticketing, merchandise manufacturing and booking of hotel rooms and plane tickets for staff could benefit from  a combined effort.  

When it comes to the aforementioned media titles, the combination of Brown, Malone and the Motorsport Network may help to further break down the snobbery that has been seen generally in F1 media’s attitude towards the new kid on the block; indeed, we many see more crossover in journalists at events for both series.

There is a downside to all these media moves, however.

The two giants of motorsport reporting are now indirect stakeholders in both McLaren and Formula E itself. The risk is that stories which don’t promote the sport or its teams, partners, suppliers and sponsors are squashed or are granted merely a few perfunctory lines. The risk is that long-respected motorsport publications simply become glitzy PR machines reprinting press releases and that independent outlets, unable to compete with the contacts list and sheer audience reach of the official media sources, are reduced to recycling sound bites or reporting stories to niche readerships.

Is it credible that top-down editorial bias could strike out or discourage any stories which don’t appropriately support the commercial aims of the sport and its battery supplier? On balance, with the connections presented here and the intentions outlined by Brown, the answer must be yes. 

Does it really matter? In the grand scheme of things, reporting on motor racing is not the same as reporting on political corruption, genocide, famine or breakthrough medical cures.

Yet, it’s worth asking what would have happened if the newspapers which cover cycling and athletics had been owned by those sports; would the truth about doping ever have emerged? Perhaps, but to what extent and to what extent would the issues have been analysed? Closer to home, what would happen if the Montagny drugs incident happened now, for example? The story got minimal mention in Autosport at the time, despite being historic, newsworthy and a golden opportunity to wade in with editorial opinion. Fast forward a couple of years, and what happens if McLaren becomes a racing team in Formula E, with its connections then to the sport’s owners and media networks? (Mind you, nobody ever said sport is always a level playing field. Just ask F1 teams about Ferrari’s additional payments.)

Formula E has been incredibly good with media access to date, welcoming all journos who would like to experience a race. Drivers are accessible and keen to talk, as are (generally speaking) the teams and technical staff. As the sport grows in stature and in reach, our hope is that many other independent journalists will join the Formula E trail, from a wide range of media sources from across the globe. We’ll see you in the media centre.

*Autosport contacted us to state that actually the publication did have a representative at every Formula E race in the first season, although this was not necessarily the same correspondent at each event. 

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