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New York merchant bank joins News Corp F1 bid
13 May 2011
It might have been dismissed practically out-of-hand by F1 commercial rights-holder Bernie Ecclestone, but News Corporation's purported interest in gaining control of the sport from current majority owners CVC Capital Partners has seemingly revved up another gear with the revelation that an American 'boutique merchant bank' has come on-board.
The grand prix paddock has been abuzz in recent weeks with talk that Rupert Murdoch's global media empire is evaluating making a bid to seize the F1 reins, and News Corp has confirmed the speculation – adding that a somewhat controversial partner in the consortium is Exor, an Italian financial holding majority-owned by the same Agnelli family as wields a controlling stake in FIAT and therefore, by extension, Ferrari. There have also been rumours about the possible involvement of TELMEX billionaire Carlos Slim.
The latest development, according to SPEED.com, is that the New York-based Raine Group LLC is interested in joining the potential buy-in. Co-founder and CEO Jeff Sine was previously associated with F1 sponsor UBS, and Sky News reports that he has made contact with News Corp and Exor regarding a possible investment. The Financial Times claims Raine – affiliated with similarly New York-based global sports and media company IMG – has $500 million available to spend on sports, media and entertainment acquisitions.
One of Raine's investors, intriguingly, is Abu Dhabi-based Mubadala, which owns a sizeable stake of Mercedes Grand Prix and has links to Ferrari – making it a powerful backer indeed. Amongst Raine's most prominent financiers include Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, former Facebook president Sean Parker, ex-Yahoo chief executive Terry Semel and Netscape founder Marc Andreesen. Erstwhile Goldman Sachs partner Joe Ravitch is also a key player, whilst several Hollywood stars have investments in the bank.
Leading representatives from F1 2011 front-runners Red Bull Racing, McLaren-Mercedes, Ferrari and Mercedes Grand Prix are all expected to meet with News Corp and Exor in Stuttgart tomorrow (Saturday) – but FIA President Jean Todt has admitted that he is somewhat bemused by the fact that the whole matter has been made so public and revealed that the governing body has the ability to veto any sale.
“The FIA is the regulator of the sport and is not involved with commercial matters,” the Frenchman underlined. “F1 commercial rights belong to CVC, and from what I know, CVC has no intention to sell. If it will be true in five years, ten years, honestly it's not a question for me, it's a question for CVC.
“If one day, CVC decide that they want to sell the rights they have for the commercial organisation of F1, as President of the FIA – if I am still by then the president – I need to speak with my people in the FIA to give the agreement whether we're happy with the people who will take over or we are not happy.
“I feel it's strange [for someone] to say 'we want to buy' before [they] know it's for sale. I think the first action would be for whoever is keen to take over the commercial rights to find out with CVC what is the situation. First, CVC must be willing to sell – and for the time being, CVC doesn't want to sell.”
As to Exor's Ferrari link, meanwhile, the Scuderia's former team principal was unequivocal – and in the wake of Ecclestone hitting out at teams for ostensibly being willing to entertain the prospect of new owners for F1, Todt stressed, simply, that 'we would all be stronger if we worked together instead of against each other'.
“Exor is the family company of the major shareholder of the FIAT Group,” he explained. “You have other examples in F1 where you have some organisers who are shareholders of some teams. For me, as President of the FIA, we would all be stronger if we worked together instead of against each other. It's a fact of life, and it's what I've been trying to do since I am head of the FIA.”
Meanwhile, sceptical ex-F1 team owner Eddie Jordan has echoed Ecclestone in casting doubt upon the sincerity of the News Corp/Exor bid, contending that the consortium would need to find some £7 billion to successfully complete a takeover – one of a whole series of obstacles.
Whilst acknowledging that the interest is 'complimentary to the sport', the Irishman pointed out that Formula One Management (FOM) chief executive Ecclestone has 'delivered to each and every one of the teams financial stability' – and as such, Murdoch would need to demonstrate that he could do the same since at the end of the day, 'F1 is fuelled by money'.
Another potential stumbling-block, opined the BBC F1 pundit, is the present stipulation under the terms of the governing Concorde Agreement and European law that the sport must be broadcast on free-to-air television, whereas News Corp-owned BskyB operates according to a pay-per-view model.
“Sky has got to put on the table where they think they can match the equivalent of the BBC, and at this moment in time, it's hard to see where that is,” Jordan told Jeff Randall Live, adding in an interview with the Beeb: “I feel this is just a little bit of posturing. I'm still concerned as to how it can become effectual. The EU has been promised by Bernie Ecclestone in the past, and in the Concorde Agreement, that everything on TV would be free-to-air.
“If News Corp can find a way around that, then possibly I'll take this more seriously. [Also] there is no Concorde Agreement after 2012. That needs to be negotiated, because you'd have to say [to] the future purchasers, what are they actually buying? What rights do they have?”