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Teams see good and bad in UK TV deal

30 July 2011

The UK's contentious new television deal to cover F1 from 2012 may have raised hackles among fans, but opinion appeared to be split between team bosses when they were questioned as part of Friday's proceedings in Hungary.

News broke early on the opening day of the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend that current broadcaster BBC would only be showing half of the race next season, with subscription channel Sky Sports getting the rights to show the entire season in a move apparently in contradiction to Bernie Ecclestone's recent assertion that the sport would be kept 'free to air'.

Although the BBC will continue to show highlights of races that it does not broadcast live, fans have, understandably, reacted with vitriol, with many insisting that they would turn their backs on the sport rather than fork out for the right to watch it on a satellite channel - especially one owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corporation organisation remains under a cloud following recent 'phone hacking revelations in the UK.

Team bosses, however, have shown a more lenient approach to the news, with some understanding the need to embrace alternative media while others insist that they will be studying the deal closely to determine whether it is entirely legal amid concerns that sponsors could be turn off by the loss of 100 per cent 'free to air' coverage.

"Like most people, we found out about it this morning, [and] I think it is going to be interesting to see how it unravels," Marussia Virgin's Graeme Lowdon commented, "There are different sides to this. I have read that Sky has said it is good news for fans and [that] there will be an unparalleled experience for them - and that sounds very exciting. To be perfectly honest, I think it is up to the fans whether they think it is good news or not, and that is something that remains to be seen.

"For a team like us, we actually get very little of our revenue from TV rights, and it is very, very important for our entire commercial strategy that we maximise the global fan base and the number of people who watch our team in action, so obviously there are concerns there. But, equally, we are entering a new era potentially for a commercial model for F1 as well.

"I agree completely that the fans are the most important aspect as, ultimately, it's a very, very important part of the cycle of the commercial side of the sport that we are in. I am a great believer that the fans will tell us what they think and I think it is very difficult for us to speak on behalf of fans, that's for sure. Time will tell whether it is good for the fans or not and I am absolutely certain, especially in this day and age, that the fans will make their view pretty clear."

McLaren's Jonathan Neale, meanwhile, admitted that the impact of the BBC coverage had been beneficial for the sport, especially in the UK, and that the fans had a right to be 'up in arms' over the deal to sell the rights to Sky, even if the BBC could not afford to maintain its current level of involvement.

"I think the views and needs of the fans are of prime importance to F1," Neale insisted, "It has been very pleasing during the course of this year that the exciting racing that we have had has been matched by a growth in the audiences throughout the UK and across the globe. Some of that, certainly, is that the BBC has done a fantastic job in promoting that.

"[However], I think we would welcome interest from other forms of media. The devil, of course, is in the detail. [I'm] mindful that there is a lot of heat in the air about that at the moment, but we just don't know the detail so it would be improper to comment beyond that. But what the fans need and want - and a mass audience - is something we need to pay attention to.

"I am not sufficiently aware of the detail of quite how [it] is going to operate. What I can say is that, if you look at the last two or three years, then F1, whether through the teams' association, or through the FIA, has taken a number of steps to try and keep the racing exciting and grow that audience. I think everything from the fans' forum to the amount of digital content that we are now pushing out into the networks says that we are extremely interested in what the fans are doing. They are the backbone of the global reach that we have and we do listen to them, so I disagree with your first assertion that it is just riding roughshod over that, but I can understand some of the concerns when the detail isn't there."

Renault team boss Eric Boullier, however, claimed that the deal could only be good for the sport.

"With the latest I have been told about this deal, I think it is rather good news," the UK-based Frenchman suggested, "It should be positively welcomed by the fans, even if they have not been maybe calling into a forum to discuss the idea. My understanding is there will be more TV viewers, there will be more access to F1 and F1 will broadcast much more through two different channels that are BBC, on free-to-air, and Sky, so with the latest info I have got it is a good deal, as it is good for F1 and it is definitely much better for fans."

While Sky had expressed an interest in taking up ownership of the sport through News Corp, Ecclestone always insisted that he would not entertain offers from a group that would, potentially, remove the 'free to air' option from television viewers. However, the sport's ringmaster appears to have has given in under the weight of the problems facing the BBC and added the UK to both Germany and Italy in allowing Sky to have the rights to cover F1 live.

Amid concerns that the latest decision could be replicated in other countries, the question of potentially alienating sponsors was raised during Friday's FIA Q&A session, with Lowdon admitting that the sport may have to adapt its current practices.

"The model has to reflect the commercial model of the sport, there can't be a disconnect in the commercial model, it's really quite clear," he noted, "Everything in F1 changes, everything moves forward, so I imagine that the commercial model will as well.

"It's vitally important that the requirements of the fans are reflected in that and I would anticipate that, if there were this kind of move on a global scale instead of one specific market, then the overall model would have to change for the teams, not just to be profitable but to be sustainable and obviously the sustainability of F1 is very important. It's a sport with great tradition and it has a fabulous future and it's important that that future plays out."

Boullier admitted that losing 'free to air' coverage would be detrimental to doing business with sponsors, but insisted that this was not his understanding of the latest deal.

"Based on this business model today, which is only 'free to air', we can obviously sell to the sponsors the great access to fans and TV viewers," he conceded, "If you start to reduce the 'free to air' broadcasting, you obviously have to change the business model and it will affect the sustainability of the sponsorship. In the case of this deal, I think we need to wait to have more details, because my understanding is that it will still be 'free to air' and that there will be better access to F1 for the fans which will, in the end, be much better.

"The added value is that Sky will broadcast much more information and show any reports and that's extra information that we will share with the public and with the fans."

Concerns that the latest deal may contravene the Concorde Agreement are being allayed by claims that the BBC's highlights package allows it to circumvent the need to provide 'free to air' coverage of all races.

"I am sure it has been closely scrutinised and will be the subject of much debate," was Neale's take on the situation, while Lowdon insisted that Ecclestone was unlikely to have done anything to go against an agreement he knows inside out.

Ecclestone, however, has suggested that there may soon by no Concorde Agreement to abide by.

"I shouldn't worry too much about the Concorde Agreement," he told a small group of reporters, including Reuters in Budapest, "We might not have another one...."


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