Liberty Media's $8.5bn takeover and what it means for F1


Formula One is on the verge of a multi-billion dollar takeover by John Malone's Liberty Group, with a two-stage $8.5 billion deal expected to get underway on Tuesday.

While Liberty and Malone have been linked with the purchase of an F1 stake -- controlling or otherwise -- since February 2014, on-going talks have reached a satisfactory conclusion, according to F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone.

Speaking to reporters in the Monza paddock, the 85-year-old F1 czar was confident that the sport's new owners would not affect his own position. "I will do what I have always done," Auto Motor und Sport quoted Ecclestone as saying. "What role I play is my decision."

In the immediate future, there is no reason to expect much change in direction for F1. But the paddock rumour mill suggests that any guarantees of Ecclestone's position remain in place for only the first tranche of the $8.5 billion handover; once the deal has been completed in full it is entirely possible that the man who turned Formula One into a billion-dollar business will find himself in a role more sinecure than senior.

So what does the future hold for Formula One under its new owners?

First and foremost, expect to see better marketing of F1 in the United States, home to Malone's businesses and fortune. As the owner of a multimedia group that includes cable services provision, internet access, and direct-to-consumer sales, Malone is in a unique position when it comes to exploiting his existing businesses to maximise the value of his latest investment.

And America is not the only market in which Malone's companies hold sway: Liberty Media may be headquartered in Colorado, but through sister company Liberty Global and a 29 per cent stake in Discovery Communications, Malone is also a key media influencer on an international level.

Historically, Malone's purchases have increased in value after his acquisitions; the American businessman has targeted businesses with unrealised potential and added value before off-loading his stake for a profit. But Malone is no short-term operator: in the early 1990s he spotted the opportunities in digital cable services, and over the course of the following decade his businesses expanded into content creation as well as service delivery.

While any $8.5 billion deal has to be seen as something of a gamble given the sums involved -- not forgetting that F1 has no guaranteed longevity beyond the 2020 expiry of the current round of Memoranda of Understanding that replaced the Concorde Agreement -- Malone would not be on the verge of doing the F1 deal had he not spotted opportunities for growth and profit within the sport.

Perhaps the most obvious area for expansion is that of general marketing and promotion. The Formula One Group lacks a centralised marketing department, and the bulk of event promotion is done by individual host circuits as they attempt to drum up ticket sales in an attempt to claw back the cost of hosting a race.

There is no centralised cohesive effort to ensure that Formula One remains in the public imagination long after the F1 circus has left town, and little is done to create public anticipation in the run-up. Where such promotional events do take place, it is largely at the behest of individual teams and sponsors: Shell held a Sebastian Vettel fan event before the German Grand Prix in Hockenheim, while Petronas traditionally make the Mercedes drivers sing for their suppers at the twin towers in downtown Kuala Lumpur.

If F1's new stakeholders want to get a return on their investment, they have to make the sport more profitable. The most obvious way to do so is to increase the size of the sport's fanbase, both those watching at home and those attending grands prix in person.

Bringing the sport back to terrestrial television is one way to improve the home audience, but as Malone is a man who made his millions off the back of the subscription TV explosion, it is unlikely that we will see the sport back on free-to-air channels at his behest. Instead it is in his interests to improve the general promotion of the sport so that those not currently interested in Formula One choose to pay their hard-earned cash to check it out, either in person or by subscribing to a service that airs it (preferably one owned by Malone, naturally).

In America there is a fine tradition of selling both sport and show as separate entities. Millions of people with little-to-no interest in American football will tune into the Super Bowl for the infamous half-time show. Even high school sports use the lure of cheerleaders to entice the uninterested into the bleachers.

This year the Circuit of the Americas provided a perfect example of using the show to boost the sport: COTA secured Taylor Swift's only concert of the year for their Saturday night post-qualifying entertainment, meaning that any tween within reach of Texas who wants to see her play live will need to fork out for a three-day race ticket whether or not they know what F1 is. It may not lead to packed grandstands once the tweens have left on Sunday, but the strong ticket sales have provided a boost to COTA's hopes of a long-term future.

Expect to see similar -- and centralised -- efforts to promote the sport when Liberty Media take over. Drivers will be expected to do their part to drum up interest, with high-profile TV appearances in target markets, showcar stunts straight out of the Red Bull Guide to Self-Promotion, and a calendar designed in such a way that it becomes physically and geographically possible to use the sport's stars to sell the spectacle.