Liberty takeover offers a longer-term vision for F1
By Alan Baldwin and Toby Sterling
LONDON (Reuters) - Liberty Media's takeover of Formula One promises a long-term strategy for the cash-rich sport with a sharper focus on new media markets and another attempt to expand in North America.
The deal, valued at $8 billion including debt, gives an American media and telecoms business effective control of a sport rather than the more customary situation of such companies paying up to buy rights to screen live events.
The deal was seen as positive for a sport featuring famous car brands such as Ferrari and Mercedes, as well as for buyer Liberty Media, owned by U.S. cable TV mogul John Malone.
However, changes will take time to feed through given that Formula One Chief Executive Bernie Ecclestone has negotiated lengthy TV contracts that will help to generate estimated revenues of $1.8 billion from 21 grand prix races this season.
Ecclestone, who transformed the sport's fortunes over the past four decades and turns 86 next month, will have a new chairman to work with in the shape of Chase Carey. Carey is executive vice-chairman of Rupert Murdoch's 21st Century Fox and a director of Formula One rights holder Sky .
Formula One teams and sponsors have long chafed at the lack of a marketing and digital strategy for the sport, with Ecclestone focusing on generating piles of cash for shareholders through television rights and race hosting fees.
"I can't really think of a better buyer," said motorsport marketing executive Zak Brown, the chief executive of CSM Sport&Entertainment.
"If you had to write down a list of who you would want to buy Formula One, Liberty would be top of that list," added the American, whose company is part of Chime Communications and represents many of Formula One's leading sponsors.
GEARING UP FOR EXPANSION
Brown saw Liberty's arrival as bringing longer-term vision that could see the sport embark on significant growth in areas such as the United States, and said sponsors were excited by the prospects of attracting a new and younger audience.
"They've sold it to strategic buyer as opposed to another financial buyer," he said.
"So they will be making decisions that are strategic-led, what's best for the growth of the sport and the fans and the sponsors."
Liberty Media has acquired an initial 18.7 percent stake from private equity firm CVC Capital Partners and plans to compete a cash and shares deal by the first quarter of 2017.
Malone has built his empire over more than 40 years of dealmaking in the cable and pay-TV industry, earning him the nickname the "Cable Cowboy".
His Liberty Global is the world's largest international TV and broadband company, operating in more than 30 countries in Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean.
Analyst Allan Nichols of Morning Star said the Formula One deal could help to strengthen Malone's American Charter cable business.
"He's looking at this as a way to helping distinguish his Charter in the U.S.," Nichols said, adding that Charter might seek to oust NBC as the rights holder with the contract coming up for renewal.
Other broadcasters enjoy the security of longer-term deals, with Sky in Britain having the British rights until 2024.
Another way to expand revenues would be to develop additional streams for fans in individual countries that focus, for instance, on the race from the point of view of a driver who is a hometown favorite.
Adding more races to an already crowded calendar -- this year's 21-race programme is a record -- would be another obvious way to enhance revenues if the schedule could accommodate it.
Montreal, the Texan city of Austin, and Mexico City are the three current venues in North America but an east and west coast city in the United States would be commercially attractive.
Formula One teams will be given the chance to invest in the sport after Liberty Media's takeover and the smaller ones are hoping the new owners will also help them become more competitive on the track.
Bob Fernley, deputy principal of the Force India team, hoped that would be the case: "We have a unique product in Formula One...now we can overlay on that an incredible sports marketing operation," he said. "It's a very, very exciting possibility."
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin; Editing by Keith Weir)