After Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton infused life into the Formula 1 world championship with recent victories in Britain and Germany it seemed that last weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix would be one of the pivotal races of the season.
The race weekend at the Hungaroring was indeed one of the most important of the season. Unfortunately the action off-track stole the majority of the headlines with news breaking early Friday morning that Sky TV had reached an agreement with Formula One Management, the sports commercial rights holder, to show Formula 1 on its subscription based platform beginning at the start of next season.
The move saw the BBC lose their exclusive hold on the UK rights to the sport, by far and away the choice of most Irish fans as well, and the broadcaster will now show just ten races next season. The move was understandably met with a mass outcry from fans with many bemoaning the fact that in future it will be necessary to subscribe to Sky Sports to see Formula 1. An increasingly vocal sector of fans has said that they will not subscribe to the channel because of the cost involved and that this would lead to the end of casual fans following the sport.
It likely that viewing numbers will decrease in light of this decision but while fans remain the lifeblood of the sport money is still the heart that pumps this blood. This deal will see Sky pay substantial fees to broadcast the sport in the UK, Setanta Sports will continue to hold the Irish rights, with an increasing proportion of the TV revenue likely to be paid to the teams under the terms of the new Concorde Agreement due to be ratified in 18 months time.
Since the teams formed FOTA they have gained increasing power within the decision making processes of the sport and as long as their unity stays strong in the coming months they are sure to be in a strong negotiating position when they, the FIA and FOM finalise the new Concorde Agreement. As a result it is likely that they will see a windfall from this deal and in light of the question marks that have been hanging over the ability of the BBC to continue to broadcast Formula 1 it is clear that this deal was the only possible solution to Bernie Ecclestone finding a long term partner.
There was hope that another broadcaster, most notably Channel 4, would step into the void created if the BBC terminated their contract but this was never likely to proceed much further than exploratory talks. With the current market this is the best solution for all parties has been found. The BBC can satisfy licence payers by saying that they are drastically reducing their expenditure on Formula 1, easily the most expensive sport covered by the Corporation, while still having the cachet of being a broadcaster of one of the most popular sports in the world.
It is very easy to look at this deal and ask “what effect does this have on Irish fans?” but it has to be remembered just how much the BBC has revolutionised coverage of Formula 1 since regaining the rights prior to the start of the 2009 season. BBC saw fans given extensive access to the biggest players in the paddock with all the action shown throughout the weekend, it remains to be seen if Sky will continue to provide as much in-depth analysis of the sport in the future.
Supporters of the Sky deal can rightly speak of the huge leap forward in coverage and exposure of the Premier League following the intervention of Sky in the early nineties. Unfortunately there are few parallels between the Premiership and Formula 1 due to the fact that twenty years ago English league football was in dire straits with interest falling off in the top tier. As a result the time was right for a broadcaster to come in and offer to revolutionise the packaging of football.
Formula 1 is currently at the height of its popularity with audience figures growing annually and the sport currently in the midst of some of the most thrilling races in memory. With millions of new fans brought to the sport in recent years it is crucial that Formula 1 can maintain their support over the duration of the deal with Sky.
Whether these fans will be willing to pay for Formula 1 will remain to be seen until the end of next season but the fact that this deal has been made shows just how perilous the state of finances at the BBC has become. Even though Eccelstone has made numerous remarks to shock fans of the sport in recent year-championships decided by medals, sprinklers used during races to “spice up the show” being just two-there is no way that he would look to take Formula 1 off free-to-air television in its biggest market if there was another alternative.
Providing a watered down alternative was not an option for Formula 1. Fans now demand the very best with presentation now almost as important as the actual race. This point is perfectly illustrated by the coverage afforded MotoGP by the BBC. As sole rights holders in the UK to a sport that they can provide with minimum outlay they have outsourced production to a Northern Ireland company in an effort to cut costs. Other overhead costs have also been dramatically reduced and with this so has fans appetite to watch the race live; instead many watch it later in the day on tape delay from Eurosport.
If Formula 1 was to follow this lead on the BBC it is likely that many fans would be driven away from the sport and as a result it is clear that even though this is not a deal that was wanted by fans, it is the only decision that could be made for the long term future of the sport in the UK.