Formula One needs a leader, not a dictator, says new boss
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Chase Carey, the Formula One Group chief executive, enjoyed a remarkable 2018, even by the heady standards of his stellar media career.
The 65-year-old was on the board of satellite TV group Sky throughout the takeover battle between Comcast and Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox. At the same time, his role as Fox vice-chairman immersed him in the media group’s protracted takeover by Disney.
Recruited two years ago after Liberty Media’s $US4.6bn acquisition of F1 from private equity firm CVC Capital Partners, Carey replaced Bernie Ecclestone, the 88-year-old who ran Formula One for 40 years.
“I had known of Bernie but I don’t think I ever met him until I became engaged with Formula One at the end of 2016,” he says carefully.
The Irish-American admits that he “probably didn’t know Formula One in the world of sports” and most of the personalities he has dealt with since arriving.
Carey also found that F1 did not have what he regarded as a proper organisational structure.There was no marketing department, no digital operation and no research activity to provide data for decisions and long-term planning.
All Formula One’s sponsorship was handled by a single person.
“We found an organisation that had not been doing the things it needed to do and hadn’t had the capabilities it needed to really fulfil its potential,” he says.
“There were cultural issues. It’s a sport that was very much driven by short-term deals. There was no long-term plan.”
Under Carey, Formula One has built core operations spanning sponsorships, promotions, television, marketing, digital and communications at offices in London’s St James’s Market development.
The London workforce has doubled from about 75, while F1 also has about 300 people based at Biggin Hill in Kent, mostly involved in producing television feeds of F1 races that it sells to broadcasters.
Ecclestone is now in the honorary position of F1‘s emeritus chairman but the two men have very different styles.
“The day we announced the deal, Bernie and I got stuck on a kerb with a broadcaster and had a debate,” Carey recalls.
“Bernie was saying the sport needed a dictator. I said the sport needs a leader.
“Bernie’s a one-man show. He’s not used to dealing with an organisation and delegating responsibilities.
Former Formula One boss Bernie Eccleston
“Bernie is a brilliant deal-maker. I don’t know that he’s a business builder or a strategy guy. I’d never play poker with Bernie. He’s a very crafty, clever deal-maker but at some points businesses need to be more than deals.
“He didn’t believe in marketing, while digital was for 20-year-olds and he said he didn’t care about them because they don’t have money.
“He had great success. I don’t want to take that away. But in the last five to 10 years, Formula One wasn’t doing a lot of the things it needed to do to really achieve its potential.”
There’s now a long-term plan, based on four pillars: managing the sport on the track, making its Grand Prix events into spectacles, engaging with younger fans through technology and expanding its global footprint.
The first involves discussions about costs, revenues, aerodynamics, engines and regulations, including negotiating the next Concorde Agreement, which governs financial terms between the Formula One and its teams.
“We’re engaged on it,” says Carey. “One of the things I want to bring to Formula One is more of a shared vision and sense of partnership with the key players, particularly the teams. Formula One in the past had a bit of a divide and conquer mentality.”
The evolution of the races has also begun.
“We want to make the events like Super Bowls,” says Carey. “I’ve been to 25 Super Bowls and I thought last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix really felt like a Super Bowl. The race was at the centre but it had that breadth of activity, from the Thursday right through to the Sunday night.
“You want that energy and excitement and the event to really be like something where you feel like you’re at the centre of the universe.”
Carey wants F1 to be less exclusive and more open to younger audiences.
“One of the comments I heard early on was that Formula One had got too exclusive,” he says. “I also felt the sport said ‘no’ to too many things. There wasn’t openness to doing and trying new things."
Last year, fan festivals ran alongside Grand Prix in Italy, Britain and the US.
“We’re finding new ways to engage cities and countries,” says Carey. “In Italy, we had a Ferrari floating on the Grand Canal in Venice.”
Embracing technology means F1 using social media, apps, e-sports and “over-the-top” internet platforms, such as a deal with Netflix to produce a behind-the-scenes show and arrangements with Twitter and Snapchat.
As for global expansion, F1 plans to expand to “destination cities that capture the world’s imagination”.
Carey speaks longingly about opportunities for F1 in the US, conceding that it is a lot smaller there than Nascar and Indy Car Racing.
“Historically the US has two forms of motor racing,” he says. “But Nascar races in Tuscaloosa and places that are probably not on the tip of the tongue for the world, while we race in Singapore and Milan. The US market is one of the most underdeveloped. We’ve barely scratched the surface.”
Carey also sees potential for a second race in China, where an expanded digital and TV offering led to a jump in the audience for last year’s Shanghai Grand Prix.
A Vietnamese Grand Prix will begin in 2020 and there may be other changes.
“We have a pretty full calendar and most of our races are on fairly long contracts but there’s an opportunity to add a race or two.”
Formula One Group recorded a $40m operating loss in 2017 but Carey insists on a longer-term outlook.
“Our focus is where we are going to be in 2020, not three months from now,” he says.
Former Formula One driver Brendon Hartley during the Brazillian Grand Prix last year. Picture/ AP
Born in Ireland but educated in the US and speaking with a strong American accent, Carey’s business career took off after he joined the nascent Fox Broadcasting Company in 1988, just after it was bought by Murdoch’s News Corporation.
He progressed to chief operating officer, helping launch Fox Sports and Fox News, before becoming chief executive at satellite TV provider DirecTV after News Corp bought a 34pc controlling interest in its parent, Hughes Electronics.
News Corp sold its stake to Liberty Media in 2006 but Carey returned to News Corp three years later as president and chief operating officer.
In 2013 he became chief operating officer of 21st Century Fox, the legal successor to News Corp, moving up to executive co-chairman in 2015.
Carey says his old media world is clearly changing and he forecasts further consolidation, which he believes will further strengthen Formula One’s franchise.
“When you wrestle with how you compete with Amazon and Google... and then have competitors that are consolidating, like with AT&T and Time Warner, I think you either need scale or really unique assets,” he says.
“There are too many firms that have really neither today. It bodes well for something like Formula One because they’re all multi-hundred billion-dollar entities and they all want unique content.
“They can all keep throwing money at talent and producing more and more scripted series but you can’t produce more Formula Ones.”