Liberty Media released its Q1 financial results on Wednesday and a shareholder conference call gave a fascinating - if well-publicised - look at how the organisation is assessing various revenue streams as it looks to shape the business over the next three years and beyond.
But the statements from Group CEO Greg Maffei and F1 CEO Chase Carey make it abundantly clear to fans of the sport that the Bernie Ecclestone era is completely over; maximising shareholder revenue are the first, second and third thoughts integral to any decision-making process.
WHAT DID LIBERTY'S Q1 RESULTS REVEAL?
Liberty's Formula 1 business is showing an increased operating loss year-on-year of 4%, despite an 8% increase in primary Formula 1 revenue (advertising, sponsorship, race promotion, and broadcast revenue) in that period, and a total increase of 18% overall, from $97m to $114m. The reason for the increase in loss is primarily down to head count, identified by central team expansion and creation of new offices in various territories as Liberty looks to establish a global footprint for the brand.
Net debt to OIBDA ratio is also down from 7.1x to 6.8x which, in layman's terms, means that the amount of debt Liberty has in relation to the operating income it generates has fallen over the period. The number is going in the right direction as far as Liberty is concerned.
WHAT WAS IN THE SHAREHOLDER CONFERENCE CALL?
The conference call for shareholders represented an ambience of control and a clear acknowledgement that the Formula 1 business, even at its most basic level, is not generating anywhere near the revenue it is believed to be possible.
Chase Carey went through, in broad detail, the multitude of investment opportunities that Liberty has in mind, most of which have been made public already:
- The desire to expand the calendar, starting with Miami in October 2019.
- Upgrading advertising technology to more actively engage with viewers on a local level.
- Reboot the F1 business in two key markets: USA and China.
- The OTT viewing product, F1 TV, which is going live ahead of the Spanish Grand Prix.
- Numerous new digital initiatives including the Twitter Live broadcast, improving its app service and partnering with Netflix.
- Improving the weekend experiences for racegoers, including full weekend fan events and merchandising capabilities.
- Expand into ESports and Fantasy to an even greater degree.
Liberty is not hanging around in terms of making up for the time lost under Ecclestone's reign, and is aggressively filling in the gaps with an, admittedly Americanised, approach to transforming the sport.
WHY IS LIBERTY MEDIA'S SHARE PRICE STILL DOWN?
Despite a number of sweeping proposals, Liberty's share price is lower than it was a year ago. There are many reasons for this.
- There remains scepticism over the ability to suitably convince investors that Liberty can complete its proposed changes in an effective manner.
- But this is because many of them have yet to be fully-formed and will take time to play out. In digital terms, Liberty is taking F1 from the dark ages and presenting it to a whole new world who could have been engaged 10 years ago.
- There are so many things planned and being pushed out quickly that it is unclear at this point how any of them will perform, despite most falling in line with what other sports have been evolving towards for some time.
If the changes are even moderately embraced by sponsors and fan base alike, the value of the company can only increase from this point.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN FOR THE FANS?
It really depends which type of Formula 1 fan you are. Traditionalists are about to see their sport completely transformed to an unrecognisable degree. Liberty is transparently taking clear beats from other American sports in terms of their activation of new concepts.
- The Fantasy element is driven by the gigantic numbers generated in the NFL via sites such as Draft Kings.
- The idea that the November-March calendar, the off-season, needs to be filled with an event of some kind is derived from the NFL's implementation of the Draft as an annual, marketable, TV spectacle.
- The OTT service has been pioneered by WWE, with its Network attracting 2.1 million subscribers, not only for live events but for a comprehensive and efficiently arranged back catalogue.
- Increasing the number of races quite obviously increases exposure and increases revenues. Basketball and baseball adhere to a more-is-more model when in-season.
- This is intrinsically linked to their growing relationship with Twitter and utilising live race clips, something that the NBA, Vine and Twitter did to devastating effect in order to grow the sport on social media.
- Limiting what teams can spend - something that has put Mercedes and Ferrari's noses out of joint - is a nod to the draft pick structure, which rewards the poorest teams with the most promising developing talent. Both these proposals level the playing field, keep the season competitive and keeps fans watching.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE NEGATIVES?
There is no escaping that some rule changes and ideals are controversial; issues such as the elimination of the Grid Girls has met fans' ire, while the calendar continues to operate in countries with more than questionable political and human-rights records. The FIA's introduction of the halo on Liberty's watch has not helped matters.
There is also the concern that expanding the calendar - already back up to a record 21 grands prix, but with a stated intention to reach 25 - could lead to F1 fatigue, where the anticipation and spectacle created by a race weekend is diluted by it simply happening too often.
There is also the issue of team expenditure; if parts are limited and so are costs, yet the calendar is increased, what does that mean for the on-track excitement? This is tied into the increasing dysfunction of the Friday practice, something that Liberty is already seriously assessing. And does any of this create an environment conducive to more excitement by virtue of high-class racing, or is it merely excitement by default, levelling the playing field but neutering the excellence? It remains to be seen.
SO HOW SHOULD I FEEL AS AN F1 FAN RIGHT NOW?
If you want to complain about engine noises, the introduction of the halo, or harking back to the good old days of dangerous tracks and thrilling overtaking, then either make your peace or watch archive footage - things aren't going to ever return to the way they were.
However, if you are understanding of the situation in which Ecclestone's rule held back the progression of the sport on an international scale, then you can be wholly positive about Liberty's desire to bring you F1 in a whole host of unique, exciting ways.
Yes, revenue generation is at the forefront of Liberty's thoughts, and a cynic might say that it is attempting to change too much, too soon to catch up with a shapeshifting media environment that left the sport in the dust long ago.
But if all these initiatives take, Liberty will be presenting the sport to a new, vibrant, enthusiastic audience that might have been left cold by the last decade of team dominance, processional races and aloof treatment of their fandom.
So Liberty will push ahead with the sweeping changes because each of them represent an estimated dollar revenue to shift their profit, and indeed share price, into an overwhelmingly positive position.
Whether you buy into it or not - well, that's all on you.
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