Other sports have much to teach Formula One. Let’s see what we might learn if we were to lift our petrol heads above the parapet that surrounds our strangely old-fashioned pastime. There are three modules in this crash course of study: Governance and Representation; Commercial Activity; and Sport as Entertainment.
The governing bodies of rugby, football, cricket, tennis and the Olympic Games all enshrine in their constitutions (note: they have constitutions) the principle that their sports’ participants share governance of the sport. Athletes and teams help to decide directly how their sport is played and how it is regulated.
This is a form of democracy which has yet to work its magic fully in Formula One. Taking a leaf from the books of our sporting cousins, I’d like to see Formula One governed by a representative body made up of team owners, team principals, drivers, administrators, venue owners, safety providers, regulators, broadcasters and maybe some key commercial and technical specialists.
This sounds unwieldy, but through a transparent democratic process operated according to a mutually agreed set of rules (like, dare I say, a constitution), the right powers could be placed in the hands of a few for the good of the many.
Like in any democracy, poor performance or bad behaviour could be addressed with a change in leadership, which would keep ideas fresh and could hardly increase the amount of politics in the sport. Succession could be properly managed. All workings, minutes and decisions of the ruling body would be published and called to account if necessary.
If I were casting my vote in this brave new world, I’d want those whom I elected to address the sustainability of the sport. I’d want to see and have the opportunity to debate a development plan, with the objective of maintaining the sport’s position as one that society wants to exist. This is tricky in a sport that burns fossil fuels for fun, however much Formula One’s current regulators and owners like to pretend otherwise.
I think it’s hard to see a future for Formula One that does not embrace electric propulsion. Nice, quiet, clean, sustainable, relevant and exciting racing. Wake up, people. It’s the future.
Anyone seeking a lesson on how to make a profit from sport need look no further than the US. NASCAR is a great example but it contrasts starkly with Formula One because NASCAR makes money by focusing on race fans whereas Formula One makes money by focusing on commercial sponsors. NASCAR reaches those same sponsors but it does so via the fans.
This is a critical difference that Pangaea has long recognised and which is reflected in much of our strategic consultancy for sports properties. The relationship between fans, the sport and the sport’s commercial partners is what we call the Holy Trinity, and it works like this:
“I’m a fan of NASCAR and I understand that my sport and my favourite cars and drivers could not give me this great entertainment live or on TV if it weren’t for the involvement of HP and Coca-Cola and Bank of America. I’m grateful to them and so I reward them with my custom and loyalty.”
By exploiting the Holy Trinity, brands derive value from their sponsorship by recognising fans as consumers. This is why NASCAR has many more consumer brands as sponsors than Formula One, which has a high proportion of B2B brands. Formula One caters to a business audience, rejecting the opportunity to build a fan-based sense of ownership that might guarantee a sustainable future for the sport.
Many in Formula One have tried to refer to the sport’s exclusivity as a strength, though it is not: whilst Formula One is exclusive and high on aspiration, NASCAR is inclusive and high on involvement. As a potential commercial partner, I know where my money would go.
Sport as Entertainment
Sport is entertainment. That doesn’t mean it is naturally entertaining, and Formula One has grappled with its sometimes processional nature at various times throughout the last decade. To its credit, the FIA recognises this and some of its technical rule changes have focused specifically on alleviating the tedium.
Other sports have had similar issues from time to time and have embraced changes in format, coverage and regulation, many of which have had positive commercial consequences.
Cricket has stump-cam and hawk-eye, the NBA has a shot clock, cycling has coloured jerseys for competitions-within-races, horse-racing has a weight handicap system and rugby teams gain extra points by scoring four tries or losing only narrowly.
Think of the fun in transferring some of these ideas to Formula One! Helmet cams on every member of the pit crew; TV race officials reviewing stewards’ decisions in-race and on TV; drivers having to make a given number of overtaking attempts or risk being penalised; sprint bonuses every ten laps; extra points for successful overtaking manoeuvres; every car + fuel + driver being made to weigh the same (welcome back fat drivers!); points added for being less than a second behind the car in front. The racing, and interest levels, would rocket.
Some complex or slow moving team sports have evolved their formats to make them more TV and young-viewer friendly. Rugby 7s is an Olympic sport now and Twenty20 cricket is the most lucrative format in the game. In Formula One, we could have seeding for races based on the previous race’s results (the Rugby World Cup does this); we could see short and long races every weekend, racing on a Saturday, reverse grids or even (my favourite) back-to-back shorter races with one driver per team in each. It would make the Saturday Grand Prix ticket much better value for money and extend TV coverage (and income) too.
And if we did that, we could have ‘A’ and ‘B’ leagues for drivers with promotion and relegation twice a season based on results and points scored in each league. ‘A’ league drivers would attract a greater share of the TV revenue or maybe their naturally higher sponsorship premiums might be enough.
Lastly, an idea for qualifying loosely credited to the great Fernando Alonso: sudden death. Not literally, of course. His idea was to mirror cycling’s Elimination races: let’s get all the cars out there at the same time on a Saturday afternoon. After five laps, the two cars running last return to the pits and occupy P22 and P21 the following day. Two laps later, the two cars running last return to the pits and occupy P20 and P19 the following day. And so on and so on, until there are only two cars racing for P1. Guaranteed thrills and spills and again, a way to make Saturdays more exciting and better value for money as well as delivering greater value to sponsors. What’s more, the slower cars would be in better shape for the race – a natural handicapping system – because they’ll have worn out fewer components and tyres. A magnificent idea. Thank you Fernando..
So that’s what I’d do if I ran Formula One. Taking a lesson from others is never easy, but in these times of severe competition for the punter’s pound, dying commercial sponsorship revenues, increased pressure from environmental lobbyists and companies and individuals who want to do The Right Thing, I reckon it’s a reasonable option.
Formula One won’t die overnight, nor even over the next decade. But unless the sport recognises its need for a clear plan and a sustainable future, I don’t give much for its continued existence the decade after that.
Managing Partner, Pangaea Creative