This week saw Bernie Ecclestone replaced as the head of Formula One, after essentially running the sport for 40 years. It is no understatement to say that Ecclestone built Formula 1 from a disparate collection of races into an extravaganza that ranks as the third most watched sports event in the world, behind the Olympics and football World Cup. The fact that Liberty Media paid $8 billion for the sport is a further demonstration of the value of the F1 brand.
However, at the same time, Ecclestone has been a controversial figure. Tried for blackmail in Germany over previous sales of F1’s TV rights and accused by some teams of pocketing a fortune while leaving them struggling financially, he also cosied up to autocratic regimes in countries such as Russia, Bahrain and Azerbaijan and was fond of provocative utterances such as praising Hitler and calling women ‘domestic appliances’. In many ways he echoed the power and dubious practices of other sports leaders such as Sepp Blatter at FIFA and Lamine Diack at the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), meaning his removal marks the end of an era.
So how do you turn a squabbling series of teams and races into a polished product that is worth $8 billion and is known across the world? There are four communications lessons – good and bad:
Ecclestone was continually coming up with new ideas – whether it was changing the qualifying format or awarding double points for the final race of the 2015 season. These didn’t always work in terms of spicing up the spectacle, but they generated discussion and hence interest in the sport.
2.Be approachable and open
By all accounts Ecclestone was always visible in the F1 paddock and accessible to journalists. He may not have necessarily answered their questions, but always gave good quotes, meaning his own profile (and that of F1) moved beyond the sports pages to reach the general public.
3.Don’t forget new audiences
Every sport or brand needs to attract new fans, otherwise it will eventually become irrelevant. Yet Ecclestone seemed disinterested in investing in younger generations – due to the hosting fees he charged circuits to hold grand prix, ticket prices were enormous, pricing many families out of the market. The main focus appeared to be corporate guests and sponsors – he famously asked why F1 should appeal to 15 year olds as they were unlikely to buy Rolexes or bank with sponsors UBS, ignoring the fact that they are undoubtedly buying Red Bull. At the same time more and more TV rights have been sold to pay TV channels, limiting the available audience by shutting out the casual viewer.
4. Don’t forget the internet
One of the big areas that Liberty Media has promised to address is the internet and social media. F1’s presence and use of these channels has been pretty woeful, taking years to even come up with a Twitter hashtag for races. Again, this stems directly from Ecclestone who said he didn’t see any value in “tweeting, Facebook and whatever this nonsense is”. While it may not directly lead to money coming in, fan engagement is crucial to every sport today, and is an area where F1 as a brand (unlike teams and drivers) has been lacking.
And before his detractors see Ecclestone’s departure as the end of the era of fast-talking, slightly dubious, deal-making dinosaurs take a look at the new resident of the White House. Perhaps if Ecclestone was on Twitter, he’d still be leading F1……………
Photo Habeed Hameed [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons