F1 & the Radically Inegalitarian Bernie Ecclestone

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 11/30/2014 01:30:00 AM
The puppet on the left is going to McLaren next year.
Business magazine Campaign Asia-Pacific has an illuminating interview with Formula One impresario Bernie Ecclestone in which he voices radically inegalitarian viewpoints that you cannot imagine a CEO of a large, publicly-owned enterprise making. Fortunately for him, he definitely is not running a public enterprise even if it is vast, highly visible and internationally predominant. The modern concept of F1 is embodied by Bernie Ecclestone himself, without whom the whole show grinds to a halt. If you would ask me to identify truly global sports whose impact stretches around the world, I'd indicate football (soccer) followed by F1--hence their continuous coverage in this blog.

Recently there's been much brouhaha about the financial unsustainability of the sport as two smaller teams, Caterham and Marussia, dropped out of the last few races. With all and sundry decrying the elitist, high-spending nature of the sport--including F1 insiders--Ecclestone offers the simple reply that these smaller teams haven't managed to build recognizable brands and that they aren't well-run enough to break even besides:
[Interviewer]: Is Formula One in crisis?

Bernie Ecclestone: No. Good or bad, I’ve been around Formula One a long time and I’ve seen it all. I used to own a race team and for 18 years I ran a successful team and won world championships. There are always people that haven’t managed to run their business commercially successfully. They spend more than they have for income. We’ve seen this happen before and this is what’s happened again. We’ve had, I believe, more than 60 different teams since 1950, so people come and go. Ferrari is the one team that has been there from day one. A lot of people come into Formula One and they really haven’t looked to see exactly what it means. The fact is, to be super competitive you’ve obviously got to keep up with the others so you have to spend, whether people like it or not. You’re not going to win races on the cheap. If they haven’t got the budget that allows them to spend they will eventually disappear. It’s like a poker game; if you haven’t got enough money because there are big dealers in there, don’t play the game. So, unless you can ante up with the others don’t join the game. Trouble is, they all think it’s going to be a miracle and they’re going to get a good hand. It’s the same in poker. It doesn’t happen.

[Interviewer]: Are you concerned about struggling teams and the impact this will have on F1?

Bernie Ecclestone: Not at all. Nobody will miss the two teams because they’re not front-running teams; they’ve only got a name that people would know because of the problem they’re in. If you want to get recognised you’ve got to do something. This poor guy in South Africa [Oscar Pistorius], for instance, has got more interest because of what happened with him than when he was winning gold medals. He won medals and afterwards nobody thought about him. If this case hadn’t happened he would have been forgotten, probably. Same with these two teams. You need teams like Ferrari. If you go anywhere and you say to somebody ‘Ferrari’, they’ll know what you’re talking about. If you say ‘Marussia’, they won’t. So that’s it. It’s brands again, isn’t it? Ferrari’s a brand and it’s a brand that’s particularly connected to a product and it’s known for that product.
Ah, it's the good ol' "mismanagement" explanation. I would give it more credence if it weren't for the fact that many of the smaller teams still in it are also complaining. As the post title suggests, though, whoever said that having the most visible brand names was a cheap or easy feat? Brand-building takes a lot of money, and even Ecclestone can probably appreciate that not everybody can create internationally-recognized brands overnight. Rather, some lesser-known names are participating in F1 precisely because they would like to increase their international recognition.

Speaking of which, Ecclestone goes further in blasting large swathes of his worldwide audience by saying that he's not really selling to the "young aspirational" market but the "wealthy geezer" market (composed of folks like, er, Bernie Ecclestone we presume):
[Interviewer]: How can Formula One widen its reach (beyond television) to expand its audience base?

Bernie Ecclestone: I’m not interested in tweeting, Facebook and whatever this nonsense is. I tried to find out but in any case I’m too old-fashioned. I couldn’t see any value in it. And, I don’t know what the so-called ‘young generation’ of today really wants. What is it? You ask a 15 or 16-year-old kid, ‘What do you want?’ and they don’t know. The challenge is getting the audience in the first place. I say to some of these people who start this nonsense about social media, look at what tobacco companies tried to do—get people smoking their brand early on because then people continue smoking their brand forever.

[Interviewer]: Do you believe there is no value in reaching this young audience?

Bernie Ecclestone: If you have a brand that you want to put in front of a few hundred million people, I can do that easily for you on television. Now, you’re telling me I need to find a channel to get this 15-year-old to watch Formula One because somebody wants to put out a new brand in front of them? They are not going to be interested in the slightest bit. Young kids will see the Rolex brand, but are they going to go and buy one? They can’t afford it. Or our other sponsor, UBS—these kids don’t care about banking. They haven’t got enough money to put in the bloody banks anyway. That’s what I think. I don’t know why people want to get to the so-called ‘young generation’. Why do they want to do that? Is it to sell them something? Most of these kids haven’t got any money. I’d rather get to the 70-year-old guy who’s got plenty of cash. So, there’s no point trying to reach these kids because they won’t buy any of the products here and if marketers are aiming at this audience, then maybe they should advertise with Disney.
Love him or hate him, Bernie Ecclestone is a man who speaks his mind, which is something that cannot be said about most other captains of industry. He does not perform any self-censoring in a PR-driven, politically correct era.

After all, who else would tell you things straight like "teams that exit F1 are poorly managed and deserve to leave the sport"; "social media is crap"; "young people have no money so we don't care about them"; or "out target audience is composed of rich old guys"?