Liberty Media: same as the old boss?

Liberty Media promised a fan-focused, F1 revolution when they took over from Bernie Ecclestone. On the surface, their approach seems like a breath of fresh air. But 18-months since their takeover Liberty appear no less elitist than their predecessor.

The takeover of F1’s commercial rights by Liberty heralded the end of Bernie Ecclestone. After decades of Ecclestone ripping up the heritage of the sport and wining and dining dictators and dodgy oligarchs, ordinary fans were ready for a change.

Instead of courting Rolex-wearing millionaires, Liberty wanted to talk about the fan experience and how to help more people fall in love with F1.

Liberty shakes up F1

When the first emails about their new F1 Experiences programme appeared, fans were tantalised by a veritable Aladdin’s cave of delights. The rollout of the F1 Experience programme has since been followed by an overhaul of merchandising at tracks, the launch of F1 Vision and the welcome return of heritage races like the French Grand Prix.

F1 Experiences website

All good so far, except underneath the hype and the flashy new branding, the status quo effectively remains.

Meet the new boss; same as the old boss

Attending an F1 race puts a major dent in your bank balance. For many fans that is their summer vacation or a big part of it. Race tickets, accommodation, parking, travel and the like do not make F1 a cheap weekend. And that is just to get to watch. When it comes to the stars of the sport the fans have been kept firmly on the other side of the fence since the good old days of 1990s track invasions.

Then there is the thorny issue of TV coverage and the seemingly inexorable slide of F1 behind paywalls. Chuck in the exorbitant costs of team merchandise, the drift of quality F1 news coverage behind paywalls (thanks Motorsport Network) and being an avid F1 fan is a costly business.

Liberty set their stall out as being on the side of ordinary fans, seeking to rebalance the scales tipped so in favour of Ecclestone’s money-making schemes. At the 2017 pre-season launch of the F1 Experience programme, Liberty promised their pricing would allow fans at all levels to secure greater access to the sport.

Get closer to the action, at a price

The cheapest F1 Experiences – using the upcoming Belgian Grand Prix as an example – come in at a cool $799 per person. For that, you get a short pit walk on Thursday and a ride on the flatbed truck around the track. No meet and greet, no exclusive seats and a very limited chance of a selfie or autograph with your favourite driver.

From there the prices accelerate faster than an F1 car.

For now, it seems like getting close to the drivers and teams will remain a pipe-dream for most fans, but the arrival of F1 Vision made its debut this year offering “the most immersive spectator technology allowing Grand Prix attendees to dive deeper into the event experience with a state-of-the-art handheld device.”

Which is in itself a great innovation, especially for those that have mostly watched the sport on TV and are not used to the information limiting nature of seeing the real thing live.

F1 Vision handheld

Great concept, shame about the price

But it will cost you of course. At the recent British Grand Prix, F1 Vision was priced at £89 per handset for the weekend. Undoubtedly it is a brilliant concept and in practice a superb companion for the race weekend but again it is a case of Liberty dangling the carrot of greater access but at an additional cost.

Merchandising at circuits is a similar story. The F1 megastore that now pops up at each circuit along with satellite units is a step-change. It is an air-conditioned, stylish and enjoyable shopping experience. Gone is the random selection of marquees and pop-up tents from a mix of independent retailers.

But with it went one of the charms of race weekend merchandise; trading retailers off against each other. Pre-Liberty you could save yourself a few dollars/euros by checking out different merchandisers and seeing who was offering the best price for that Lewis Hamilton cap or Daniel Ricciardo t-shirt.

Monopolising trackside merchandising

Merchandising is now the exclusive domain of the Fanatics company – an American online retailer of licensed sportswear and merchandise. Consequently, the price is the price. No matter which trackside outlet you visit, there is no chance to save a bit of cash. The end result is much the same however the ordinary fan pays more.

Right now, just like it was under Ecclestone’s reign if you have the cash to burn you can get all the access you want. If you can’t, it’s a case of go find a good spot on the grass and remember to wave at the rich people.

Is it too early to judge Liberty Media?

F1 is a business and perhaps it was naive to think what Liberty promised was ever going to be as good as it sounded. Arguably it is too early to judge the full impact of Liberty’s F1 reforms. The real test is perhaps still to come.

Alonso Grosjean F1 2018 Silverstone

Races like the British Grand Prix remain tied to contracts agreed with Ecclestone. Complete with crippling annual increases in race fees and more. The British Racing Drivers Club – owners of the Silverstone circuit – has chosen to trigger a release clause in their current agreement. Their intention: to renegotiate a new deal that offers them a fighting chance of at least breaking even on hosting F1, instead of losing $3.6m per year.

Agreeing a more beneficial deal would demonstrate that Liberty is indeed interested in the health of the sport, it’s heritage and growing F1 (assuming circuits provides some relief to fans purchasing tickets). If it does not, historical races are likely to fall off the calendar and Liberty will find it hard to stake any claim to be taking the sport in a new direction.

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