Formula One float threatened by row

A dispute over television rights could stop the planned $4bn flotation in its tracks, writes Chris Godsmark

Plans for a $4bn (pounds 2.5bn) flotation of Formula One, the promotional empire built up by the sport's undisputed king, Bernie Ecclestone, could fail to make the starting grid because of disagreements with three leading teams over the value of television rights.

Salomon Brothers, the US investment bank, confirmed yesterday that discussions were under way about a flotation which could value Mr Ecclestone's businesses at $4bn, based on current and future revenue streams from the global television coverage. The advisers are aiming to list the company on the UK and US stock markets by the summer.

However, sources close to the deal said the simmering row over the percentage of lucrative television rights which flow to top teams had to be sorted out before the flotation could go ahead. "Unless this situation is resolved, it could stop the float, it's as simple as that. It's a very difficult situation."

Formula One is one of several Ecclestone companies connected with the sport and earns huge, though undisclosed, revenues from the 16 yearly televised races. Each grand prix is estimated to net an astonishing 400 million television viewers world-wide, beaten only by the Olympics and World Cup, which only take place every four years.

The dispute has brought Mr Ecclestone into conflict with Frank Williams, the enigmatic head of the sport's leading team. Alongside Benetton and Tyrrell, the Williams team has refused to sign the Concorde Agreement, which divides up rights between constructors. The sums involved have never been made public, though another concern of Williams is thought to have been the question of who will succeed Mr Ecclestone, now aged 65, after he retires. "He may not look it, but Bernie's an old age pensioner and you need to know who is taking over the helm," said the source.

Floating Formula One would solve the succession issue by putting a more developed management team in place, but the question of revenues from television rights has so far proved more difficult. Last night another source close to Salomon Brothers suggested the flotation could still go ahead without an agreement with Williams and the two other teams.

The problem is made worse by the dramatic estimates of future income from digital pay-TV. In Germany, Mr Ecclestone's company has already done a rights deal with the DF1 channel which will enable viewers to select their own camera angle from the cars, using equipment which is manufactured by another Ecclestone company, Formula One Promotions.

The prize, expected to be confirmed later this year, will be a formal pay-per-view alliance with BSkyB. It is predicted that interactive digital TV could net the sport pounds 600m a year in five years' time. The more aggressive approach has already had one well-publicised casualty, as the BBC lost its grand prix coverage rights to ITV from the start of this season. The deal, which the BBC claimed had been sewn up without its knowledge, increases annual revenues from UK terrestrial TV fivefold, from pounds 3m to pounds 15m.

Even if the flotation fails to make it out of the pit lane, business consultants are already predicting a revolution in grand prix merchandising similar to that seen across Europe from top football clubs and driven by the expectation of hundreds of millions of pounds in revenues from digital pay-TV receipts. In the longer term several leading Formula One teams could also seek a stock market listing, following the lead of Premier League football clubs.

The Williams team, which has dominated Formula One in the 1990s with world championships for Nigel Mansel and, last year, Damon Hill, is working with Andersen Consulting to examine ways to improve its profitability. Robert Baldock, Andersen's partner advising Williams, declined to give details of the advice but confirmed that it was intended to raise revenues and exploit marketing value from the team's brand image.

Surprisingly, although Formula One has always been seen as one of the most commercial of sports, it has been slow to exploit merchandising possibilities. Mr Baldock explained: "Certain areas of Formula One are completely underdeveloped. In the more general case of merchandising and the value of marketing the teams are well behind football clubs, which is strange given their popularity with the viewers."

From this perspective, it is surprising it has taken so long for Mr Ecclestone to realise the value in his own businesses. The flotation is the peak of a long career in which he has run a championship-winning grand prix team and elevated the sport to arguably the most watched in the world. In the process it has made him one of Britain's richest individuals and possibly the most highly paid person in the country.

Mr Ecclestone rose to fame on the wave of commercialism which gripped the sport during the 1970s after Lotus's decision to put sponsors' names on the side of cars at the end of the 1960s. He bought the now defunct Brabham team, bringing world championships for Brazilian Nelson Piquet in 1981 and 1983. But as money poured into grand prix racing Mr Ecclestone realised the increasing importance of constructors to its long-term success, leading the Formula One Constructors Association (Foca) in a high profile dispute with the industry governing body, the FIA.

The expansion of his business interests, which include Formula One, the Foca and Formula One Promotions based at Biggin Hill Airport in Kent, is nothing new. Last year he bought Biggin Hill's historic West Camp, part of the former World War II airbase. Bromley Borough Council is still waiting to hear what he intends to do with the land.

His rise was more remarkable given he had none of the aristocratic origins of other top team owners or drivers. The son of a trawler captain, he began his career as a secondhand car dealer. Given his record since, the betting must be the flotation plans will make the chequered flag.

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