What is behind Murdoch's plot to grab the wheel at Formula One?
Rupert Murdoch has his eyes on Formula One. His News Corp media empire has made its first noises about how it might gain control of motor racing, probably the most high-profile and lucrative sporting property outside of its grasp.
News of what are being described as "embryonic" talks with potential investors, including Carlos Slim, the world's richest man, coincide with the 20th anniversary yesterday of Sky Sports. During the past two decades British sports fans have grown used to watching Mr Murdoch's money transform football, rugby, cricket and boxing.
Sky's interest in motor sport has been largely confined to the small-town pastime of speedway, while the BBC pulled off something of a coup by securing the rights to broadcast the fabulous global drama that is F1. Those rights began in 2009 and run for five years. Last year's competition, which went to the final race, was one of the most thrilling, and drew greater audiences.
But beyond 2013, Mr Murdoch senses, there may be opportunities. News Corp yesterday refused to "comment on speculation". But sources within the company confirmed the interest. One said that News Corp was looking at "opportunities" and acknowledged that F1 was an "interesting business".
The news comes at a sensitive time. News Corp is still in the process of acquiring the 61 per cent of shares in BSkyB that it does not currently own. The Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has recommended regulatory approval of the bid but the final decision is still subject to consultation and is expected next week after Parliament's Easter recess. The bid has prompted comment that News Corp is too dominant in the British media and its interest in F1 will also provide a further reminder to BSkyB shareholders of the value of the broadcaster. News Corp is seeking to persuade them to accept £8bn for the outstanding shares.
James Murdoch, non-executive chairman and former CEO of BSkyB, was recently relocated to New York to become No 3 in his father's empire. He is said to have been involved in some of the discussions with potential partners in acquiring F1.
Yesterday the idea that News Corp was going to buy F1 was dismissed by Bernie Ecclestone, who founded the international network of Grand Prix races. "It's rubbish. The sport's not for sale," he said. "Anyway, we wouldn't sell to a media company because it would restrict the ability to negotiate with other broadcasters."
At 80, Mr Ecclestone is the same age as Mr Murdoch and a similarly canny negotiator. But F1 is not his to sell. The real owners of the business are the private equity group CVC Capital Partners, who paid $2.5bn (£1.5bn) for F1 in 2005. CVC will be looking for a return on that investment and the Concorde Agreement, through which F1's governing body and its motor-racing teams negotiate the deals that generate the sport's commercial revenues, is due for renewal at the end of 2012. News Corp has not approached CVC.
But sources close to News Corp were yesterday seeking to imply that F1 needs to appeal to a younger interaudience, for instance by exploiting social networks. Who better to oversee that modernisation than one of the world's largest media conglomerates? The notion that F1 has become a sport for an older audience will surprise the BBC, which has invested a lot of effort into offering coverage on different media platforms. Last weekend's Chinese Grand Prix, was broadcast on BBC1 and Radio 5 Live with red-button television coverage of the practice and qualifying races. Lewis Hamilton's win was also shown on the BBC website, with a live text commentary and a video blog from veteran commentator Murray Walker.
Some sports fans will be distressed by the possibility of F1 leaving terrestrial television for BSkyB in the same way as Ashes Test matches and Ryder Cup golf. But the innovations that BSkyB – aided by News Corp's financial muscle – has introduced to the Premier League, in particular, indicate that motor-racing coverage could be further enhanced.
The F1 teams head to Istanbul for the Turkish Grand Prix on 8 May. Hamilton will be hoping to beat his German rival Sebastian Vettel to pole position on the grid. But, away from the spotlight, there are other contenders positioning themselves for a shot at grabbing the F1 crown.
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