Analysing the motor sport ecosystem and why coronavirus could cripple it

The coronavirus pandemic is disrupting motor sport in a way we have never seen before, impacting everyone involved in sport.

Collectively, the entire industry stands to lose a significant sum of money, and what the future holds is unclear. The longer this goes on, the worse the financial situation becomes, notwithstanding the fact that a global recession is likely because of the pandemic.

Who are the key players, and what are their role in the overarching ecosystem that is motor sport? Being a broadcasting site, naturally the focus is on broadcasting, although there is heavy linkage between broadcasting and the wider motor sport economy.

Speaking at the Black Book Motorsport Forum last September, Sky’s Head of Formula 1 Scott Young spoke about the delicacies of the ecosystem in a conversation around over-the-top broadcasting and pay television.

“Our investment is significant as one of the one of the investments that underpins F1, as all our rights do in every sport,” explained Young.

“I think that’s one of the differences between an OTT platform right now and major sporting broadcasters, like Sky and Eurosport, that actually invest a large amount of money that goes into those sports of which they need to help fund the teams to compete.”

“There’s an ecosystem in there that is quite delicate, and if you unravel it too quickly it can have some lasting effects,” he said.

Young quite clearly encapsulates the key themes of the ecosystem: the broadcasters, the rights holder, and the teams. If the system changes too quickly, the consequences could be catastrophic.

Coronavirus creates a gap in the chamber. The flow of money into the sport stops, meaning that money cannot flow back out the other end easily.

Who are the parties involved, and what are their roles? Let the below diagram explain, using Formula 1 and MotoGP as the key examples…

Motor sport ecosystem.png
A simplified view of the motor sport ecosystem.

Much of the above is stating the obvious, however it shows how the ecosystem joins up from one segment to another, from the customer paying the pay TV broadcaster their monthly subscription, all the way through to teams paying their staff.

The diagram is, I admit, a simplistic view of the landscape, but hopefully helps to show how some of the basic activities connect. There are many more inputs and outputs, the diagram only covers the main ones (although if you feel there is a major gap, please shout).

Motor sport ecosystem - branch 1.png
A simplified view of the motor sport ecosystem (branch 1).

Branch 1 – Pay TV > Commercial Rights Holder
Pay-TV broadcasters receive income from both their customers monthly, as well as from advertisers / sponsors who want to advertise during their programming. Not all motor sports air on pay-TV, but overall, that is the way.

Some have suggested that UK’s pay-TV broadcasters BT and Sky should refund subscribers of their sports channels during the coronavirus outbreak, however neither are planning to do so currently.

The income pay-TV broadcasters receive allows them to broadcast prestigious events, the broadcaster paying the relevant Commercial Rights Holder an agreed amount each season.

For MotoGP, the Commercial Rights Holder is Dorna, for F1 it is Formula One Management, for World Rally Championship it is WRC Promoter, and so on.

To attract subscribers, pay-TV broadcasters want to utilise the best talent, on and off-screen. For that, they use a hybrid of permanent in-house staff and freelancers.

Both bring their benefits: being a permanent member of staff gives you added security with a regular pay packet, but makes it unlikely that you can work on events not aired on their outlet.

Freelancers on the other hand may work F1 one weekend, MotoGP the next, and then Formula E the weekend after, each paid on a standalone basis. Three different broadcasters and production teams, but not a problem. That approach brings risks: any cancellation will result in a loss of income.

Motor sport ecosystem - branch 1.png
A simplified view of the motor sport ecosystem (branch 2).

Branch 2 – Circuit > Commercial Rights Holder
The second area is simpler. Fans pay money to attend the circuit to watch a race, the circuit pays the Commercial Rights Holder the fee for holding the race. Investors and sponsors may pump money into the circuit to improve facilities, increasing the prospects of holding major events there.

It sounds simple, until someone cancels the race, which is where the legal complications come in. Mark Hughes over on The Race summarises the situation in relation to the cancellation of the Australian Grand Prix.

In the event of the cancellation of a race, someone will lose money. Opting not to refund the fans is an untenable option. The organisers refund the fans, in which case the organisers lose money. Unless the Commercial Rights Holder waives the fee and takes the financial hit.

The worst-case scenario for a circuit is that they lose so much money, they go into administration and liquidation.

Circuits need money to keep operating outside of the F1 and MotoGP race weekends, they need to pay their own employees (not labelled in the diagram) to give one example. In the UK, the Rockingham Motor Speedway closed in 2018 after financial issues.

Cancelling one race might be okay, but would be enough to disturb the cashflow of the circuit. What happens though, if the Commercial Rights Holder opted to take the hit, saving the circuit, but putting themselves at jeopardy?

Motor sport ecosystem - branch 1.png
A simplified view of the motor sport ecosystem (branch 3).

Branch 3 – Commercial Right Holder > Staff
Like the pay-TV scenario above, the Commercial Rights Holder will pay people to run the World Feed for them all the weekend, both freelancers and permanent staff. The talent varies: from directors, to vision mixers, to replay operators, to camera operators, the list is never ending.

F1 has a mixture of freelance talent and permanent talent, same as above. Same positives, same negatives, same risks.

Motor sport ecosystem - branch 1.png
A simplified view of the motor sport ecosystem (branch 4).

Branch 4 – Commercial Rights Holder > Teams
As well as receiving money off pay-TV broadcasters and circuits, the Commercial Rights Holder will receive money off advertisers, sponsors and investors, the Rolex’s of this world.

Pay-TV broadcasters may want compensation off the Commercial Rights Holder if races fall by the wayside, and the same applies for advertisers, whilst circuits may want their fees lowered.

If organisers cancel one race, most championships would be able to deal with it, however when multiple races disappear, the problem amplifies.

For hypothetical sake, assume the Commercial Rights Holder has buckled in the event of cancellation. They have waived the circuit race fee and given both advertisers and pay-TV companies some compensation. Unlikely, but let us continue the worst-case path.

But, hang on. The Commercial Rights Holder needs to the pay the teams their prize money, right? Well, yes. Oh. But, the Commercial Rights Holder has already lost money? Again, yes.

“Okay then, we will not give teams their prize money.” Good luck with that one.

Teams need to pay their permanent staff and freelancers, as well as suppliers, and need some form of income from both the Commercial Rights Holder and sponsors.

Suppliers are important here. Motor sport relies on thousands of small to medium-sized employers worldwide that rarely gets a mention. If any one of those suppliers go under, that could impact the team’s ability to go racing. Suddenly, we have a major problem…

The likes of Mercedes, Ferrari, Repsol Honda, will survive with minimal disruption. The likes of Williams in F1, and many outfits in MotoGP, Moto2 and Moto3, all the way down the motor sport pyramid I worry about.

I worry about the freelancers, inside and outside of broadcasting, who are out of work for at least the next month. I worry about championships who struggle to make a profit each year.

I appreciate this is a simplistic view of the world, and does not account for all factors (there are many indirect lines excluded).

The point I am getting at though is that the motor sport ecosystem will be seriously tested over the next few months, and the potential longer-term consequences for this sport do not bear thinking about…


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8 thoughts on “Analysing the motor sport ecosystem and why coronavirus could cripple it

    • BTCC and BSB won’t have masses of TV income, but will heavily depend on third party suppliers. Again the front running teams may be okay, but worry about the bottom half of the field.

      Don’t know about IndyCar.

      • Thank you so much Dave for your insight and attempt to have foresight. This is why I find it so incredibly ridiculous to blame Chase Carey and the organizers for cancelling the Melbourne Grand Prix at such a late stage. The implications for stopping the race from happening were always going to have far-reaching implications on people’s livelihoods, so that decision can and should not be taken lightly. The fact is that because of 1 person falling ill, this entertainment sub-sector will cease trading for at least until June. And with the European nations adapting the soft approach in fighting the virus, I would not at all be surprised if Silverstone is not going to happen either.

      • Teams and riders in BSB receive no money from the circuits for competing. Palmer palms the lot. The teams get all of their income from sponsors. I’d not be surprised in BTCC isn’t the same.

  1. The missed out the Elephant in the room.

    The huge debts that Bernie/CVC have put on FOM/F1. If they are not paid, F1 could go bust. I’ve mentioned it elsewhere. I’m no so sure F1 going bust would be a bad thing. Practically every other major sport runs their own broadcast organisation. They don’t have the likes of CVC skimming the profits off the top. The F1 teams could use the opportunity to take back F1 for themselves. There’s no buggeration from Bernie to create divides, the technology to broadcast is readily available and the TV companies would be having to negotiate new contracts.

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