Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone is a polarising figure in the eyes of many. A powerful negotiator and master dealmaker, he has built Formula One into a multibillion-dollar global operation, having identified early on the potential of television to turn the sports property into a worldwide spectacle. In the process he has made billions from his management and ownership of the commercial activities, and earned both fear and respect from admirers and detractors alike.
At 84, however, Ecclestone is under assault on several fronts. The futures of two teams—Caterham and Marussia—hang in the balance. Pressure is mounting for a new strategy to tackle Formula One issues, from the spiralling costs and declining television audiences to falling sponsorships figures. Ecclestone, who has fought bribery allegations in London and Munich, has lived through many of the sport’s ups and downs.
Our first interview takes place at the Singapore Grand Prix, where he had just signed a seven-year deal with Fox Sports. A few weeks later we meet in London at Formula One Management’s offices. He reflects on the need to build Formula One into an entertainment property, the trends in sponsorships and why he won’t take to social media.
What was your ambition with Formula One?
Bernie Ecclestone: I was racing when I was 16 years old. I’ve always been racing—motorcycles or cars. After that I was the head of a race team and ran a race team, and then doing what I do now. I took over things in the late ’70s but unlike most of the successful businesspeople who tend to think they’re geniuses, I think most of us are just lucky and happen to be in the right place at the right time.
I grasped the opportunities that were in front of me, whereas lots of people don’t but afterwards say, ‘I could have.’ The people that have become successful have seen an opportunity and taken it, whatever it is. I never thought about being global. It just happened. Things fell into place. Early on I understood that television coverage would be important and I took control of the television side of things and made a lot of changes with broadcasters out there—more or less European and Asia, rather than America. I took control a lot more, so that was important.
What does the Formula One brand stand for?
Bernie Ecclestone: That’s a difficult question to answer. I suppose it is a major sport and most sports are in the entertainment business. Sometimes we tend to lose track of the entertainment and get caught up a bit more on the technical aspect of Formula One, which I’m not happy about. We are very technical and we need to stay that way but I’d rather see a bit more effort on the entertainment. That normally balances itself. And it will because we’ve just gone through a particular phase, so when we’ve worked that out, we’ll be back to where we were. Obviously for people involved in Formula One for marketing we have a worldwide audience and an audience in the right bracket for people that are perhaps what you might call up-market. We’re different to the football crowd, if you like. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that market at all. Quite the opposite: the football audience is a super market but I think they’re a different type of viewer.
How can you bring more of the entertainment factor into Formula One?
Bernie Ecclestone: Entertainment is what people want to see. If you asked me tonight to go to the ballet and said it’s fantastic, I would say, it’s not for me. Sure, it’s good entertainment for a lot of people but it doesn’t suit me. If I asked people who like ballet if they wanted to go to a Formula One race, they wouldn’t particularly want to go. We don’t know what people like and don’t like. Maybe if I tried it, I’d love ballet. I just can’t understand the reason why they have these girls dancing on their toes. Why don’t they get taller girls? It would be so much easier. Today, there are so many forms of entertainment. I may be speaking against us, but previously the amount of entertainment was limited. There were fewer TV channels. People didn’t have much choice and now they’ve got plenty of it. So there’s generally a lot of competition.
What makes Formula One special?
Bernie Ecclestone: People like winners and losers. At Formula One, you have one winner and a lot of losers. People can support a particular driver, or a team. Ferrari used to have such fantastic fan support and now they’re not winning as much, and you can see that their popularity has dropped off. In the old days you’d see people walking around with Ferrari flags and the whole place would be full of red. I don’t see that anymore. It’s quite strange because you don’t see people walking around with any flags or waving them like you used to. The world changes. It’s not a case of kids growing up; it’s a case of everybody growing up, growing into a different world. You’ve seen how it changes. What’s popular one year, isn’t the next. Now, there’s not as much noise from these cars as there used to be, so people are complaining. The good old days were actually the best. But that’s how people are. Women in particular like to criticise.
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.
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.
Has Formula One become an impossibly expensive sport to be involved in?
Bernie Ecclestone: Just don’t spend as much. These teams don’t need to be in financial trouble. They need to think about what they have got to spend and do the best they can with that. Take Williams, for example. Years ago Frank [Williams] had a very small budget and was generally in trouble. Yet he always paid every dollar that he owed. He ran his team accordingly with the amount of money he could come up with. He didn’t have dreams about competing with Ferrari. Eventually things got better and he built the business and now he’s where he is today. It’s the same for everything in life, isn’t it, really? It’s the same problem with ladies and credit cards.
When did you see the potential to expand into Asia?
Bernie Ecclestone: When everyone used to say, ‘go West young man’, I went for it. It was about 20 years ago that I realised the West was more or less burnt out and we needed to go East. It can be difficult for many international businesses to make decisions like that. It wasn’t for me. That’s what I said I was going to do, and that’s what I did. I believe that the people involved in business in Asia hadn’t thought about what they could do globally at that time. Perhaps it didn’t make sense economically. Either they weren’t interested in being global or they just hadn’t thought about it. Whatever the reason, they hadn’t taken the opportunity. In Asia, there have been massive changes. China is probably a good example of that. When I started going to China, everybody was riding bicycles; now they’re all in cars and you don’t see a bike. Somebody has taken the opportunity and done it.
I think moving into countries that have a completely different culture you have to be careful; you might be pushing a product in a particular way that might even be offensive in some countries. That’s certainly not acceptable. When you move into a country you’ve got to immediately respect all their laws and their way of life. This is why I think the European Union will never work because you’ve got so many different countries with different ideas, different languages, different food, different religions.
Is Asia taking the opportunity now?
I don’t think many governments use [Formula One] enough. We open the eyes of the world and they don’t see it or use it. I mean, who had ever heard of Bahrain before we went there? Nobody. I didn’t even know where Bahrain was, but now I do. Singapore has been a great country, but all it used to be was a flight stop-over to go somewhere else. [With the Singapore GP], that’s all changed now. People have seen Singapore and experienced it, so they now think differently business-wise. Formula One is something that’s a bit special. If you look at the Olympics, it can cost countries a fortune and it’s a game between countries. They shout about winning the [bid to host] Olympics but nobody tells you what the cost associated with it is, and what they have achieved with it given that cost. I’m not sure about [the Olympics’] worth from a commercial point of view; it’s very expensive. But Formula One is very good, and it’s a fantastic door opener for everything.
Are audiences in Asia engaged with Formula One?
Bernie Ecclestone: That depends on the TV coverage. It’s a problem if airtime on television isn’t there. Take China, which is a big country. They aren’t watching Formula One because nobody’s opened their eyes to it, so they’re not going to be engaged. We find that there’s a lot more interest in Formula One first when we are in a country and, secondly, because of that there is a lot of television interest. We have one race in Shanghai and that has to get on the television screens for us to engage people. The problem is the amount of interest from the people that have the ability to broadcast it on television. You need people who want to be involved and want to broadcast. We offer the signal and anything can be possible with us, and there are people that have got the rights to broadcast anywhere.
How are the broadcast deals structured, specifically in China?
Bernie Ecclestone: They are normally five years. It depends on the broadcaster and the amount of money that the broadcaster would be able to produce in five years as opposed to today. I try to do a long-term deal and wait. China is strange. It’s the only country where we’ve got an issue and it’s with CCTV. When that happens you’re in trouble. And with CCTV, they’re in the luxury position to do what they want.
How can Asia help F1 grow?
Bernie Ecclestone: Asia needs to get more involved. Funnily enough, something that has a lot more interest worldwide and in Asia is football because you know that you can turn on a television and watch English football, Premier League football, which a few years ago you might have been able to find it in a hotel on a channel but it wasn’t popular. And it was because of television that it became so popular, why it has grown massively.
Can you compete against football and make Formula One more accessible?
Bernie Ecclestone: Children can go and get a football and play football. It’s not easy to get a Formula One car, or for that matter not easy to get into any form of racing, even go-karts, which is where most of the drivers have come through to Formula One. It’s still very expensive. There are probably millions of talented would-be drivers out there that will never get the chance. You need support from someone. The fact is we can’t make Formula One more accessible to people. It’s no different in a way to Miss World, if you like. It doesn’t mean she’s the most beautiful girl in the world. She’s one of the most beautiful girls in that competition. Like heavyweight boxers; there are probably better fighters out there who are even better than world champion boxers but just don’t have the opportunity to do it. It’s the champions that have had the opportunity. It’s the same with this business; it’s the guys that are here that are world champions and they have had the opportunity. Sebastian Vettel had support from Red Bull; without that he wouldn’t be world champion. So that’s how it is. Yes, it’s difficult to make a start. The teams are always looking for more talent, probably because they’re having to pay out a lot of money to the people they have now. They are waiting until the new breed [of drivers] comes through.
What is the trend in sponsorship that you’ve seen in recent years?
Bernie Ecclestone: There are so many places that brands can put their money in for sponsorship. Why is that? Because there are lots more sports on television these days. They may not be on the premier channels and not with big audiences, but they’re there. Some brands, I believe, take the wrong approach. They spend little amounts in a lot of different places that don’t deliver much [return on investment]. We get massive audiences worldwide every couple of weeks; the Olympics in comparison is every four years and the World Cup is the same. So I don’t think people really research where they can spend their money and what results they get.
How much do the teams depend on sponsorship?
Bernie Ecclestone: Quite a lot, although it varies by team. So, for the large, successful teams it is probably 50 per cent of their budget, and the teams at the bottom of the grid need 70 or 80 per cent.
How much does F1 need sponsors, versus broadcasting rights or race fees?
Bernie Ecclestone: It’s not life and death for us. The income comes from promoters that run races, and have to be there to provide a service for the show or the television. Sponsors are there and, of course, if all the sponsors stopped it would hurt us financially but it wouldn’t cause as much damage as it would for a race team because we could cut our costs.
What does a major brand such as Rolex get for its Formula One sponsorship that other sports properties can’t offer?
Bernie Ecclestone: They get worldwide coverage, and association with a premier sport. If you’re sponsoring the Olympics you’ve got to wait a long time for these things to come back. I believe the big sponsors want to be able to offer their clients some form of entertainment, an experience that money can’t buy. So, they get the use of the Paddock Club, which is just a little bit up-market, and if they sponsor us or one of the teams they can meet the drivers and it’s all a bit special. In terms of advertising budgets, I don’t know whether this is considered luxury spend. But if I put a new brand out there today, people worldwide will see that brand and be talking and writing about it. Rolex do a very good job activating their sponsorship. Red Bull does a truly super job. We’ve got Singapore Airlines as a sponsor, as well as UBS and Emirates that do well with their sponsorships.
What’s the secret to Red Bull’s marketing success?
Bernie Ecclestone: They have a person that owns the company, who is a super marketing guy [Dietrich Mateschitz]. He got into Formula One, and built on the idea of using it as a marketing tool and he’s done fantastic job with it. In the end you can say because he had the courage to choose the right people that he had a four times world champion. Obviously that made his marketing easier but in the meantime he would have still been successful because he markets all the other things he’s involved in. He keeps his brand in front of the public all the time. He’s very good and very courageous at doing what he does. He picks the right things to do.
Could Formula One benefit from marketing itself more?
Bernie Ecclestone: What could we say to people? It’s pretty obvious what we produce and what we do. Either people like it and buy or don’t like it. I’ve had a lot of criticism lately because the television audience has declined. We have seen that decline in nearly all sports. Have the viewers declined? I doubt it. The viewership is just spread in different areas because today people can watch on these iPads or on even telephones. And it’s only now that we’re catching up and finding out that if we lose 10 per cent of our free-to-air television audience how much we might have picked up elsewhere as more people watch Formula One through other means.
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.
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.
But can’t social media help you build or amplify fan engagement?
Bernie Ecclestone: How are you going to get all the fans to meet these drivers, who don’t even want to meet their girlfriends? You’re right that we should use social media to promote Formula One. I just don’t know how. They say the kids watch things on [tablets and phones], but it doesn’t mean they’re watching Formula One. And even if they are today, will they still watch it when they are 40? The world has changed so much in the last few years, and I doubt that’s going to stop. But with all the technology out there are limits to what we can do and the amount of time people can watch something. So, I’m not a great supporter of social media and I think we’ll find that a number of things will happen. Very shortly these companies like Twitter will be charging for anything that’s put on there that looks vaguely commercial. Otherwise they can’t stay in business. Their shares have suddenly dropped 10 per cent this week, and it’s because people aren’t using Twitter as much.
What’s next for Formula One?
Bernie Ecclestone: I think we’ve got to wait a little bit for things to settle down. I hope it settles down and we are going to be able to retain the audience. We’re never going to grow it. The only sport that’s really grown—not by marketing but through availability—is football. You turn the television on and you’ll always see a match, whether it is the English Premier League or something else, even in Asia. It may not be live because of the time difference but they’ve captured an audience and they want to see what’s going on.
What drives you? What do you say to the critics?
Bernie Ecclestone: I run the business from day to day. I get up in the morning and I really don’t know what’s going to happen; I’m a firefighter. When the fires start, I have to put them out and we’re always having fires. I don’t say anything to these people because the majority of them don’t have the slightest idea what they’re talking about. They have to fill the columns of a newspaper and if what they write happens to be true it’s more by luck than anything else. They make up stories that they think the public wants to read, and nobody wants to read good news. Everybody in their life has got a problem so they’re so happy when other people have got problems. Good news never sells. The answer is stay away.
I had a book written about me called No Angel, which apparently sold very well in a lot of languages. This guy, Tom Bower, has buried a lot of very important people, from politicians to business leaders. I asked to speak to him before he started writing and I said: ‘I’m not going to try and persuade you to write anything except the truth but I will tell you one thing I’m no angel.’ He took that as the title of his book, and he bothered to find out the facts. But he had an easy job. I’ll tell you why: I’m really an angel.
(This article first appeared in Campaign Asia)