SPORTO! // F1’s fans let the truth on the BBC whizz by
I’ll start this piece by saying that I am a long-time F1 fan. Not quite a hard-core devotee but I remember where I was the day the Senna died: I was in my living room with my Dad watching the race on TV.
For years, F1 has enjoyed a prime spot on the terrestrial schedules of British television. Between the long tenure of the BBC and the interim spots held by ITV, fans have got their fix season-in, season-out. This however changes from 2012, following the announcement that Sky will become lead broadcaster of the championship, showing every race uninterrupted. In turn, the BBC retain partial live rights (including screening the British and Monaco Grand Prix) with other races available in highlight form. It is the first time in the UK that motor sport’s premier event goes all-in with a subscription broadcaster.
Unsurprisingly, there has been an outcry and most of the vitriol has been aimed at the Beeb. It has become clear, following the Coalition Government’s election last year that the corporation would be targeted heavily for budget cuts and so that has proved. Right now, all departments are facing belt-tightening and sport in particular is under the microscope. As the state broadcaster, the BBC has a duty to produce and transmit many of the ‘crown jewels’ including the Olympics, the football World Cup and the Grand National. F1 by comparison is not a crown jewel sport, which means it was always a prime target for cut-backs. Reports suggest the corporation had to choose between renewing Wimbledon (again, another crown jewel) or committing to F1. They plumped for SW19 and the rest is the hysteria playing out in front of us now.
The outcry of many F1 “fans” has felt grossly disproportionate, lacking not only perspective but actually presenting them and their sport in rather poor taste. Scanning the #F1 tag on Twitter on Friday, one was left thinking the fan base was arrogant in some of their commentary. Yet, the hypocrisy in many of their Tweets belies the fact that the BBC possibly made the right decision.
Firstly, the sport isn’t disappearing entirely from free-to-air broadcast. The Beeb still have it for a couple of seasons and there is the possibility of continuing; if they don’t, it’s certain one of the other terrestrial networks will snap the rights up. What the fans consistently fail to acknowledge is the fact that covering F1 in the way the BBC have costs a lot of money. The production values are high (this author concurs with Murray Walker’s recent sentiments that the current edition of F1 is not just the best ever seen in Britain but probably the world) and with personnel and travel costs, not forgetting the technology needed to provide multi-platform output, the real value of committing to what is largely a niche sport is questionable.
Secondly, F1 under the stewardship of Bernie Ecclestone have long made it clear that sport is about making money. Indeed it is less ‘sport’, more ‘product.’ The cost of watching races live has long been regarded as excessive yet fans – many of whom are the same fans up in arms over the loss of free viewing - continue to pay the money for tickets and merchandise. F1 knows it is a commodity for a demographic that possesses disposable income; the profiling is clear. Dear Bernie wouldn’t have blinked an eyelid over the loss of viewers versus the cumulative money generated from UK television rights. Buoyed by the expansion of the sport in emerging markets like India, Korea and the Middle East it won’t be long before the powerbase of F1, mainland Europe, is jettisoned for new money. F1 is run by skilled politicians who can present all the right arguments. The numbers didn’t add up for the BBC for the right reasons – they did for Sky, and even in the face of antagonising sponsors, they did for the F1 teams. That collective arrogance struck perfectly.
Finally, F1 is not the nation’s sport. There is large support but that is still dwarfed by those who follow football, cricket and rugby. Many dovetail into one-another, but a critical point here is this: kids can’t go and “play” F1 at the weekend. Whilst it is a sport of imagination and fantasy, it is ultimately the pursuit of the few and not the many. The upcoming Olympic Games in London bring into sharp focus the genuine value of athletic sport and the impact it can have on society. It is perhaps for these reasons the BBC ultimately chose to trim its support of F1.
Sky will, as they always do, give the coverage an added sheen (how much better it will be than the BBC’s is questionable) and have made soothing noises on the eternal bugbear of F1 fans on commercial channels: the presence of ads between coverage. One can only hope they do better than their failed one season venture in 2002.
Going back to the point on arrogance, the “fans” showed their colours by attacking the corporation and its commitment to other sports and broader output; even anchorman Jake Humphrey came in for ferocious stick for making a couple of thoughtful comments in the slipstream of the announcement. The outcry imbued a public completely divorced from reality.
The BBC does not exist for F1. In the eyes of many of its commercial and political rivals, the BBC has no right chasing deals for massive sports packages. Some would have them covering no sport at all. It was this government that put the squeeze on the corporation to cut, yet the F1 supporters have no appetite to lobby Messrs Hunt and co.
They extol how unfair it is to simple folk who can’t afford to pay the Sky subscriptions, completely ignoring the fact that football fans haven’t been able to watch top flight games live on any terrestrial network for nearly 20 years. Or that cricket fans haven’t seen a live, free-to-air, home Test match in 6 years. The last time an away Test series was shown on the BBC was over 10 years ago. When you add other sports such as rugby, tennis and athletics, F1 has had it extremely good. In many ways, this day was always coming.