Monday, March 27, 2017

Musings From the Weekend: Great American Cash Grab

Sebastian Vettel won the Australian Grand Prix and the last five times Ferrari won at Australia that driver went on to win the World Drivers' Championship. So congratulations Sebastian Vettel on the title. Lewis Hamilton couldn't find grip. Daniel Ricciardo had a homecoming from hell. Fernando Alonso's McLaren ran smoothly for 50 laps and then it went all to hell with five laps to go. Elsewhere, rain lingered in Qatar and delayed the MotoGP season opener. NASCAR finished up its western road trip and the Supercross championship is getting closer. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Great American Cash Grab
The 2017 Formula One season could be the last of the series, as we know it in the United States. After five seasons on the NBC airwaves, it appears Formula One could have a new broadcasting home in the United States in 2018. Liberty Media CEO Greg Maffei commented at the start of March to Forbes that NBC's multi-million dollar offer to extend its broadcast rights as a "popcorn fart." Those are not comforting words if you are a U.S.-based Formula One fan.

Reportedly, NBC Sports purchased Formula One rights for $3 million in late-2012. Arguably, that is a good deal for NBC, as that comes out to less than a half a million a year for half a decade. When looking at the ratings, the deal once again seems fair to NBC, which averaged 482,000 viewers per race in 2016 and the NBCSN races averaged 429,000 per race, the most-watched Formula One season on a single cable network since ESPN averaged 755,000 in 1995.

It is understandable that Liberty Media, which purchased Formula One late last year, wants to maximize its revenue and getting more money for television rights is one way to do it but Liberty Media has also stated it wants to expand the exposure of the series, especially in the United States. While ratings look good for Formula One in the United States and it is one of the few countries to see ratings increases in recent years, it is going to be hard to sell any network on paying Formula One unfathomable gobs of money.

A year after NBC locked up Formula One rights, the network purchased the NASCAR rights in a ten-year, multi-billion deal. Formula One isn't going to get a ten-year, multi-billion deal. It wouldn't make any sense if the deal were ten years, $100 million. With Formula One's growth in the United States moving at just faster than a glacial pace, I am not sure what deal Maffei and the rest of the suits at Liberty Media thinks accomplishes both its goals of maximizing revenue and expanding exposure in the United States.

Hypothetically, a million dollars a year for ten years, if Liberty Media wanted to sell the rights that far into the future, seems fair for both Liberty Media and NBC. Liberty Media gets more money and NBC isn't that far in the hole. I can't see another networks such as Fox or ESPN going any higher than that and I can't see either network being a better option that NBC.

While many may gripe about NBCSN not being an easily accessible network and there being too many commercials and not enough races on network television or not all the practice sessions being shown live, Fox or ESPN wouldn't be better options.

The day is never coming when all 20 Formula One races are going to be on network television in the United States. It's not happening. It would be more races on network than NASCAR currently gets on network. Motorsports has always been a cable sports property in the United States. Commercials are always going to be a part of the broadcast. They pay the bills.

And while the occasional Formula One race is bumped to CNBC because of Premier League coverage or Tour de France coverage, the same would likely happen on Fox with Bundesliga coverage and Fox Sports 2 is more of an albatross than NBCSN.

ESPN is the one channel that makes some sense of picking up Formula One. SportsCenter isn't what it once was and Formula One could do a better job filling Saturday and Sunday mornings from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. than two episodes of SportsCenter. Worst-case scenario with ESPN is a few races are on ESPN2 and people can find ESPN2. However, I am not sure ESPN is interested and I have to warn you that ESPN getting Formula One rights could lead to the inevitability of Eddie Cheever being a part of the broadcast and nobody wants more Eddie Cheever in their life.

NBC is the best option for Formula One to grow in the United States. It is a consistent with its coverage and makes sure all the races are shown live, even if it has to be on CNBC and majority of the qualifying sessions are shown live as well. The network shows four races, including Monaco at 8:00 a.m. ET, a massive feat and something I am not sure ABC or Fox would commit to.

However, my fear is Liberty Media will be offered a golden carrot to seductive to pass up. A ridiculous figure that isn't close to being matched by any other bidder and Formula One will go from a steady home to a high-tier channel such as beIN Sports, which could off five-times of any other networks but for ratings that are fractions of what Formula One currently gets in the United States. Sure, beIN Sports might offer every practice session live but if only 6,000 viewers are tuning in for practice and 90,000 people are tuning in for the race, what has Formula One accomplished but only making its wallet fatter?

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Sebastian Vettel but did you know...

Maverick Viñales won the Qatar Grand Prix. Franco Morbidelli won his first Moto2 race in his 54th start and it is his sixth consecutive podium finish. Joan Mir won the Moto3 season opener.

Kyle Larson swept the weekend at Fontana, the first time he has done that in his NASCAR career.

Eli Tomac won Supercross race from Detroit, his fourth consecutive victory and he trails Ryan Dungey by seven points in the championship.

Coming Up This Weekend
NASCAR returns east to Martinsville.
Formula E returns to competition in Mexico City.
World Superbike makes its European debut at Aragón.
The Blancpain Sprint Series opens at Misano.
Supercross heads to St. Louis.