By Tariq Panja, Bloomberg
Plenty of companies have been eager to associate themselves with Formula One, the world’s most popular racing series. The McLaren Honda team has 26 corporate sponsors. Scuderia Ferrari has 28, including a Thai brewery, a Spanish bank, a Russian cybersecurity firm and a different Italian automaker.
The competition’s new U.S. owners would like some sponsors, too. When billionaire John Malone’s Liberty Media Corp. bought Formula One for $8 billion in January, it acquired the world’s top motorsport — it claims an audience of 400 million — but just a fraction of its sales and marketing deals, which enrich most teams and sports leagues around the world.
As a result, it currently has just five corporate partners. NASCAR, by comparison, has 43. Much of that is down to the way it was run — almost single-handedly by its longtime former supremo Bernie Ecclestone.
“There was no head of sponsorship at Formula One when I arrived, there was no head of media, no marketing people, no research people,” Sean Bratches, a former ESPN executive tapped to lead commercial operations six months ago, said in an interview. He reeled off a list of other key staffers Formula One lacked, before comparing its lack of sponsors unfavorably with those top English soccer clubs have managed to secure.
“We sit here today and we have five sponsors, Liverpool has over 30, Manchester United has over 90. I don’t think we’re going to get over 90, but there’s an opportunity to engage sponsors who are looking to activate their brands,” Bratches said ahead of an event in central London to promote the sport last week.
Bratches said Formula One could take cues from United, which has parlayed its massive global supporter base into a formidable sponsorship model broken down by region and product category. First, he said, the series will focus on growing its online presence. “We might be the only company on the planet that doesn’t generate revenue on digital.”
To secure new fans and business opportunities, Formula One says it wants to bring races to major cities, which may one day include London, where all teams paraded cars and drivers before 100,000 fans. The only driver absent from the event was home favorite Lewis Hamilton, who won the British Grand Prix last weekend. The owners of that race recently opted to break their contract, citing financial losses. The race at Silverstone will end after 2019 unless a new deal can be worked out.
Bratches said he’s working to ensure Britain remains on the racing calendar, which is likely to change significantly under Liberty Media. Formula One has had over 40 expressions of interest from potential venues, Bratches said.
In recent years, former owner Ecclestone had replaced traditional circuits in Europe with tracks in far-flung locations like Bahrain, Baku in Azerbaijan, and Sochi in Russia. While those venues earned higher fees for Formula One, they also led to criticism from human rights groups.
“We are going in an entirely different direction,” Bratches said. “We are going to be extremely focused on where we go that has a representation and reflection on our brand.”