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February 20, 2017

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New Formula One chief’s plans for expanded U.S. presence might include Las Vegas

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Luca Bruno / AP

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain steers his car during the Emirates Formula One Grand Prix at the Yas Marina racetrack in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Sunday, Nov. 27, 2016.

For the past four decades, the leader of Formula One racing, one of the biggest annual sporting series in the world, was Bernie Ecclestone, a diminutive former motorcycle parts dealer who built it into an international presence essentially on his own. A skilled backroom operator who speaks without a filter — he once praised Adolf Hitler and likened women to “domestic appliances” — Ecclestone said often that in his opinion, the sport was its best when he was allowed to act as “a dictator.”

Yet now the dictator is gone. After an American company, Liberty Media, recently acquired the Formula One series, Chase Carey — a longtime executive with Fox and DirecTV who by his own admission is not a rabid racing fan or “petrol-head” — was named to replace Ecclestone and try to overhaul the organization’s management, reach and ambition.

Among the goals, Carey said in an interview on Tuesday, is one that just about every global sport seems interested in chasing: increasing interest in the United States.

“People have said we’re going to ‘Americanize’ it,” Carey said. “And we’re not going to do that totally. But realistically, there are some elements of Americanization that the sport could use.”

While F1 commands enormous audiences throughout much of the world, many U.S. sports fans know it as that other motorsport, the one that’s not NASCAR. Formula One teams race sleeker, far more technologically advanced vehicles around tracks all over the world — opulent events in places like Singapore, Malaysia, Abu Dhabi and Monaco, but also on tradition-rich tracks like Silverstone in England and Monza in Italy.

The series has an annual race in Austin, Texas. But within “a few years,” Carey said, he plans to bring another to a destination American city like New York, Los Angeles, Miami or Las Vegas.

Carey’s overarching plan is twofold: First, revamp the business model of Formula One, which he said was a “one-man show” under Ecclestone that had a largely myopic vision when it came to negotiating partnership deals; and second, recast the way fans experience the sport, both in person and remotely, so that connections between spectators and people within the series are easier to make.

Increased digital access for fans, a more behind-the-scenes experience for broadcast viewers and innovation in areas like virtual reality — what is it like to speed around a track inside a Ferrari? — are among the possibilities.

“The sport has clearly been underserved,” Carey said. “It doesn’t do anything digitally. There’s no marketing. It doesn’t tell any stories. The goal in this is to make the fans connect to the live experience as much as possible, and the tools you have to do that, we’re not using at all.”

The larger question, though, is a familiar one. Is there room for F1 in the ever-crowded sports landscape of the United States? Opinions vary, particularly because viewing habits among consumers continue to evolve.

John Bloom, a professor at Shippensburg University who has studied American sports history, said the biggest challenge for any sport trying to increase its presence in the United States was framing itself in a way that had perpetual appeal.

“Sports generally become popular in some way because they establish a narrative,” Bloom said. “When I think of motorsports in the U.S., what we all think of is NASCAR, and the narrative of NASCAR is sort of rural, white, working-class Americans, mostly in the South, connecting with the atmosphere of those races. That’s the narrative. When I think of the narrative of Formula One, it’s a very different kind of audience.”

That difference, according to Carey, is significant. While some might immediately link F1 to NASCAR in terms of American growth, Carey said Formula One’s brand research has indicated there is very little crossover; rather, F1 fans generally cite other so-called elite events, like Wimbledon or the Ryder Cup, as other events they enjoy.

The target market, in other words, has “higher purchasing power,” Bloom said, which can be advantageous.

“Other than they’re both cars, the NASCAR fan base — I don’t want to put labels — but it is a very different fan base,” Carey said. “It’s a very regional fan base. Formula One is a global, iconic brand of stars. These are machines that shock and awe you.”

Carey’s background is in deal-making and innovation. At Fox, he was a top lieutenant to Rupert Murdoch for years, known for his handlebar mustache and for his skill in helping to lead the launch of Fox’s foray into sports as well as the Fox News Channel. After going to DirecTV, he positioned the satellite provider as a mainstream option in millions of households.

Now, after Liberty Media paid $4.4 billion to acquire Formula One, he is charged with making the investment pay off.

“I think they can build Formula One in the U.S.,” said Patrick Crakes, an executive at InVivo Media Group who spent 25 years at Fox before leaving in 2016 as a senior vice president at Fox Sports. “People don’t work on their cars anymore. They don’t want that connection anymore. It’s about technology and pushing the envelope. It’s about speed, danger and risk. And Formula One has that more than any other racing series.”

That is what hooked Carey, and he said he thought his experience was not unusual. He recalled attending F1’s Monaco Grand Prix last year and being overwhelmed by the pageantry of the buildup, the way the race — only one of 21 on the series calendar last year — captivated the city for days ahead of the start. In his mind, it felt like a Super Bowl.

Then, on race day, he watched as the cars zoomed out of a tunnel and went screaming toward a hairpin turn with the backdrop of the city’s harbor and the Mediterranean framing the scene. He was transfixed.

“You can’t help but be awed,” he said, “and I think that feeling can be translated to the viewer.”

He added: “The broader sport is a little too insular, and we need to be more open. In some ways, I’m glad to be coming from the outside. The guys who are in the sport forever are sitting there saying: ‘We can’t do that. We can’t do that because it’s never been done that way.’ And that’s not what we need. We need to think bigger.”

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