Bernie forecasts how F1 could go under

27/04/2009
NEWS STORY

F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone is famed for his frank and controversial views. This is the man who said that women should be dressed in white like domestic appliances and that the UK government should host the opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympic Games underground so that it isn't embarrassed by it. Having known Ecclestone for some time, Pitpass' business editor Chris Sylt has come to expect curveballs at meetings with the F1 supremo. However, even he was taken aback by what Ecclestone had to say when he met him for lunch recently.

Writing in the Telegraph, Sylt says that corporate hospitality sales will be down by 20% over the next two or three races giving a drop of 10% over the year. Not such a great surprise you might think, but Bernie's views on the security of F1's other revenue streams raised more than an eyebrow.

Corporate hospitality only brings in around 10% of F1's $1.1bn annual revenues. Television rights and race hosting fees make a total of $800m with the remainder coming from trackside advertising, which Ecclestone says has not fallen "because it's all long term deals." However, the weak link could be the money from the race promoters.

Hosting fees last year totalled $403.5m according to F1's industry monitor Formula Money and Ecclestone is not worried about the race promoters defaulting. "It's not possible because we have the guarantees in place," he says. He explains that the danger comes from the guarantors going under due to the downturn leaving F1 without security.

"About a year ago I'd have said that a guarantee with a bank is a guarantee because nothing is going to go wrong," says Ecclestone, adding that "when you think of all the banks that have gone under, you would have said they are gilt-edged... Although our promoters are all pretty well guaranteed, imagine if suddenly out of the blue the guarantors were to say 'sorry'."

In a nutshell, if the race promoters fail to pay their fees due to poor ticket sales then F1 has to hope that the bank guaranteeing their payment doesn't go bust because the consequences could be catastrophic.

F1 is owned by finance firm CVC which used a $2.4bn loan from the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) to buy the sport in 2006. The right to repayment has been sold by RBS to other investors and they now get $270m from F1 annually as it pays back the loan.

However, the risk of the banks, which guarantee the promoters, going bust is enough of a concern that Ecclestone says "I don't know if I would buy the (F1) debt. It would have to be cheap for me to buy it."

It's actually quite a logical view since any major dent in F1's revenues could impact its ability to repay the debt and as one debtholder says, "if several race promoters were to fail to pay their sanction fees in 2009, this would be a concern."

Nevertheless, Ecclestone adds that despite the gloomy economy, CVC is in it for the long haul. "I don't think they are going to sell he says," before adding "lots of people have approached them." Provided no more banks go under that could well prove to be a wise decision.

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Published: 27/04/2009
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