John Malone takes driving seat at Formula One in $8bn deal

Virgin Media owner will buy an 18.7% controlling stake from CVC

 

Formula One faces its biggest shake-up in decades with the announcement that US cable TV mogul and high-profile investor in Ireland John Malone’s Liberty Media has agreed to take control of the cash-generating glamour sport.

The deal, which has an enterprise value of $8 billion (€7.09 billion), according to a company statement, heralds a new era for Formula One, a European-dominated sport that has long sought to break into the US market and win fresh audiences.

It could also accelerate the exit of 85-year-old Bernie Ecclestone, the Englishman who has run the sport for nearly 40 years and built up a business with annual turnover of about $1.9 billion.

Liberty Media said in a statement, which ended a long-running saga surrounding the sport’s ownership and potential flotation, that it was acquiring an initial 18.7 per cent stake from controlling shareholder CVC Capital Partners.

The company hopes to complete a deal for the remainder by the first quarter of 2017.

Irish investments

Liberty owns Virgin Media in the Republic, while Mr Malone controls a substantial Irish property portfolio, including a number of high-profile hotels such as Dublin’s Westin and Trinity Capital.

The statement added that Chase Carey, the executive vice-chairman of Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox and a director of Sky News owner Sky, will take over as chairman of the board of Formula One’s parent company with Ecclestone remaining as chief executive.

“I greatly admire Formula One as a unique global sports entertainment franchise attracting hundreds of millions of fans each season from all around the world,” Mr Carey said.

“I see great opportunity to help Formula One continue to develop and prosper for the benefit of the sport, fans, teams and investors alike.”

Mr Ecclestone added that he welcomed the company into the sport and looked forward to working with them.

The deal will be subject to the approval of the International Automobile Federation (FIA), the governing body for Formula One and other global motorsport series, and European competition regulators.

CVC acquired majority control of Formula One in March 2006 and has since recouped its money many times over with billions of dollars in revenues.

Dealmaker

Mr Ecclestone has been the dealmaker, securing lucrative television contracts and hosting fees with countries such as Abu Dhabi and Azerbaijan that are eager to feature on what is now a calendar with a record 21 races.

A controversial figure, who has become as much a celebrity as any of the drivers, “Bernie” has been a part of Formula One ever since the 1950s.

A former team owner, he secured the television rights in the late 1970s and transformed the sport into one of the world’s richest.

Reluctant to delegate, he has not groomed a successor and critics have accused him of holding back the sport through a failure to embrace fully new media or the digital marketplace, something Liberty is expected to make a priority.

“Maybe it is good news that an American media company buys F1,” Mercedes motorsport head Toto Wolff said at the weekend’s Italian Grand Prix.

“There are things we can learn from the American way, particularly in the digital areas...they will have a close look and then analyse what they think needs to be changed and what needs to remain.”

Team bosses and other paddock insiders expect Mr Ecclestone to be eased out only gradually, given his intimate knowledge of the business.

CVC has twice tried to float Formula One but the plans stalled and the fund instead sold stakes to US investment groups BlackRock and Waddell & Reed, along with Norway’s Norges Bank.

It sold down its holding from 63 per cent in 2012 in deals that at the time gave the business an enterprise value, which includes debt and equity, of $9.1 billion.

Bambino Trust

That left CVC with a 35.5 per cent stake in Delta Topco, Formula One’s parent company, with Waddell & Reed having 20.9 per cent. Among other investors, Mr Ecclestone holds 5.3 per cent and his family’s Bambino Trust another 8.5 per cent.

Mr Malone’s Liberty Global is the world’s largest international TV and broadband company, operating in more than 30 countries in Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean through a series of different brand names.

Reuters