In one of the biggest deals in sports history, cable mogul John Malone’s Liberty Media conglomerate has agreed to acquire Formula One, the iconic motorsports business that has struggled to win fans in the U.S., for $4.4 billion.
Formula One’s popularity in the U.S. lags behind Nascar stock-car racing and most team sports. But its American television audience has increased by 40% since NBC Sports acquired the domestic broadcast rights in 2013.
Liberty, which has been expanding into more sports-oriented programming, believes it can fuel growth by pushing Formula One into new media, including social networks. It is acquiring the franchise from a group led by CVC Capital Partners, a Luxembourg-based investment fund.
“There’s interest in this sport around the world,” Chase Carey, a former Fox executive who will serve as Formula One’s new chairman, said in a conference call. “We want to continue to intelligently explore the opportunities to continue to grow it.”
The deal “underscores the value of live sports content to broadcasters, which are scrambling to win eyeballs and steal subscribers from challengers like Netflix and Amazon.com in an increasingly crowded media market,” The Wall Street Journal said.
Under the leadership of legendary British entrepreneur Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One has grown rapidly since the 1970s, attracting broadcasting deals and corporate sponsors ranging from luxury watchmakers to fuel suppliers.
But in the six years through 2014, global Formula One viewership slipped to 425 million from 600 million. “If Nascar is known for souped-up stock cars and salt-of-the-earth drivers, Formula One is about space-age engineering and globe-trotting racers,” The New York Times said.
Carey told investors he planned to build Formula One’s fan base by “telling the Formula One story” and expanding its digital presence.
Liberty’s other sports assets include the Atlanta Braves Major League Baseball club. “We think our long-term perspective and expertise with media and sports assets will allow us to be good stewards of Formula One and benefit fans, teams and our shareholders,” CEO Greg Maffei said.