Tramore Hinterland – Paywall is F1’s crash barrier

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This week in the column that is worth at least 0.1c of the €1.50 you’ll pay for Tramore Hinterland: why Formula 1’s decision to climb into the bed with the Dirty Digger could soon see the sport become a footnote in our everyday lives.

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I’m loath to criticise any of the decisions Bernie Ecclestone makes for the sport that he has run with an iron fist for over thirty years. But that isn’t going to stop me criticising a decision that Bernie Ecclestone made for the sport that he has run with an iron fist for over thirty years.

Ecclestone has long yearned for a 24-hour outlet for his sport. In a display of admirable candour a few years back, he admitted to being baffled at why the petrolheads who love the sport spurned the wall-to-wall telemetry of his first effort at a pay-per-view Formula 1 channel. The lesson that he would have learned was the extra bells and whistles on the dedicated channel were not sufficiently useful to pay for when you could get almost every lap of every race on free-to-air television. His solution? Sell only half the races to theBBC. If you want the full-fat Formula 1 experience, you have to take the shilling of Ecclestone’s fellow octogenarian media mogul, Rupert Murdoch.

It’s unlikely that the transition to Sky will be a financial failure for Formula 1. It’s a sport that depends heavily on as many eyeballs as possible falling on the advertising hoarding moving around in circles, and obviously there’ll be fewer of those as the casual post-Sunday roast crowd have less opportunity to tune in. But Ecclestone will have factored this into account. If he could wean the sport off its addiction to cigarette advertising then this transition should be straightforward. Besides, he will now be able to present better data about the demographic following F1 simply by looking at the type of person buying a subscription to the channel. If the ad men ever thought it was better to be safe than sorry and include ads for Pampers or Dove during the break they’ll be in no doubt now, and that will make F1 even more attractive to advertisers.

So if I don’t think he will lose money on this, what’s the problem? You’d think that a man in the twilight of his years like Bernie Ecclestone would have more appreciation for the legacy of the sport. The sport that every administrator would look to as an example would be soccer, which has managed to see an exponential rise in revenues while still firmly maintaining its place in the collective consciousness. That would be to underestimate the extent of the global soccer juggernaut though. People were fiercely loyal to their teams long before Sky. It was Match of the Day and The Big Match, ITV’s Sunday afternoon highlights programme in the 1970’s, then the Saturday afternoon live game on RTÉ in the 1980’s, that really caused English soccer to burrow its way into the Irish psyche. It probably wouldn’t have happened to the extent it did had the game been behind a paywall and potential new fans of Formula 1 may never develop as they are not regularly exposed to the sport.

More telling examples for F1 are the fates of sports like darts and rugby league. Neither will regret taking the Murdoch soup as they have seen huge increases in prize money/wages as a result. But there must be wistfulness at what has been lost in terms of visibility. Darts players like Eric Bristow, John Lowe and Jocky Wilson were once genuinely famous, the latter despite being only good rather than great. The only darts players with any degree of fame these days is Phil Taylor, and he has had to win 15 world titles to get to that stage. Even rugby league had its big names. Armchair sports geeks like myself had no problem name-checking Ellery Hanley, Martin Offiah or Mal Meninga. With the dawn of the Super League, the sport had genuine pretensions of having franchises in Wales and Ireland. The most recent addition to the ranks of Super League? Widnes. It is not too strong to say that rugby league is stuck in its north of England ghetto with no hope of breaking out when no-one but the committed is watching.

Formula 1 has struggled in recent times to stay as what the Americans call a water-cooler topic. It was a sport that was once sufficiently noteworthy to make Nigel Mansell theBBCSports Personality of the Year on two occasions despite his complete lack of any personality. And who among Irish sports fans can forget the hoopla surrounding the Jordan F1 team? In retrospect it was all a little bit silly. Eddie Jordan was a business man whose business was making money, and the paddywhackery that attached itself was all part of the sales pitch. Still, the affection generated by the team was real enough, to the extent that Jordan polo shirts and caps were a common sight. Nowadays the only team that anyone could be said to have affection for is Ferrari. As the sport retreats behind its paywall, the chances of a team rising up in the manner of Jordan again would seem to be slim. Bernie Ecclestone is no doubt hoping that the part-time presence of the sport on theBBCwill keep the ‘personalities’ in the public eye. But the days when people cared about the fate of an individual Grand Prix are long gone. It’s the World Championship or nothing, and fully half of it will take place off the screen as far as the average punter is concerned.

The sport will continue to prosper. It’s the highest level of motor racing, and almost everyone can relate to driving a car. There’s a danger for the sport though that in time Sebastian Vettel will be mentioned in the same breath as Simon Whitlock or Kevin Sinfield. That would certainly be quite the legacy for Bernie Ecclestone to leave behind for the sport of Fangio, Stewart, Prost and Senna.

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There was an incident in the league match between Munster and Leinster in the RoboCop League (or whatever it’s called) last year that came back to mind this week. Doug Howlett received a poor pass and had to stop in his tracks to control the ball. Duly he was hit with a pulverising tackle to the midriff for his troubles. What struck me (pun unintended) was how dangerous it looked yet no-one batted an eyelid – it was, it should be emphasised, a perfectly legal tackle. Rugby’s rules are from an era when even players at the highest level were frequently beer-swilling, chain-smoking lard bellies. Being tackled by your average flanker was about as dangerous as being hit with a runaway shopping trolley wrapped in pillows. Nowadays the tackle comes from a professional sportsman at the peak of physical perfection, obsessively pumping iron in the gym and scoffing protein shakes in the canteen. You don’t need to think any of them are on drugs to be concerned at the extent to which professional sportsmen push their bodies to the limit to eke out the extra yard of pace or ounce of strength. And then when you see what happened to Fabrice Muamba last Saturday, at the time of writing critically ill after collapsing during the Spurs-Bolton match, you wonder whether they’re going too far.

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