SportBusiness International spoke to senior stakeholders in Formula One, all of whom have done business with Bernie Ecclestone over the last 60 years. Here are the 10 qualities they said have made him, and Formula One, one of the biggest success stories in the history of the sports industry.
1) Unrivalled Visionary
There is one overriding theme when talking to those who have worked closely with the Formula One boss across his career: Bernie Ecclestone is one of the most far-sighted and futurist thinkers to have ever worked in the business of sport. And more than one highlighted a similarity between Ecclestone and IMG founder Mark McCormack, the visionary who is accepted by most as the founding father of modern-day sports marketing.
In particular, Ecclestone’s strategy to take what was traditionally a European sport into developing markets was recognised. Ecclestone first looked to host a race in India during the late 1990s, while China entered the calendar in 2004 – two territories that many major sports properties can only dream of conquering. Formula One’s international footprint has also made it one of the most attractive sports properties for sponsors, and you need look no further than the global brands who have committed to Formula One in recent years – Red Bull, DHL and Tata Communications to name but a few.
“Bernie’s the best visionary I’ve ever come across,” says former Formula One owner Eddie Jordan. “Look at where Formula One is now in many international markets – India, China and Korea, for example – many sports are only just looking at them now. Bernie did it 10 years ago.”
Ecclestone’s career at the top of Formula One is characterised by a total determination to push the envelope to keep the sport exciting for the viewer and attractive to commercial partners. It doesn’t always come off – a few countries have fallen off the calendar without the sport being able to establish a foothold – but Ecclestone is always prepared to jump into the unknown, even if it ruffles a few feathers.
His idea to award double points for the final race of the calendar, in an attempt to ensure the season reached a crescendo rather than petering out like it did in 2013 when Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel clinched his fourth consecutive title with three races still to go, was criticised almost unanimously across the sport, but is a case in point that Ecclestone is forever looking to shake up the sport one way or another.
3) Unique Access
How many people can pick up the phone and immediately get through to Russian President Vladimir Putin, or Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi?
The answer is not many. Having strong relationships with the world’s most influential people is one of the reasons the sport has been able to establish strong footholds across the world, and when looking to discuss a potential hosting contract, or resolve a major security issue around a grand prix comprehensively and quickly, it helps to have the ear of the best-placed men and women in the country.
“Formula One’s an old man’s sport,” says a Formula One veteran, “and by that I mean many of the key people involved – including Bernie – have been around since the 1960s. That means Bernie is good friends with most of the key personalities and he has their respect.”
Ecclestone has a reputation as a ferocious deal-maker, but those within the sport who have struck agreements with him over the decades say he is a charming personality and people like to work with him, so much so that “dealing with him one-to-one is a fantastic experience,” according to a former team principal. “He has far more fans than he has detractors,” he adds.
Like any politician will tell you, the hardest thing about the job is making decisions that everyone is happy about. Keeping the key stakeholders – including the teams and the FIA (International Automobile Federation) – on side at critical stages of the sport’s history has been a recurring theme of Ecclestone’s career.
“Bernie is always willing to do you a favour, and that means he has strong, respectful relationships within the sport,” says a former senior FIA employee. “All you have to do is walk down the pit lane before a race to see how much respect he commands from not only those within the sport but celebrities, politicians and members of royal families.”
5) One-Man Band
Formula One doesn’t have the rigid corporate structure that many other sports properties have, which means Ecclestone runs a lean machine, exercising total control of major broadcasting, sponsorship and hosting deals. This also means he can negotiate and sign-off agreements that contribute to his future vision for the sport easily and quickly.
“There’s no doubt Bernie is the decision-maker,” says one Formula One observer. “He macro manages people and situations and lets other people micro manage the finer details.”
6) Passion for Formula One
“One thing that is often underestimated about Bernie,” says one insider who has worked closely with Ecclestone, “is how much he loves Formula One. There is no way the sport would be in the position it is now were it not for that.”
Motor racing has been central to Bernie Ecclestone’s life ever since he set up a second-hand motor cycle parts business in the late 1940s, and taking Formula One from strength to strength is in his DNA and is the single determining factor of why he has made a success of the sport, according to many of those who have worked closely with him.
Ecclestone is a reliable and trustworthy character – many deals are made on a handshake and that handshake is as good as a 200-page contract, according to Formula One insiders.
“In my experience, having worked for him directly for a number of years, lots was done on a handshake,” says a former employee of Ecclestone. “I never signed a contract to work with him – it was on a handshake. I was perfectly happy to do it and what that comes down to is a sense of trust.
“Will you find people who would disagree with that? I’m sure you would. But then that’s business – it’s not something I or anyone I have ever spoken to has experienced.”
8) Attention to Detail
Ecclestone has a formidable reputation, however, for imposing firm contractual terms in the other direction on sponsors, broadcasters and race organisers with very little room for compromise. This results in agreements where the obligations are clear and the consequences of non-performance are a powerful incentive for full compliance by all parties. Andrew Craig, the former chairman and CEO of IndyCar, says this is due to an obsession with quality and attention to detail.
“Bernie’s attention to detail is second to none,” he adds. “He has a commitment to excellence in delivery that you find in other motor sport greats, such as [IndyCar and NASCAR team owner] Roger Penske and the France family [who run NASCAR]. It is a personal quality that has become one of the defining characteristics of Formula One today.”
9) Concise and Clear
Ever feel like you spend most of your days in back-to-back meetings where a lot of people talk and not a lot gets done? It doesn’t happen under Bernie’s watch.
“You can plan for days for a meeting with Bernie and he’ll deal with the matter in five minutes,” says one Formula One marketing expert. “He cuts to the chase and in my experience he has keenness to make things happen.”
10) Bernie the Buyer
Ecclestone’s career is littered with instances where he has bought at a very good price and sold at an even better price – something that has contributed to both his personal fortune and the financial fortunes of Formula One. As Andrew Craig puts it: “In the sports industry, all the hard work and skill is in the buying. Once you buy for a good price it is infinitely easier to sell for profit. But if you buy for too much, you’re in trouble.”
In 1971 Ecclestone bought the Brabham team for £100,000 and in 1988 he sold it for over $5 million. In 2000 Ecclestone acquired the commercial rights for Formula One in a 100-year deal for $360 million – in 2013 the sport brought in just under $560 million in broadcast revenues alone, according to SportBusiness Intelligence. Do we need to go on?