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Sean Bratches: ‘If we can serve the fan, all the manifestations of our business will benefit’

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - OCTOBER 27: Sean Bratches, Managing Director (Commercial Operations) of the Formula One Group looks on in the Paddock during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Mexico at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on October 27, 2017 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

  • Sport will move to dynamic trackside sponsorship assets next year
  • Management team planning to launch two OTT products
  • Bratches wants F1 team brands to recruit drivers and enrol teams in F1 esports competition next year

Liberty Media, in case you hadn’t noticed, have been at pains to put a bit of distance between themselves and Bernie Ecclestone since they purchased Formula 1 in late 2016.

While the new management team have been careful to pay their respects to the octogenarian’s achievements, it’s seldom very long before they move on to enumerate all the business opportunities that the former CEO left on the table while he was running the sport.

Far from offering a placatory business-as-usual message to Formula 1’s stakeholders, the sign that the new owners have placed over the door sends out an unmistakeable message: the world’s premier motor racing category is under new management and they think they can apply a more rigorous and open-minded approach to the task than their predecessor.

Speaking to Sean Bratches, the sport’s new managing director of commercial operations, at the Singapore Grand Prix, it soon becomes clear that this root-and-branch approach also extends to the way the sport deals with the media.

“We never had a communications team before,” says Bratches nodding towards former Ferrari press officer Luca Colajanni who oversees our interview in the F1 paddock and who joined the group in a frenetic recruitment drive earlier this year.

“The word is out, we’ve got professionals like Luca now on the communications team. I think we’re trying to take this to a 21st-century-led company that has best practices and has the sport’s, in the broadest sense, best interests in mind,” he adds.

An ESPN vice president of sales and marketing for nearly 30 years, Bratches joined Formula 1 in January when the new owners effectively tried to replace the ‘one-man show’ of the Ecclestone reign with a triumvirate of new leaders.

Former Fox executive Chase Carey was appointed as the CEO, with Bratches heading up the commercial side and engineering legend Ross Brawn taking care of motorsport decisions.

IMAGE: Bratches with Formula One CEO Chase Carey (Getty Images)

Since joining the sport, Bratches has arguably been the most vocal member of the trio, although journalists accustomed to Ecclestone’s more eccentric musings on Adolf Hitler, say, or the love lives of Formula 1 drivers are unlikely to get anything of the sort from the new commercial head.

In fact, such is the intensity that Bratches applies to staying on-message, the paddock has already coined a word to describe his turn of phrase. ‘Seanspeak’ refers to his fondness for upbeat corporate metaphors and is an affectionate nod to the ‘Ronspeak’ similarly employed by former McLaren owner Ron Dennis.

The verbal intensity has been matched by the speed at which Bratches has attempted to create a more professional commercial structure for the sport.

Aside from the new hires in the communications team, he now presides over Formula 1’s first formal sponsorship team, headed up by former World Rugby chief commercial officer Murray Barnett, and a commercial research team led by former Discovery and BT Sport head of research Matthew Roberts.

Measure and monetise

“You know there’s an old adage that if you can’t measure it, you can’t monetise it,” he says. “When I arrived here … we really didn’t have any research; it wasn’t a research-oriented company and we’ve moved to pivot that.”

At a recent conference, Chase Carey derided the sport’s previous approach as one in which it was selling a ‘black box’ to its sponsors – Bratches’ job is to give the sport’s prospective partners a greater sense of what’s inside.

In the eight months he has been in position he explains how the sport has already conducted a global brand study, audience segmentation studies and on-the-ground research at every Grand Prix. An expression that might sound like a platitude in the mouths of other executives becomes more convincing given the extent of the research.

“Ultimately, we’re putting the fans in the middle of the table on every conversation that we’re having because we think if we can serve the fan, all the manifestations of our business will benefit,” he says.

“We think there’s a pretty significant upside on the sponsorship side for Formula 1, particularly as relates to our incumbent assets, but we’re also developing platforms that are sponsorable that don’t exist today in the sport.”

Where once the sport focused on static trackside adverts and counted the number of times they appeared on television, Bratches says Formula 1 will look at more dynamic inventory next year.

“You see what’s going on in paint and signs,” he explains. “We’re going to a full immersive, digital experience next year trackside where our [sponsors] will be able to position their brands in new creative ways to tell stories through digital technology, which other sports have adopted but we’ve been a little bit behind the curve on.

“Some of the manifestations from that are our ability to create split copy for current sponsors. So, if Heineken, as an example, wanted to promote their 0.0 brand in Spain and they wanted to promote Heineken Light in the US, Heineken in China, they could do that.”

The description sounds a lot like the digital replacement technology pioneered by technology firm Supponor in La Liga, but Bratches refuses to say which companies he plans to work with.

The furthest he will go is to say the new inventory will be a combination of “LED, virtual reality and 3D” assets.

Additional sponsorship opportunities will be provided by updates to the Formula 1 website and, of course, the sport’s increased activity on social media.

“We’re building from the ground up a responsive web platform,” he says. “Right now, our current web platform is not commercialised at all, and it’s not set up to be commercialised.

“There are certainly capabilities from a social standpoint. Snap [Snapchat] is probably an appropriate example of that – we’re doing a live story Snap programme here in Singapore.”

Digital

With this, Bratches touches on the most obvious change instigated by the new owners. Towards the end of July, the sport’s new communications team sent out a celebratory press release revealing that Formula 1 was the fastest growing sports brand on social media having increased the number of its followers at that stage by 56 per cent in comparison to the end of 2016.

Impressions were up 124 per cent and video views had increased by 283 per cent – it was also reported that the sport was outperforming the likes of the NBA and MLB in terms of the number of interactions-per-thousand fans on Facebook.

The new commercial director is happy to share the good news, although he is the first to acknowledge this was the lowest hanging morsel of fruit when taking the reluctance of Ecclestone towards digital technology into consideration. Regardless of this, it sounds like the sport has a clear plan about what it intends to do with the new-found levels of engagement.

“We see social media as a kind of a dual opportunity,” he says. “One is to broaden the scope and reach of our brand and the other comes with direct monetisation.”

Expanding on this, he says the richer experience provided by the new website will also help to ‘ignite linear opportunities’ while the sport’s new ‘fan-first’ approach will allow it to tailor content more effectively to its followers.

He adds: “We think that is going [lead] to the ascendancy of our brand once we unleash the extraordinary amount of data in very user-centric and engaging ways.”

Media disintermediation

Bratches is in a strong position to comment on the changes that are taking place in the media having had a front-row seat in his time with ESPN. While he is reluctant to comment on the troubles at his former company, he is prepared to be quoted more generally.

“There is a disintermediation going on in the global video marketplace and you’re going to have winners and you’re going to have losers in that marketplace just like any other,” he says.

“I think it’s dependent upon incumbent and insurgent brands to be looking around corners in terms of the products that they’re serving their fans on, and which platforms and under which business models they adopt to do so.”

He is also prepared to put more flesh on Formula 1’s plans for not one, but two over-the-top (OTT) products. Once again, he lingers on the opportunities in the increased use of Formula 1 data.

“We’re going to launch two [OTT products], one live, which will basically be from Thursday to Sunday evening at a Grand Prix,” he says. “And we are going to launch a non-live one which will be data-driven. These extraordinary machines these pilots shepherd around the Grand Prix tracks are equipped with 120 sensors.

“They kick out over 1,500 points of data every second and we’ve been in the throes of discussions internally in terms of identifying which of those data points initially will make the most sense to create user experiences around and put on our non-live OTT platforms.”

Like any rights-holder trying to balance the needs of its media partners with the need to create a direct-to-consumer offering, Bratches maintains that live platform will be ‘complementary’ to its media rights deals. He says there are two primary audiences the sport wants to target with the new platform.

“There are a growing number of households that do not have television either for economic or philosophical reasons,” he says.

“We want to be competitive with other leagues that have platforms that can target these audiences and we want to be able to serve those audiences.

IMAGE: Formula One and the organisers of the Singapore Grand Prix have signed a four-year extension (Getty Images)

“The second I think are the ‘avids’ that the incumbent platforms are incapable of facilitating. These are the kind of, what I would call, next generation experiences which an OTT platform can afford.”

Having just concluded TV deals with TF1 and Canal+ in France, Bratches says the sport will continue to try to pursue a mix of free-to-air and pay-TV deals.

When he is asked about recent comments criticising the exclusive pay-TV deal negotiated by the previous ownership with Sky in the UK for rights from 2019 to 2024, he reiterates the proportion of Formula 1 he’d like to see on free-to-air.

“It’s 25 to 30 per cent, I think, in an ideal circumstance where the state of the Formula 1 brand is right now. I believe that to be a very important aspect of the media rights deals we do in marketplaces today. As the great philosopher Mike Tyson once said, everyone’s got a plan until they start getting hit in the face, so you know, at this point in time, that is our strategy and I think we’ve done an appropriate job executing on that.”

He adds that the sport will try to secure shorter media deals to give it the flexibility to exploit its growing fanbase and react more swiftly to the state of flux in the media industry. “We want to be able to be lucid and pivot to opportunities as they present themselves that best serve the Formula 1 fan,” he says.

Esports

The need to reach new audiences is also the guiding principle behind the sport’s decision to launch an esports competition based on the popular Codemasters Formula 1 video game.

To help organise the competition it has enlisted the support of experienced esports event company Gfinity, which will host the semi-finals for the event at its London Arena in October.

Bratches admits that the competition is far from the finished article, and that next year’s product will be better. For this to be the case, you begin to appreciate why the new owners want all of the Formula 1 teams to pull in the same direction.

“Next year we’ll have a much more robust Formula 1 esports experience and process,” he says.

“Ultimately our objective is to integrate that into a similar structure with the team brands leading and having teams actually managing their teams, recruiting these athletes and participating in the esports championship.”

As an example of the virtuous circle created by this type of partnership, Bratches says sales of the Formula 1-licensed Codemasters game have increased 30 per cent since the esports competition was launched. Returning to the fan-centric theme, he adds that the competition will also furnish the sport with more data about existing and potential followers.

IMAGE: Singapore Airlines’ esports activation at September’s Grand Prix

“There is a huge monetisation opportunity for us here and there is also, in everything we do going forward, the pursuit of creating a database that we can exploit to better provision content and experiences to the Formula 1 fan.”

Walking around the fan village at the Singapore Grand Prix, it’s clear that the sport’s sponsors have responded to the new focus on youth-friendly experiences. It is also apparent that the sport is providing them with the IP to activate their partnerships.

In local sponsor Singapore Airlines’ tent, for example, teenagers could be seen clustered around a simulator playing the Formula 1 game – other activities included a similarly youth-oriented drone-racing challenge.

Event hosting and promotion 

These aren’t the only respects in which the experience of the first night race on the Formula 1 calendar chimes with the ambitions of the new owners.

When the organisers of the Singapore Grand Prix signed a four-year extension to their hosting rights immediately before the first practice session of the race, CEO Chase Carey was quick to praise the race promoters for providing a “week-long spectacular” and providing “an energy in terms of food and entertainment and things that transcend and make it more than just a race”.

Bratches says he was misquoted in stories that emerged after the Monza Grand Prix in which he appeared to criticise the majority of race promoters and claim that only four to five were doing an effective job.

Exchanging frustrated glances with his communications aide, he says the purpose of the comments was to highlight Formula 1’s ambitions to create a more consistent experience.

“I think that we have a combination of promoters, car enthusiasts and governments that manage these [races] and some do a better job than others in terms of engaging the fan,” he says.

“I think the ones that are, by default, and by business, natural promoters tend to understand that business better.

“What we’re trying to do is create a best-in-breed and create an overlay to support the overall experience. Because, ultimately, when a fan has a good experience it accrues back favourably to Formula 1; when they have a poor experience, unfortunately, it accrues back to Formula 1. It is not put on a promoter or anyone else, it comes to the brand.”

A further clue that Singapore is not one of the races on the naughty step is the new owner’s well-publicised desire to host more street races along similar lines to the one held in the city state.

“I think from a directional standpoint we have an extraordinary complement of Grand Prix today,” says Bratches. “My instinct for the next tranche is to do street races as opposed to heritage or purpose-built tracks.”

In keeping with the more disciplined approach from the new owners, there’s little chance Bratches will utter an indiscretion or give any clues about where these street races will be. And when Colajanni calls time on the interview just as Chase Carey appears at the door, it merely adds to the sense of a precisely calibrated machine.

The body language says there are plenty of other untapped opportunities to be had and the new owners are in a hurry to make the most of them.

EXTRA: Curriculum vitae

Before joining Formula 1 in January this year, Bratches spent 27 years as executive vice president of sales and marketing at ESPN. There he oversaw ESPN’s two primary revenue streams – advertising and sponsors sales, and content licensing. He also led the company’s research and analytics, marketing, consumer products and events marketing divisions.

During his time with the media company, Bratches is largely credited with the record-setting growth of emerging networks and platforms such as WatchESPN, ESPN3 and the SEC Network. His achievements were recognised when he was inducted into the Broadcasting and Cable 2014 Hall of Fame Class. He has also received two Vanguard Awards, the cable industry’s most prestigious award.

Bratches is a graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) where he earned a reputation as a hard-nosed lacrosse midfielder who helped lead the college’s Tigers team to their first ever NCAA appearance in 1983.  He was inducted into the college’s hall of fame in 2008.

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