Formula E’s first season – a verdict

When I interviewed Alejandro Agag at Sportel Monaco, the annual trade fair for the sports broadcast industry, late in 2013, it was hard not to be a touch sceptical about Formula E, the proposed all-electric series he, as frontman, was busy introducing to TV executives and agencies. Yes, there was a show car present and, yes, Agag was impressive in outlining his vision for the championship, but launching an international motorsport series is some undertaking at the best of times; to launch one that intended to utilise entirely new technology seemed almost fanciful.

Having covered A1GP – or more specifically the business of A1GP – between 2005 and its demise in 2009, it was hard not to draw parallels as Agag explained his grand commercial plan for his new electric baby: the ambition was impressive, but the substance was still to appear.

Formula E’s launch event, champagne-fuelled and heavy on dry ice, at London’s Camden Roundhouse last summer was also highly reminiscent of A1GP’s lavish, seemingly-money-no-object hospitality arrangements. Nothing wrong with that, but A1GP was somehow never quite able to prove there was any solidity beneath the style; it started brightly, but, as history shows, did not end well.

At the end of a largely positive first season, Formula E, whisper it, appears in much better shape. It is a series with a purpose – the promotion of green technology in city vehicles – where A1GP, with its teams competing in national colours, simply had a strapline: the World Cup of Motorsport. Fun as it was for aficionados, it didn’t say enough about why the series was adding a crowded motorsport landscape and an even more cluttered sporting schedule.

And where, at times, A1GP chose to benchmark itself against Formula One – as a rival or possible future rival – Formula E’s leadership, led by Agag and Jean Todt, the president of the FIA, world motorsport’s governing body, have been cute in their consistent line that the two championships should not be compared, despite the attempts by some in the sponsorship industry and mainstream media to do just that – however well-meaning and headline-grabbing, Sir Richard Branson’s suggestion this weekend that Formula E, in which he runs a team, will have overtaken Formula One in five years, is unhelpful to a series still finding its feet.

After the first Formula E event in Beijing last September, I wrote a piece for SportsPro offering my armchair verdict. Much of it still holds true now, nine events on, and with the first champion, Nelson Piquet Jr., now crowned after Sunday’s dramatic three-way title decider.

The Formula E cars may lack in outright performance compared to other forms of international motorsport but, importantly, they look tricky to drive and have kept the drivers busy behind the wheel. The racing has been fun and made for good television. The calibre of drivers attracted by the series has been impressive, too, a legacy of the small number of seats available in top-level championships around the world, although the line-up has chopped and changed by the race; keeping tabs with who is racing when has not been the work of a moment.

The big gaps, sometimes as long as two months, between races in this first season must be eradicated for season two but while the scheduling was imperfect, a huge amount of credit must go to series organisers for navigating the political and logistical challenges of setting up ten new street circuits in major world cities like Miami, Berlin and Moscow. That work should not be underestimated. There were occasional problems with the all-new layouts, such as turn one at Battersea Park this weekend, but nothing insurmountable.

One misstep, however, was the decision to race in Monaco. Understandable from a commercial standpoint, even a shortened circuit that took in about half of the Formula One track showed up the vast and, for Formula E unflattering, difference in performances between the two categories; far more effective were the city centre events in Moscow, passing by the Kremlin, or downtown Miami, where the track circled the local NBA arena. (I’m not sure, either, that the narrow Battersea Park venue, scene of this weekend’s London finale, was the wisest choice; does a series which leans so heavily on its green principles taking over a public park for a weekend send out the right message?)

Evidently, the series has been marketed impressively – both the central organisers and the ten teams have done a sterling job in that respect – and, although easier to implement in a start-up championship than an established property, the efforts to make Formula E as accessible as possible for fans has been a major plus.

Careful attention, meanwhile, has been paid to making the series financially viable for teams and many of those teams have been able to sell the premise of the championship to sponsors. Fox’s decision this weekend to renew its US broadcast deal until 2020 (with the caveat that there are a minimum of eight races per season) is as positive a sign as the investments in the series itself by Liberty Global and Discovery.

[AT THIS POINT, PLEASE CONTINUE READING ON A NEW, FULLY-CHARGED SCREEN]

That’s a bad joke, but the major flaw in Formula E’s first season was the clumsy need for drivers to switch cars midway through a race, simply because the technology which would allow batteries to be recharged mid-race does not yet exist.

It’s a problem the series acknowledges – at least to an extent – and it had the potential to weaken its overarching message about the merits of electric vehicle use; it seems, though, that the novelty factor of the first year has allowed Formula E to avoid taking too much flak on that subject; it’s a good sign and suggests a willingness to give the series a chance.

The battery issue underlined that what we’ve watched in this first season was effectively a very public test of a lot of very new technology.

Some other innovations were more miss than hit. I’ll never be convinced that Fan Boost, where the most popular drivers are given extra power during a race, is a good idea but it’s likely here to stay and helps the teams and series with fan engagement in the build-up to events. At least the musical soundtrack that accompanied the opening race in Beijing was toned down as the first season wore on.

It doesn’t quite get full marks, but as first seasons go Formula E’s has been undeniably impressive. Now for the potentially tricky transition from novelty series to established championship.

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This week’s sports industry reading list – 26/6/15

Another week, another reading list. Below, you’ll find the best (at least to my eyes) writing of the week on the global business of sport, be it from the mainstream press, specialist titles or the sports industry trade media. To business: let’s get going with the big three stories of the week.

The big three stories of the week

  • The British and French challengers for the next America’s Cup unveil title sponsors.

This week’s sports industry must-reads

  • BBC sports editor Dan Roan took a detailed look at the legacy of London’s Olympic Stadium, amid controversy over the cost of renovations and as West Ham United prepare to move in: http://tinyurl.com/noxpnn8
  • It’s just over a month until the troubled race for the winter Olympics comes to its conclusion, with only Beijing and Almaty still in contention. The New York Times’ Sam Borden wrote this about the latter’s first-time bid: http://tinyurl.com/pymsygy
  • Staying with the New York Times, here’s Rich Sandomir’s fairly damning review of Fox’s first effort at broadcasting the US Open last weekend: http://tinyurl.com/ntpnun5
  • Italian football club Parma was declared bankrupt this week – David Gendelman, in a piece published on the Guardian website, explained how it has come to this. It’s a fantastic bit of work: http://tinyurl.com/pv5zcdm
  • Daily Telegraph tennis correspondent Simon Briggs produced this excellent examination of how Wimbledon became the tournament it is today – and looks at the impact made by a 17-year old German who lifted the trophy 30 years ago: http://tinyurl.com/nvygjpb

That’s the best of the week on the business of sport. Thanks for taking a look and do drop by next week. Email: davidcushnan@gmail.com; Twitter: @davidcushnan

This week’s sports industry reading list – 19/6/15

Welcome along. Every week I pick out what I consider to be the best writing and most interesting articles on the business of sport, plucked from a combination of mainstream sources, specialist publications and the sports industry trade media. It really is no more complicated than that. To business:

The big three stories of the week

This week’s sports industry must-reads

  • The Chicago Blackhawks were crowned Stanley Cup champions this week, the team’s third title since 2010. Philip Hersch put together this terrific piece in the Chicago Tribune on the resurgence of the franchise and the golden period of hockey the city is experiencing: http://tinyurl.com/o2ypgec
  • In the financial times, Mihir Bose met Lord March, the man behind the upcoming Goodwood Festival of Speed: http://tinyurl.com/q33estn
  • Boston’s bid for the 2024 Olympics appears to be hanging by a thread. Alan Abrahamson argues, with typical style, that it should be put out of its misery as soon as possible, to allow the United States Olympic Committee to shift its focus elsewhere: http://tinyurl.com/o3fdlb7
  • These are difficult days for Nike, prompting Ian Herbert of the Independent to examine the company’s evolving philosophy and attitudes to athlete endorsements: http://tinyurl.com/o6dqfkm
  • Elsewhere in the ever-fascinating world of sports media rights, the Guardian secured an insight into BT’s gameplan, ahead of its debut as the UK’s Uefa Champions League broadcaster next season, by speaking to Delia Bushell, the company’s head of TV and sport: http://tinyurl.com/pd7828v

That was the week that was (in the business of sport). You’ll find me on Twitter @DavidCushnan or replying to emails sent here: davidcushnan@gmail.com

This week’s sports industry reading list – 12/6/15

Congratulations, you’ve found the corner of the internet where each week I select my pick of the best writing on the global business of sport. To business:

The big three stories of the week

This week’s sports industry must-reads

  • The inaugural European Games are due to begin on Friday, amid no little uncertainty and controversy. The Netherlands this week withdrew as hosts for the second edition in 2019, while several journalists were reportedly barred from entering Azerbaijan to cover the biggest sporting event in Baku’s history, after flagging up the country’s human rights issues. The Guardian’s Owen Gibson was among them: http://tinyurl.com/nqjl3mc
  • The New York Times’ David Waldstein put together this scene-setter ahead of the Copa America in Chile, a tournament which began on Thursday and has been somewhat overshadowed by the murky goings-on at Fifa and Conmebol: http://tinyurl.com/qhsxpvv
  • Over at my old stomping ground SportsPro, Michael Long has delved into the business behind a pre-Wimbledon tournament – here’s his look at Queen’s Club ahead of next week’s Aegon Championships: http://tinyurl.com/p5rud4m
  • The last two standing in the race to host the 2022 winter Olympic Games, Almaty and Beijing, had a busy week, making their cases to the International Olympic Committee membership ahead of July’s host city election in Kuala Lumpur. This is Alan Abrahamson’s excellent analysis of the race and how it fits into the wider Agenda 2020 picture: http://tinyurl.com/o6u6a8a
  • The Le Mans 24 Hours takes place this weekend. It’s a historic event which is going through a resurgence, in a series, the World Endurance Championship, which also has significant momentum just now. Former Indycar CEO Andrew Craig is involved in the WEC’s North American growth (and, separately, has worked to bring Formula One to Baku next year) and this week gave this interview on the business of motorsport to Racer: http://tinyurl.com/pwzd7xv

We’re up to date. Happy reading. Feel free to find me on Twitter @DavidCushnan or even email me directly: davidcushnan@gmail.com

This week’s sports industry reading list – 5/6/15

It’s time for my weekly pick of the best writing on the global sports industry from the past few days – no frills attached. To business:

The big three stories of the week

  • The obvious: It’s week two of the FIFA crisis/meltdown/shenanigans. Re-elected Sepp Blatter’s resigned (you might have heard) and it feels as if the sports story of the year is far from over yet.
  • The innovation: The National Football League (NFL) has agreed a deal with Yahoo to broadcast live OTT coverage of the Jacksonville Jaguars-Buffalo Bills game in London this October, the first time the league has sold any of its broadcast rights to a non-linear TV partner.
  • The inevitable: With a final flourish (he or whoever writes his speeches and letters has a way with words), a bruised, battered but undimmed Marius Vizer falls on his SportAccord sword.

This week’s sports industry must-reads

  • Inside the Games’ Nick Butler reflected on the dynamics of Marius Vizer’s resignation, the way the world of international sports federations have sided in numbers with Thomas Bach over the past few weeks, and why the International Olympic Committee should expect more scrutiny from here on. It’s well worth a read: http://tinyurl.com/obngbw9
  • Is the kingmaker about to become the king? A very good profile of world sport’s string-puller in chief Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah, a man I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more of over the next few months, by the Guardian’s Owen Gibson: http://tinyurl.com/phvxg32
  • Bloomberg secured a rare interview with Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison, he of the America’s Cup defender and the tournament dubbed tennis’ fifth Grand Slam. Among other matters, he really wants Bradley Cooper to have a good time: http://tinyurl.com/osjr64z
  • Lots and lots this week on Fifa, of course – the people, the investigations, the permutations and this gem, from Barney Ronay, on why Football Association chairman Greg Dyke should zip it: http://tinyurl.com/pcwvsyt

That’s the week reviewed. Happy reading. I’m on Twitter @DavidCushnan or email me directly: davidcushnan@gmail.com