Editorial: Red Devils

They’re big. They’re red. They’ve got massive amounts of Vodafone cash behind them. They’ve done an awful lot of winning but have run into something of a dry spell lately. But that won’t stop them from demanding the lion’s share of the spoils.

I’m writing about Manchester United, of course, the hugely successful British Premier League football club who enjoy a massive following far beyond the suburbs of Manchester. They’ve been the centre of attention in the sporting press this week as American Malcolm Glazer has made aggressive moves to take over the club and is expected to assume full ownership in the near future.

Now Mr Glazer, very much like F1′s own Mr Alex Schnaider who has recently taken control of the Jordan F1 team, is not known for his love of sport. Fans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (an American Football team) realised this when, having bought the club, he was spotted lustily cheering at the next game when the opposing team scored. Apparently he hadn’t had time yet to familiarise himself with what colour shirts the Buccaneers wear. Nor has his decision to vastly inflate ticket prices gone down well.

The upshot of all this is that Mr Glazer firmly intends to practice the same policies once he is installed at Man U. Also, he is widely expected to immediately withdraw Manchester United from the agreement under which all Premiership teams negotiate their subscription fees with television broadcasters. United are such a big attraction, he believes, that he can easily command a higher price than the Bolton Wanderers of this world can manage.

All of which sounds rather familiar. Ferrari – that other red, popular and successful team – have argued for some time that they are the big draw in F1 and deserve the bulk of the remuneration, in spite of their other massive revenue streams. Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley agree with them, and have rewarded them with finance and favour for their popularity and political loyalty.

But, as the 2005 season unfolds, there is more and more reason to suspect that Mosley and Ecclestone have been unduly hasty in jumping into bed with Ferrari.

In 2004 Ferrari dominated the season and had the lion’s share of the coverage of it as a result. 27.5% of F1 coverage (three hours and 25 minutes) in the first quarter of last year focused on one of the red cars, as Schumacher stormed to victory in the opening five races.

So far in 2005 those figures have slumped to 17.7% of coverage (1hr 45m) – just over half. Championship leader Fernando Alonso is the most covered driver at 23m 47s per race. Schumacher gets 16m 45s.

And does Ferrari’s lack of performance in 2005 mean that F1 is in serious trouble? No, far from it. In fact, most fans would agree that this has been the best season’s racing since 2003 – the last time Ferrari’s domination was seriously threatened. This time last year the championship was virtually guaranteed to be Schumacher’s.

So far this year we’ve had three different winners from five races, significant position changes in most races and – yes – even some overtaking. As a result, ticket sales for races are up almost everywhere. The Spanish Grand Prix may have sold out for the first time largely thanks to Alonso, but the British Grand Prix is about to sell out too even with only two British drivers in the sport and media darling Jenson Button suffering a miserable season. The only place ticket sales have been significantly down so far was at Imola, which can be attributed to the fact that it is one of two races in the same country, and that country has become incresingly indifferent to the endless successes of the red team over the years.

F1 is doing very well at the moment, but having the leading powers act as sugar daddies to its richest team is not going to do anything to keep it that way. Leave well alone. Let them struggle. It makes for great entertainment.

As for United fans – sorry, guys, you’re screwed. Come to Silverstone instead.

Sources: F1 Racing June 2005

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