Friday April 6th, 2001
By Keith Weir
Formula One motor racing supremo Bernie Ecclestone tried to head off a breakaway threat by car makers with a pledge on Friday to keep the popular sport on free-to-air television.
Ecclestone, 70, said he would remain at the head of Formula One for the next five years following a deal in which German media company Kirch acquired a 75 percent stake in SLEC, the Formula One holding company.
But he said he would keep the sport on free television, one of the key demands of the car makers.
"I have been assured that my policy of securing worldwide extensive live free over the air TV coverage remains unchanged," Ecclestone said in a statement released in Geneva.
His conciliatory remarks contrasted with an interview in the Financial Times on Friday in which he warned the car makers could destroy the sport if they pressed ahead with their breakaway threat.
Such a move would deprive sponsors of the mass audience they seek in return for bankrolling a hugely expensive sport. The fortnightly Grand Prix races from around the globe attract an estimated television audience of 300 million or more.
Industry sources told Reuters that Kirch had offered Forumula One car makers a 25 percent stake in SLEC, the company which controls the commercial rights to Formula One.
The Kirch media empire, run by Bavarian Leo Kirch, has also offered the car makers veto rights in any major decision to move the motor sport away from free TV, the sources said.
Kirch and its partner German media rights group EM.TV recently paid almost $1 billion to buy a further 25 percent stake in SLEC, lifting their stake to 75 percent.
Kirch first got a piece of the motor racing action when it rescued EM.TV last February after the group had overstretched itself with a spending spree.
The remaining 25 percent of SLEC is in the hands of the Ecclestone family. SLEC takes its name from Ecclestone and his wife Slavica.
Ecclestone told the Financial Times that the business he had built over the past 30 years would be wrecked by any breakaway.
"Formula One is a very stable, sound business with huge television and press coverage," he said, adding that a split would put off sponsors and broadcasters.
Kirch, one of Germany's biggest private TV companies with pay and free stations, insists that talks with the car makers are continuing and points out that the auto companies are tied in to competing within Formula One until 2007 under the so-called Concorde Agreement.