Sports

Formula One might be sold

Speculation continues that ownership of Formula One might be on the verge of changing hands.

Canadian fashion tycoon Lawrence Stroll has been in talks about buying part of the international racing series, Britain's Sky News reported last week, and he's one of several suitors who reportedly have been looking at Formula One.

Others include American billionaire cable mogul John Malone and some unidentified Formula One teams.

Their interest comes amid executive flux within Formula One, whose longtime top manager, 83-year-old billionaire Bernie Ecclestone, is on trial on bribery charges in Germany.

Prosecutors allege Ecclestone made an illegal $44-million payment to a banker to ensure that a big stake in Formula One was sold to the London-based investment firm CVC Capital Partners in 2006. Ecclestone has denied any wrongdoing.

CVC remains the largest shareholder in Formula One's parent company, Delta Topco Ltd., with a stake of 35%, according to Forbes.

The U.S. investment firm Waddell & Reed Financial Inc. currently has a 20.9% ownership stake in Formula One and the estate of the bankrupt Lehman Brothers investment bank has 12.3%. Ecclestone, his family trust and other banks, funds and management own the balance.

Formula One, known for having the most sophisticated race cars in the world, has a 19-race season across five continents that includes the venerable Monaco Grand Prix and, more recently, the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin, Texas.

It has a fervent but relatively small U.S. following compared, say, with NASCAR stock car racing. But Formula One has a huge global audience with worldwide television viewership it estimates at 450 million.

That reportedly has the attention of Malone and his related media companies looking to expand their menu of live TV sports programming overseas.

Malone is chairman of two major cable companies, Liberty Media — which owns the Atlanta Braves baseball team — and Liberty Global. He also is a major shareholder and director of Discovery Communications Inc.

In February, the New York Post and Britain's Daily Telegraph reported that those companies were in early talks with CVC Capital to jointly acquire a major stake in Formula One.

That was one month after Discovery Communications had boosted its ownership of Eurosport, a sports TV network that reaches 54 countries, to a controlling 51%. The network also wants more events to carry as part of its expansion plans.

Formula One "fits straight into that category," said John Tinker, an analyst with the investment firm Maxim Group who tracks Liberty Media. "Sports programming is one of the few things people like to watch live."

CVC Capital and Waddell & Reed declined to comment Monday. Liberty Media did not respond to requests for comment.

The purported interest from outsiders doesn't mean any deals actually will get done for Formula One, whose estimated total value varies widely, from $7 billion to $12 billion. It's also unclear whether CVC Capital, or Formula One's other current owners, are even willing to sell.

CVC Capital had planned to sell an unspecified portion of its Formula One shares to the public in 2012 but later put the plan on hold.

Britain's Daily Mail quoted Ecclestone as saying earlier this month, before his trial started, that "maybe CVC Capital will still try and float" the shares on an exchange and "I get the impression they [CVC Capital] don't want to get rid of Formula One."

Ecclestone also said a group of Formula One teams, which he did not identify, were "having a conversation" about buying a stake in the series. The sport's biggest teams include Ferrari, Red Bull and Mercedes.

In the meantime, the question on the track is whether anyone can slow the Mercedes team.

Mercedes' Nico Rosberg won the season opener and his teammate, former champion Lewis Hamilton, has won the last three races. The fifth race of the season is the Spanish Grand Prix on May 11.

james.peltz@latimes.com

Twitter: @PeltzLATimes

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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