Is Ecclestone Putting The Formula One Brand At Risk?

The decision to go ahead with the Bahrain Grand Prix could have significant adverse consequences for the global Formula One franchise—it is time to rethink both mission and values.

During the lead up to the Chinese Grand Prix, Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone was asked by a reporter if the Bahrain event was going ahead. Ecclestone’s reply was an emphatic yes. However, what he said next was even more interesting.

Ecclestone stated quite clearly that sport has nothing to do with politics. For a man who was born in 1930 it was a most amazing statement and one can only wonder where he has been hiding for all of his 82 years.

Ecclestone’s lifetime has witnessed two Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling heavyweight boxing championship bouts and the Berlin Olympics of 1936; events where nationalism, politics and race collided in such a manner and with such meaning that they reverberated around the world.

In 1947, when he was only 17, Ecclestone would have witnessed or heard of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier and becoming the first black person to play the major leagues in baseball. Last week many in the US, and in a few other parts of the world, celebrated the 65th anniversary of that momentous occasion—the beginning of the racial desegregation of sport in the US and as some would say the first step on the road to civil rights.

As a young man of 26, Ecclestone would have heard of the fighting between the water polo teams of Hungary and the Soviet Union at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne—it was the infamous “blood in the water” match. The reason for this acrimonious encounter was an event that had taken place several weeks earlier. Soviet tanks had rolled into Budapest, crushing the Hungarian spring and tightening Soviet control over that nation and its people.

The late 1960s and early 1970s, by which time Ecclestone was approaching middle-age, saw the beginning of the sporting boycott of South Africa. It did much to both hasten the end of that country’s policy of racial segregation not just in sports but in all aspects of the daily life of that nation. Today, the English FA (Football Association) has adopted a campaign entitled “Let’s Kick Racism Out Of Football”.

There are many more vivid examples of the relationship and/or entanglement between sport and politics. Ecclestone’s assertion that sport has nothing to do with politics is therefore so misguided that it can only be described as willful ignorance. However, willful ignorance does have a cost, especially when you are responsible for one of the greatest brand names in sport.

Irrespective of whether or not you see the political unrest in Bahrain as an Iranian plot to undermine a Sunni monarchy, or, the legitimate protests of a marginalized Shiite majority, the fact is that civilians have died at the hands of the security forces. This never plays well in any market. When an organization, such as Formula One ignores these issues, they run the risk that their brand will be damaged by both association and fallout.

As with other sports, some of the world’s major brands use Formula One to market their products either directly e.g. Mercedes and Renault, or indirectly, e.g. Red Bull and Vodafone. As such, in a region where social media has already toppled governments, any negative fallout from protests during the race weekend will have an audience that will be both global and critical. Therefore by definition, this could have significant adverse consequences for Formula One and the brands that are its lifeblood—a double negative if ever there was one.

Ecclestone, Formula One and the brands that support it should forego willful ignorance and carefully rethink their mission, their values and how these guide their actions—and ultimately maintain the value of their brands.

Jonathan Ledwidge is the author of the book Clearing The Bull: The Financial Crisis and Why Banks Need a Human Transformation. Web: Email:


4 responses to “Is Ecclestone Putting The Formula One Brand At Risk?

  1. Jorgen Faxholm

    Hi Jonathan
    This is an age old discussion, that doesn’t seem to have an objective answer. Isn’t BE right, when he says “sport has nothing to do with politics”? The fact that it too often is MADE to be political is just sad, but as an opinion I think BE has a point. If we have to consult a political correctness manual every time an event is planned, we will implicitly make sport political. There are many places that would fall foul of our ideal criteria, e.g. one of the most corrupt mafia states in the world : Yes, Russia – ranging level with Uganda; Saudi Arabia with its suppression of women and death penalty for behaviour we consider normal and fully acceptable in W.Europe; and Ukraine (Euro 2012 football this year), where they incarcerate politicians to avoid them participating in elections.
    There are few ‘clean countries’, if you start to look carefully.
    In 1970 we had 2 kajak teams (white) on a visit to my kajak club – that was a time we could, and many would say should, have said “stay home”. We didn’t and it resulted in a lot of friendly banter, friendship and exchange of opinions, opening eyes in the process.
    Will we ever learn?
    Have we changed since 1936/47?
    I think some of us, just a little – and the controversial sport meetings may have been important elements helping to create that change.
    And perhaps we can begin to help dragging the too many medieval cultures into the 21st C – excatly through sport?
    Just my opinion
    Best regards

  2. Jorgen Faxholm

    Addition: South African Kayak teams!!

    • Jorgen
      I will make two main points. The first is that whether we like it or not, you cannot separate sports from politics–if for no other reason than the fact that people are emotionally and intimately involved in both. Further, the history, as demonstrated in the article, confirms this. My main issue is that BE’s refusal to recognise this is wilful ignorance and that is a dangerous thing.

      Where I do agree with you however is that we cannot be purists. If we were determined to only deal with countries that measure up to a prescribed democratic standard then there would be a lot of countries to avoid. I certainly don’t believe that is necessary.

      When problems do arise however and there is a possibility that civilian deaths might be shown on TV organisations should take care. When BE says it really doesnt matter because it has nothing to do with sport then that cannot be the smart approach.

  3. Life and politics are indisputably inseparable. It’s churlish to think otherwise. Moreover we must never allow any other delusion go unchallenged. Very good article Jonathan.

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