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Why is F1 owner Liberty being linked to MotoGP?

by Simon Patterson
4 min read

Reports have emerged in the Spanish press this week suggesting Formula 1 owner Liberty Media is looking to diversify its motorsport presence by trying to buy a controlling stake in MotoGP promoter Dorna.

As first reported in Spanish business and economics publication Expansion, Liberty is said to be in secret talks over a takeover of Dorna.

At face value, that doesn't come as a big surprise. There's been open speculation for some time that Dorna has been quietly placed on the market by current owner Bridgepoint Capital, while Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta hasn’t exactly been silent on the prospect of a sale in the coming months.

"The signs are always there," Ezpeleta told Italian newspaper Repubblica when asked about the prospect of a sale in December. "I confirm the rumours, but I would like to know who is spreading them.

"Also because every day I receive two or three phone calls from credit institutions: they ask me if it is true that we are for sale. But the banks don't want to buy, no: they present themselves as intermediaries in the operation.

"I can only say one thing: we are ready."

There are other hints about the way that the business has quietly restructured financially in recent years that also suggests Bridgepoint has been preparing for a sale. The company has taken on substantial debt in the form of loans to pay out dividends to the currency owners - a standard business tactic ahead of a potential sale.

It’s also backed up by an industry opinion that says MotoGP is something of an undervalued property, especially compared to the way in which Liberty has turned F1 into a massively profitable venture in the years since its takeover, which has included an aggressive expansion strategy and the huge success of Netflix documentary Drive to Survive.

Dorna is currently 39% owned by investment fund Bridgepoint, with Canadian public pension fund CPPIB owning a further 31% (sold to it by Bridgepoint in 2012) and the Ezpeleta family the majority owners of a further 20% of the business held by a collection of current and former employees.

But given the very manner in which Bridgepoint acquired Dorna in 2006 - in a sale forced through by the EU’s competition regulator - it seems unlikely that the rumours of Liberty’s involvement stand to be anything substantially more than a sales tactic right now.

The controlling share of Dorna has been owned by Bridgepoint since then, when previous owner CVC Capital Investment was forced to sell it by the EU’s competition commissioner. That was part of the process for receiving approval for its efforts to buy the 71% stake in Formula 1 that CVC would go on to sell to Liberty in 2016.

"When the two most popular motorsport events in the EU, Formula 1 and MotoGP, come in the hands of one owner, there is a risk of price increases for the TV rights to these events and a reduction in consumer choice," competition commissioner Neelie Kroes said at the time.

"I am satisfied that the commitments given by CVC [to sell their share of Dorna] will eliminate this risk."

It’s hard to see how that position has substantially changed in the intervening years, however, especially as MotoGP and F1 have grown closer together, particularly in terms of partnerships, broadcasters and host circuits.

That doesn’t mean that there’s no smoke without fire, however. And if a sale in the coming months is being eyed up, it’s in the best interests of MotoGP’s current owners to see conversations about a potential sale being floated in the business pages as a form of soft advertising.

And, perhaps ironically, while Liberty is unlikely to be allowed to step in to take over at Dorna, there could nonetheless be familiar faces involved in any potential sale, with former owner CVC hinting around the time that it sold F1 that it was keen to retain a foothold in motorsport.

At the time that didn't involve making any inroads into a MotoGP return, but should Dorna be placed more formally on the market in the coming months CVC seems likely to be one of the parties looking closely at the series' possibilities.

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