WRC seeks new broadcaster in North America and eyes 2018 expansion
By Jonathan Rest
WRC Promoter, the rights-holder of motor racing's World Rally Championship, is on the hunt for a new broadcast partner in North America, and has outlined plans to expand the series in 2018.
The majority of WRC television contracts are mid-way through a three-year cycle and expire at the end of 2018, but the series has been without coverage in North America since the start of this year after one-year deals with Fox Sports, the cable sports network, and MavTV, a cable and satellite channel owned by automotive lubricant company Lucas Oil, expired in December and were not renewed.
Speaking to Sportcal on the sidelines of the Sportel America convention in Miami last week, Oliver Ciesla, managing director of WRC Promoter, said: "We are in the market for a new broadcast partner in USA and Canada to take us up to the end of 2018, in line with our existing deals around the world. Those discussions are happening right now."
Ciesla said USA, in particular, is of increasing importance to WRC stakeholders.
He noted: "It's a very big market for us. We have four of the 10 biggest car manufacturers in the world running teams [Hyundai, Toyota, Citroen and Ford] and they are obviously all interested in getting exposure in the US. Also, if you look at the numbers of our digital fanbase, USA is in the top 10."
Europe, where 10 of the 13 rallies this year will be staged, has long been the dominant market for WRC, but Ciesla said Asia is the fastest growing market for the sport.
The 2016 WRC television audience in Asia was up 125 per cent year-on-year, and the viewership is expected to increase further this year with new agreements in place in India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Hong Kong.
There is also broader coverage in Japan this year - Toyota returned as a manufacturer after a 16-year absence - with public-service broadcaster NHK and commercial broadcaster TV Asahi complementing the extensive content on pay-TV's J Sports.
In China, Ciesla was full of praise for rights-holder LeSports, the sports arm of Chinese technology giant LeEco, which came on board in 2016 to replace state broadcaster CCTV, which did not televise a number of the rallies.
Ciesla said: "We have really positive news in China. Due to the extensive coverage there now, for the first time the audience there was in the top 10 globally."
WRC Promoter has also signed a streaming deal with BesTV, the Chinese IPTV broadcaster, while it is not adverse to bringing CCTV back into the fold. In total, "80 hours of fresh content" is being aired in China this year, Ciesla said.
For 2018, WRC Promoter's plans are threefold: increase the amount of live coverage; enhance the over-the-top offering; and stage more events.
Ciesla said plans are already advanced to stage at least one more rally in 2018, with "strong interest" from China, Japan, Chile and New Zealand.
China was due to stage a round of the WRC last year for the first time in 17 years, but the event was cancelled due to weather damage to roads, and it is not part of the 2017 schedule, which has already had rallies in Monte Carlo, Sweden and Mexico.
The season resumes in France from 6 to 9 April, followed by races in Argentina, Portugal, Italy, Poland, Finland, Germany, Spain, Great Britain and Australia.
Ciesla said that, with a rights deal to be done in North America, a US stage continues to be discussed, but noted: "That is not in the very short term, but it is definitely a medium-term aim."