June 24, 2015

PARIS (AP) Not content with hosting the 2022 World Cup, Qatar is now also exploring the idea of buying Formula One, another big step in its use of the global appeal of sports to put itself firmly on the map.

The purchase, if concluded, could see a Qatari investment fund that already owns Paris Saint-Germain, the football club where David Beckham ended his career, partner with the owner of the Miami Dolphins in the NFL, two people with knowledge of the discussions told The Associated Press. Not authorized to discuss the deal-making publicly, they spoke to AP on condition of anonymity.

A well-financed Qatari foray into the glamorous and lucrative multi-billion dollar world of F1 would accelerate its strategy of using major sports brands to raise the global profile of the gas- and oil-rich small Persian Gulf emirate. Hosting the 2022 World Cup is the prime example of that thinking. In that case, however, much of the resultant publicity has so far been negative, with international criticism of conditions for migrant laborers in Qatar.

Becoming a controlling shareholder of F1 would also be a coup for Qatar in games of one-upmanship Gulf neighbors play between themselves, each trying to out-do the others. Abu Dhabi and Bahrain host F1 races; Qatar does not. But it could instantly become a bigger F1 player than either of them if it acquired the stake of CVC Capital Partners, currently F1's largest and controlling shareholder.

In such a purchase, Qatar Sports Investments is looking to team up with RSE Ventures, an investment company co-founded by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and Matt Higgins, the NFL team's vice chairman, the AP's sources said. One said talks are in a formative stage; the other said discussions have been going on ''for quite a while'' but cautioned that QSI-RSE are not the only pretenders for CVC's stake and there is no certainty of a deal. A third person with knowledge of the discussions said CVC has not yet received a bid.

The Financial Times newspaper first reported the potential link-up of QSI and RSE, saying they want to buy 35.5 percent of the holding company that owns F1 from CVC, in a $7 billion to $8 billion deal. CVC would not comment.

Bernie Ecclestone, the commercial brains behind F1's staggering growth and financial success in the past four decades, confirmed at the weekend that ''three or four people'' are talking to CVC.

''I don't know how close things have got at this stage. If they decide to sell, they will have to tell me because I am a shareholder,'' the Press Association news agency quoted him as saying. ''CVC are in the business of buying and selling companies ... They are very happy with F1. But their business is selling and everything has a price.''

RSE's involvement is particularly intriguing, because F1 has failed to make the same inroads in the United States that it has elsewhere, particularly Europe, where the sport remains based, and in emerging markets in the Middle East and Asia. One of the AP's sources said RSE believes it could help F1 do a better job of cracking open the US market, where NASCAR is the most popular motorsport.

Preparing for the day when its gas and oil wealth runs out, Qatar is investing massively in nest-eggs around the world to ensure its post-oil prosperity. Sports are part of that investment portfolio, and F1 offers the promise of solid financial returns.

In a rare interview last November with the AP, Qatar's sports minister, Salah bin Ghanem bin Nasser al-Ali, made clear that more of its money will be pumped into the sector.

''We have a special team for the investment,'' he said. ''They are good business people. They are learning. They are getting better and better... They are investigating all opportunities, I think in America, in England and everywhere.''

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AP Sports Writer Steven Wine in Miami contributed.

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