Could this be the beginning of the end for the Grand Prix at Melbourne’s Albert Park?

Today, in an extraordinary Herald Sun editorial, the race’s hometown tabloid bible calls for an in-depth inquiry into the event’s secretive finances, amid speculation of a massive $50 million loss this year to add to spiraling deficits over its 14-year history.

In effect, the $43 million fee the state government paid to Bernie Ecclestone this year seems to have gone straight down the drain, but total losses could in fact be much greater — each year, the government also spends millions setting up the circuit, effectively shifting event-related expenditure off its balance sheet. According to stalwart protest group Save Albert Park, $47.886 million was spent on pre-race preparations with $3.185 million lost prior to the event. According to SAP, total losses over the race’s 14-year history now stand at a massive $262 million.

Ecclestone’s annual fee is also set to skyrocket with an escalation clause in the contract said to guarantee the formula one supremo up to $100 million by the time the current deal expires in 2015. That’s if it lasts this long — the government and Ecclestone are currently embroiled in a stand-off over shifting the race start time to 5pm to better suit Asian and European TV audiences. If the government doesn’t blink beyond 2010, Ecclestone has said he’ll walk.

The event’s famously rubbery attendance figures are also under fire with the official estimate yesterday of 105,000 said to be more like 70,000 (the Grand Prix, alone among major events, fails to count its crowd figures for fear of embarrassment). TV viewers also don’t appear interested — yesterday’s national audience of 1.036 million was down sharply from last year’s 1.254 million, only a fraction of genuinely popular events like the AFL Grand Final or the Australian Open. Add this to disappointing crowds for the first three days of around 70,000 and you’ve got an event that locks down otherwise-productive parkland in Melbourne’s inner south for weeks at a time for almost zero benefit.

Interestingly, the Herald Sun’s skepticism doesn’t appear to be fully shared by rival The Age, which dazzled readers yesterday with a massive promotional Grand Prix wrap-around claiming a three-day attendance of 181,000. In today’s edition, the paper faithfully reproduces the official crowd estimate, despite its own reporter bucketing the race’s finances and crowd figures just two weeks ago.

Of course, Grand Prix chairman Ron Walker is also chairman of Fairfax, apparently leading to this nasty episode in March last year when a report over Grand Prix crowd figures resulted in a groveling apology to the event’s organisers, apparently enforced by former editor Andrew Jaspan.

The Age is also yet to publish the following letter sent yesterday by Save Albert Park’s Peter Logan to Sunday Age editor Gay Alcorn, deputy editor Mark Forbes and the paper’s editor in chief Paul Ramadge disputing its published attendance figures:

Ms Gay Alcorn,
Editor, Sunday Age

Dear Ms Alcorn,

In today’s Sunday Age, you published as fact the three day Grand Prix attendance figure of 181,000, when the only fact regarding this figure is that it is a lie. As this is the only major event with no turnstiles or electronic method of counting attendees it is still easy to reveal the lie — all that is required is a good pair of eyes and primary school mathematical skills.

Fortunately the media have access to:

  • The circuit
  • TV footage of the whole event
  • Actual grandstand and corporate seat capacity and access to general admission areas

The formula is firstly to observe the percentage occupancy of the three spectator areas at peak time each day then apply that percentage to the known capacity. This gives the best estimate of attendees at peak time and can be verified by scanning the TV footage. It may be prudent to add another 10% to 20% to cover ticket holders who aren’t interested in car racing but may have dropped in during the day and left without viewing the circuit. As this event has many free tickets issued (hidden from FOI access), it is assumed there may be attendees who aren’t really interested in the Grand Prix event and are therefore not in attendance when the maximum audience is established.

On Thursday 26 March the % occupancy was at best 10%, therefore the attendance figure was between 6,454 and 10,000. So to be generous to the serial recalcitrants at the Grand Prix corporation, I’ll allow 10,000.

Friday the 27th saw a % occupancy of no more than 20% across the circuit so let’s give them a big total of 30,000 to save arguments.

Saturday saw a few grandstands nearly full but corporate boxes ranged from empty (a whole row at turn 3) to half full while the general admission area was still sparsely occupied so was at best 40% occupied. This equals a rounded up figure of 40,000 for Saturday and a three day figure of 80,000, not the 181,000, as quoted by the Grand Prix corporation.

If the Grand Prix corporation was a registered company accountable to ASIC it would be in court on a case of misleading its shareholders (in our case, it’s the taxpayers of Victoria) because it publishes deliberately misleading performance figures and props them up with a secret number of free tickets. Is this not a rogue corporation that should be made accountable? That can only happen if our media question their figures. I hope that you can publish a correction in the Sunday Age next week, in accordance with the Australian Press Council Principle number one.

After years of carping over the government’s and a generally-compliant media’s Grand Prix boosterism, it appears SAP’s claims are starting to look eminently sensible. Even the post-race entertainment is looking half-assed — last night’s performance by The Who was more like The Two, with original members John Entwhistle and Keith Moon long dead.

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