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Volume 20 No. 42


One Thursday night last June, three days before the 2012 Canadian Grand Prix, the Mexican Formula One driver Sergio Perez was dining on steak and seafood in a crowded Montreal restaurant. At his table was a group of executives who wouldn’t have recognized his face only a few months earlier, or even known his name. Now, they had a vested interest in his success.

This was the delegation from the Circuit of the Americas, a $400 million, 1,300-acre racing and entertainment facility being built near the Austin, Texas, airport. One month from now, on Nov. 18, it will be the site of the first Formula One grand prix to be held in the United States since an eight-year run at Indianapolis Motor Speedway ended in 2007. But in June, construction on the track had barely begun. Labor problems had impeded progress for
much of 2011. Many of the vital staff executives had only recently been hired, six months or more behind schedule.

Some had come from Churchill Downs. Others had worked under Tom Hicks for the Dallas Stars. Almost none knew anything about auto racing. Neither did lead investors Red McCombs, who has owned NBA and NFL teams, and hedge fund tycoon Bobby Epstein.

“We’re holding their hands all the way through,” said Pasquale Lattuneddu of Formula One Management, the chief lieutenant to F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone.

What they did know was how to stage a big event, like the Kentucky Derby or the NHL All-Star Game. And as Steve Sexton, COTA’s president, set out his vision, he described a grand prix that would look less like previous iterations of the race than like a Super Bowl —

or even New Orleans’ Jazz Fest. There would be concerts and downtown festivals, food fairs and video screens. And somewhere in the midst of it all, Formula One.

“The existing American racing fans are busting down the doors to buy tickets,” added Geoff Moore, COTA’s chief marketing and sales officer. “But we’re very aware of the demand for Formula One races across the globe. We’re very aware of the history of Formula One in America. For us to be successful long term, we know we need to go beyond [the existing race fan].”

That explained the presence of Perez, who drives for Sauber. While not a championship contender, he has a fanatical following in Mexico, where affluent fans have shown a willingness to travel to Canada, Europe and beyond for races. Now here was one just 225 miles from the border, a two-hour flight from Mexico City. “It’s my home track,” Perez said of a facility that at the time existed as a few steel skeletons and a big pile of mud. Moore nodded approvingly.

Related story: New Jersey F1 race 'a risk proposition'

A hundred days later, the Circuit of the Americas is nearly finished. And what began as a seemingly far-fetched idea to bring Formula One to Austin now serves as a sort of last, best hope for the sport in the United States. F1 has failed here in big markets and small markets, on street courses and racing circuits. Austin’s race, along with a street event in Northern New Jersey with a Manhattan backdrop that is on the schedule for June 2013 (see related story), but now appears in doubt, will likely be the final attempt in Ecclestone’s decades-long tenure to bring what he markets as the world’s most popular sport to the world’s biggest market.

“We’re a big deal,” Ecclestone said in June while sitting beside his luxury trailer in the paddock area at the Montreal track. “Really, there’s the Olympics, the World Cup and Formula One. We’ve made it clear in the past that if we can’t go first class, so to speak, we don’t travel. We don’t need to. What they do in Austin will be first class. They’ve convinced me of that.”

Whether they’ve convinced America to pay attention to another major event on its annual sports schedule remains uncertain. In fact, for any possible future for Formula One in the U.S., they have to get Austin to work.

■ ■ ■

For nearly half a century, spread over the American landscape from the Finger Lakes of New York to the Long Beach, Calif., harbor, the European-based sport of Formula One worked to establish a U.S. presence. The hamlet of Watkins Glen, N.Y., staged an under-the-radar U.S. Grand Prix for two decades. Las Vegas built a circuit in a parking lot. Long Beach had modest success on its city streets, but saw greater potential for profit with Indy cars.

Dallas, Detroit and Phoenix followed, but none of the races gained traction. Reasons were varied — there was the constant stress in negotiating with the ever-mercurial Ecclestone, races failed to draw the huge numbers of fans needed to make such an undertaking a financial success, and they failed to attract a sufficient television audience to make the race a network staple.

Even an eight-year run at Indianapolis Motor Speedway couldn’t penetrate the consciousness of most Americans.

It hurt that few of the drivers were American, and none of the teams. Beyond that, the U.S. domestic sports calendar was packed tight with team sports, golf and tennis, boxing — and plenty of racing.

Maybe most damaging, Formula One had no continuity in the United States.

“We’re in show business, you know,” says Formula One’s Bernie Ecclestone. “NASCAR had 35 shows a year in America while we had one.”
“Before, we’d pop in for one week and be gone,” Ecclestone said. “We’re in show business, you know. NASCAR had 35 shows a year in America while we had one.”

And when that one show ended each year, fans were out of luck. News and features on the series were nonexistent in mainstream publications. Other than the occasional “Wide World of Sports” broadcast from Monaco, your chances of seeing an F1 car on television were close to zero. “The Monday after each grand prix,” said Stefano Domenicali, the team principal of Ferrari, “there was no more interest in Formula One. Finito. Because there was no more information. Everyone had left town, and that was it.”

That last point, at least, has changed. Fox’s Speed channel telecasts the bulk of the series’ schedule, including qualifying sessions, with the Fox broadcast network picking up four races. The telecasts draw between 250,000 households when on Speed to up to 1 million households per race when on Fox. The current three-year contract expires after this season but negotiations are under way to extend it, a Speed spokesman confirmed.

But making an F1 race work financially is still an uphill climb, in the U.S. and everywhere else. Many F1 races in developing nations receive large government subsidies, and the reason is clear. On top of the undisclosed sanctioning fee, FOM typically owns nearly all the commercial rights at its venues, from signage to corporate sponsorships to television, radio and Internet rights. “At the race, just about all we can offer our sponsors is hospitality,” said Ben Cahalane, who leads the sponsorship team for COTA.

What makes Austin different than previous efforts — and from the New York/New Jersey model, which is scheduled to be run on a street course — is the existence of the facility as year-round inventory. “This will be a 365-day-a-year operation, and we’re going to have an awful lot there,” said McCombs, who at various times over a long career has owned the Minnesota Vikings, Denver Nuggets and — twice — his hometown San Antonio Spurs. “Formula One is our lead entity, but in the overall scheme of things I expect that to be no more than 25 percent of what we do there.”

So COTA is now focused on programming the facility, and as many as half a dozen other racing circuits are being targeted to add COTA stops to their schedules. V8 Supercars, Grand-Am and MotoGP are locked in for 2013. Even NASCAR’s Brian France publicly expressed interest in potentially staging a Nationwide Series or truck event at the track.

From there, COTA executives are talking about concerts, trade shows, a driving school, high-end auto auctions, volleyball, even tennis. Track sponsors will be buying integrated facility packages and have multiple opportunities — cut across a swath of demographics — to activate their investment. They won’t have on-track exposure during the F1 race next month, but will be able to activate off-track throughout the city.

So if the race itself doesn’t turn a profit for a few years, that’s fine with COTA. “Our success isn’t going to be determined by the Formula One race, but by the impact it has locally,” Epstein said. “We have to operate an entertainment facility year-round. The race will help us do that.”

It helps that COTA’s lead investor is a billionaire. McCombs has a profile in Texas as big as any financial heavyweight. The other member of the original ownership trio — along with former driver Tavo Hellmund, who brought the initial idea to McCombs but was bought out over the summer — is Epstein, a University of Texas graduate eager to help raise the international profile of his adopted hometown. “We’re not about to get the NBA, NFL or MLB,” he said. “This is the big leagues for Austin.”

Beyond the U.S. border, Austin remains obscure. It has no non-stop flights to Europe, and name recognition in international capitals borders on nonexistent. “We’ve made some headway, but we have a long, long way to go,” said Matthew Payne, executive director of the Austin Sports Commission. “I can’t think of anything that would help more than Formula One.”

The three days of racing is looking to draw more than 100,000 to the facility, but will be augmented by ancillary events in downtown Austin of a scale F1 hasn’t seen. Indianapolis wasn’t able to mobilize its community, largely because F1 was only the third-most-important weekend at that facility each year, behind the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR’s Brickyard 400. Watkins Glen was too small, the Los Angeles and Dallas areas arguably too big.

But Austin has thrown its marketing muscle behind the race — with events both at the track and throughout the area. “We’re looking at 10 concerts each on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, at venues ranging from 1,000 to 5,000,” said Bob Lander, executive director of the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The point isn’t so much the music but establishing a big-event atmosphere that will give the race a presence in the city even for those who don’t get to the track. Lander expects 100,000 visitors to fill the city’s 30,000 hotel rooms and beyond, as far away as San Antonio, and a major corporate hospitality presence. “We’ve got a good name in technology, and IBM, Bell and Samsung have already committed to bring in clients,” he said. All of them will spend far more time downtown, where the hotels are, than at the Circuit of the Americas.

■ ■ ■

But questions remain on the event’s viability. Just last week, one month out from the race, the official COTA website had no mention of track or race sponsors. COTA is working with QuintEvents to sell its packages, and though Sexton promised that many of the city’s biggest corporate names had committed, and announcements are expected in the next few weeks, such delay means that they’ll have little time to activate before the race actually happens.

Construction on the track — a 3.4-mile circuit with 20 turns and a significant hill coming off the starting grid that could attain iconic status in the racing world — won’t come down to the wire like some previous F1 efforts, in which paving was still being done during race week. But no sign of the 30 video boards to be positioned around the track exists and electrical lines are only now being laid to power them.

A rendering shows the layout of the track, which is to host an F1 race next month.
And expectations have been downscaled. “Companies that haven’t been involved with this before are having trouble wrapping their arms around just how big this is,” Cahalane said. From an original goal of 30 percent international visitors, Sexton reports the final number is likely to be around 15 percent, below most F1 events. That figure includes nearby Mexico, which was once hoped to provide fully a third of ticket buyers. In that area, Sexton admits, the group’s expectations were overly ambitious.

COTA brought in Legends to assist on tickets sales, and as of last week, more than 100,000 three-day tickets had been sold at prices ranging from $299 to $800. There is no listed capacity for the race, and organizers are hoping to hit up to 120,000. Personal seat licenses that range from $1,500 to $5,500 and allow first crack at tickets for any event held on the track remain available.

Some onlookers do the math and can’t see how the numbers work. “Red McCombs doesn’t seem to be anybody’s fool, so I’m sure there’s a business model behind it,” said Mark Coughlin, Octagon’s executive vice president, who focuses on motorsports. “But whether it’s based on good or bad assumptions remains to be seen. From the outside, if they aren’t making money with the F1 race, then it would seem they are relying on four or five other events that will each draw 100,000 attendees. I don’t know what racing series they are going to book that will draw those kinds of crowds.”

One financial marker has already been established: the race’s local and state tax contribution to the economy. A government rebate plan called the Major Events Trust Fund, which is designed to attract top-level sports events to Texas, helps to defray costs incurred in hosting an all-star game, a Final Four … and, it turns out, Formula One. “Bernie was fascinated to hear that you can be owned and operated as a private entity and still get a subsidy from the government,” McCombs said. The trust fund will put COTA $25 million closer to breaking before the first souvenir T-shirt is sold.

Now, initial skepticism about whether the race would be run has been quelled by the pace of construction, ticket sales, and votes of confidence from Ecclestone and his team. A site inspection in mid-August by FIA race director Charlie Whiting yielded a highly favorable report. “The quality of the workmanship is excellent and I have no concerns at all,” he said.

Crucially, too, Formula One finally appears to need the United States. Having expanded to Asia and the Middle East, it now sees the absence of the world’s largest economy as a gaping hole in the opportunities it presents to its sponsors. It isn’t just Sauber looking to access the American consumer, but Mercedes, Red Bull, Banco Santander, Ferrari and beyond. “Formula One is the No. 1 sport globally,” said Force India’s Bob Fernley. “All that’s missing is the U.S. What we need to do is help Austin to make sure they do it right this time, to let each party do what it does best. There’s nobody better at putting on a show than the States.”

“F1 is very pure, the essence of motorsports,” said Sauber CEO and team principal Monisha Kaltenborn. “Something like the Super Bowl and all the show around it — we’re not used to that. So maybe it would make a very interesting combination. The U.S. flavor, a great show. If it succeeds, it could make the F1 brand even more attractive.”

What would success look like? According to Epstein, a crowd of at least 100,000, with hopes of an additional 30,000. To Moore, it’s an event that makes everyone who attended eager to return. “Success is a sold-out event after 10 years,” he said.

Octagon’s Coughlin agrees. “If they can stick with it for 10 years, I think they’ve got a great chance. But it’s certainly not going to be ‘flip a light switch and it will happen.’”

The F1 community will know success when they see it. Next month’s race will be seen as the American stop the sport has been seeking for more than a generation. Or it won’t. If it is, the benefits will extend in several directions, well beyond a financial return on investment for Epstein and McCombs. F1’s sponsors will finally complete the worldwide stage they’ve been seeking. The New Jersey event will benefit from a surge in U.S. interest in the sport.

“If Austin has the intelligence to do it right, they have a great opportunity,” Domenicali said. “If this works, it will define Austin for the world.”

Bruce Schoenfeld is a writer in Colorado.

Don Muret
Speedway Motorsports Inc. has launched a retail campaign across its eight NASCAR tracks to sell more “Made in the USA” merchandise.
SMI Properties, part of Charlotte-based SMI, has made a concerted effort to use more American vendors to produce branded apparel and novelties. Previously, the bulk of its merchandise business has gone overseas to China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Under the new program, WinCraft, Jensen Apparel, Graffiti, Canvas, SustainU and American Apparel, all U.S. firms, are manufacturing T-shirts, sweatshirts, fleece, hats and trinkets for Charlotte Motor Speedway’s gift shop and SMI’s seven other tracks in Atlanta; Bristol, Tenn.; Kentucky; Las Vegas; New Hampshire; Sonoma, Calif.; and Texas. Canvas also sells apparel made overseas, but most suppliers on the list are making their products exclusively in the U.S., said Don Hawk, executive vice president of SMI Properties and Speedway Motorsports’ vice president of business affairs.

The items they produce are branded for both the facilities and the NASCAR events they host. The program is separate from individual race teams, which have their own deals in place.

Some of the U.S. suppliers are no strangers to producing NASCAR-related merchandise. WinCraft, a licensee for the five big league sports, has supplied merchandise for Dale Earnhardt Inc. dating to 1993, said Hawk,

Charlotte Motor Speedway features American-made gear in its gift shop.
DEI’s former president. For SMI Properties, WinCraft is producing bumper stickers, key chains, lanyards and shot glasses, among other items.

SMI President and COO Marcus Smith, who is also Charlotte Motor Speedway’s president and general manager, drove the initiative. It came out of the idea to put people back to work in America, Smith said.

North Carolina alone, the heart of NASCAR country, has seen its textile industry shrink over the years as vendors find less expensive options for outsourcing those jobs internationally, he said.

“We gave a challenge to our souvenir buyers and started with T-shirts recycled from old Coke bottles,” Smith said. “It wasn’t easy. It took a while to find these companies and to get the quality and pricing where it needs to be. It is more expensive for us, but it is better than it was.”

In general, producing and selling a T-shirt costs twice as much in the U.S. as it does in China, said Scott Cooper, a spokesman for Charlotte Motor Speedway.

SMI Properties has absorbed the additional expenses it pays American suppliers without passing those costs on to consumers, Hawk said.

In the long run, though, there are ways to cut costs by making adjustments for ordering merchandise, Smith said. The final expenses depend on the product, he said, but when buying overseas, SMI Properties must order large quantities a few months in advance to guarantee low prices and on-time delivery. In some cases, it means the group must order a shipment of 10,000 T-shirts a minimum of 90 days before an event, and officials have to clear warehouse space to store surplus inventory.

Through buying American, SMI Properties has the flexibility to order smaller quantities with less lead time and can quickly reorder items. Jensen Apparel, for example, a company based in Portsmouth, Va., has a T-shirt manufacturing plant in Albemarle, N.C., about 25 miles southeast of Charlotte Motor Speedway. SustainU, another T-shirt supplier, has headquarters in Winston-Salem, N.C., about 60 miles northeast of the track. As a result, SMI Properties can order 2,000 T-shirts three weeks ahead of race weekends for on-time delivery, Hawk said.

The graphic design and screen printing for the shirts is done at SMI Properties in Harrisburg, N.C., a short distance from the speedway. The finished shirts then get trucked to the gift shop and for the souvenir rigs on-site for events such as last weekend’s Bank of America 500 race.

SMI Properties officials would not release sales totals from the Coca-Cola 600 spring race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

> REAL DEAL: Get Real Sport Sales has expanded its role at Butler University to cover group ticket sales for the school’s basketball program.

Butler hired the company last year to outsource ticket sales. This year, the firm developed a new microsite, It provides a customized resource for individual members of a group attending a Butler game to purchase tickets at their discretion.

Get Real is calling groups in Indianapolis that may be interested in attending Butler games tied to special experiences such as singing the national anthem, high-fiving players as they enter the court and competing on the floor of historic Hinkle Fieldhouse.

For those groups deciding to buy, Get Real builds them a custom Web page through the site where each member of the group gets exclusive access with a password to purchase tickets.

The process reduces the legwork required of a group leader responsible for collecting money and keeping track of who’s buying tickets, said Jake Vernon, president of Get Real. Individual members instead make those decisions on their own time, Vernon said.

The company tested the process last year with Butler in its first season working with the school and sold 2,500 group tickets online.

“This year, there is a lot more content and it explains all the opportunities available,” Vernon said.

Don Muret can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @breakground.

Bristol Motor Speedway is reviewing plans to convert its lower-level seats in Turns 1 and 2 into open-air, VIP boxes, a move that track executives believe would improve the fan experience while also reducing the track’s total capacity.

Bristol Motor Speedway is in the “evaluation phase” on converting lower-level seats in Turns 1 and 2 into open-air, VIP boxes that would offer a premium and exclusive experience to fans.
The proposed VIP boxes, which were drafted by designers at Bristol’s parent company, Speedway Motorsports Inc., would be similar to what is offered at many outdoor concert venues. They would offer a premium and exclusive experience to fans who still want to be outdoors and close to the racing action. There’s a possibility that the boxes would provide access to a nearby party deck that would be 10 feet back from the fence around the track.

“It’s not something we’re moving forward with but we are going to measure demand,” said Bristol general manager Jerry Caldwell. “There are individuals attending races that want an enhanced experience. … That’s really where our thinking is coming from. How do we provide different entry points for people to have a premium experience and more fun than they had the last time.”

NASCAR tracks have seen significant declines in attendance over the last five years, and a recent study funded by NASCAR found that many of its facilities have fallen far behind other professional sports in terms of what amenities and services they offer. That’s led some tracks to begin to look for ways to improve the fan experience. Daytona International Speedway, an International Speedway Corp. facility, is looking to renovate its grandstands, and Charlotte Motor Speedway, an SMI track, recently installed the largest video board in professional sports and a row of new, outdoor suites along pit road.

Bristol is one of the largest and most respected venues on the NASCAR circuit. It seats 160,000 spectators and sold out 55 straight races between 1982 and 2009, but attendance has fallen in recent years for both its spring and summer races. The official attendance estimate for its Sprint Cup race last March was 102,000.

Track operators haven’t made a major change to the facility in two years, and the last change it made — converting the roof of its infield media center into a viewing place for suite ticket holders — was designed for corporate customers. The outdoor boxes would be designed to appeal to small groups of fans looking for a more exclusive experience at a lower cost than suites.

“Anything that is going on in the last few years is a response to the economy,” Caldwell said. “We’ve continued to have very strong corporate and fan involvement, but there are times when you have to step back and say, ‘What else is out there? How can we improve?’”

Caldwell said that the outdoor VIP boxes are still in the “evaluation phase” and will require SMI approval before the track goes forward with the plans.

Bristol also is in the midst of downsizing several of its 16-person suites. The track last spring partnered with Scripps’ DIY Network, which has a show called “Man Caves,” to convert one of its 64-person suites into a man cave complete with leather recliners, pub tables fashioned from Goodyear tires and racing simulators. The converted suite was so popular that Bristol is now converting three of its 16-person suites into eight-person man caves.

The new man-cave suites cost $25,000 and are being converted on order. Caldwell expects more orders in the future.

“The demand is not as great for [entertaining large groups of people] as it was,” Caldwell said. “There’s more demand from people who want a premium experience but want to bring fewer people and treat them top notch. That’s what is driving it.”

Daytona International Speedway executives hope to receive final approval this week from the Daytona Beach City Commission for a rezoning request that could make it possible to begin a major renovation project in 2013 or 2014.

International Speedway Corp., which owns the 53-year-old racetrack, submitted a request last June that the city rezone the speedway from a major sports district to a “plan master development” zone, which would allow it to develop anything from retail space to dining facilities to a museum. The seven-member City Commission will vote on that request Wednesday. A majority vote in favor will allow ISC to move forward with plans for overhauling the speedway’s grandstand, adding new suites, creating a modern exterior and redesigning the midway.

“This should be a very routine situation because we’ve been working with city staff to get to this point,” said Daytona President Joie Chitwood III. “We hope that we will get approval. We think we’ve been able to resolve any concerns the city has had about the design and our plans. I feel really good about it.”

During the City Commission meeting this week, Chitwood; an attorney from Cobb Cole, the speedway’s property law firm; and members of the internal design team at ISC will be on hand to answer questions. The city’s planning board unanimously approved the rezoning request last month and the City Commission is expected to follow suit.

If the City Commission offers its approval, then Daytona officials will work with ISC’s internal design team and their outside architecture advisers Rossetti, the Michigan-based firm that designed Ford Field and Red Bull Arena, to finalize their redevelopment plans.

To date, Daytona has limited what it’s released about the renovation plans. The only thing it’s said publicly that it wants to change is the number of entrances to the facility. It currently has 17 gates, but it wants to cut that down to around five and sell cornerstone sponsorships for those gates.

After it has finalized the rest of its renovation plans, Chitwood said it will go to the ISC board for funding approval.

“To ask for something, we have to have a detailed plan — business plan, design plan,” Chitwood said. “It’s a process. We’re checking off the boxes as we go. We hope to get in front of the board in the near future.”

Since 1983, Formula One’s Bernie Ecclestone has periodically attempted to put a race in New York. The group behind the latest effort is led by former YES Network Chairman Leo Hindery, with plans for a 2013 race along roads in New Jersey and across the Hudson River in New York City.

At some point — it remains unclear exactly when — Hindery signed a 10-year contract with Formula One Management that was supposed to take effect with the 2013 season. According to an interview that Ecclestone, F1’s management chair, gave a British newspaper recently, that agreement has been undone. “They don’t have a contract,” he stressed.

That doesn’t mean the race won’t take place, but it also doesn’t mean that it will. Negotiations with Ecclestone are often like that. For now, as the New Jersey group crowed in a press release last week, the race remains on the calendar for June.

Though the race at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, and 2013’s New Jersey effort have been positioned as rivals vying for the U.S. market, the success of each may depend on the success of the other. Keeping the sport in the American consciousness from June through November, the Austin and New Jersey groups agree, is the way to create the permanent following here that the sport has never had.

Related story: Austin's $400 million playground

“New York is the perfect partner for us,” said Geoff Moore, COTA’s chief marketing and sales officer. “It’s the media capital of this hemisphere. If there was no New York race, we’d ask Formula One to spend a couple million dollars to bring top drivers there to meet the national media. If a race was in Mexico City, that could hurt us. In New York, it will help us. We’re rooting for it, believe me.”

And for F1, the allure of New York remains. “New York is a place like Monte Carlo,” said Niki Lauda, the world champion turned airline magnate who remains active in the sport. “Selling it is easy. Everyone says, ‘Why is Formula One going to Korea?’ Nobody says, ‘Why are you going to New York?’”

That appeal, of a major sports event in one of the world’s two or three most important cities, is why much of the media attention about the sport’s return has been focused on the New Jersey race. The same appeal forms the basis of Hindery’s pitch on why his event will eventually succeed where those in the hinterlands have failed. “Indianapolis, quite simply, isn’t New York,” he said. “About half of Formula One’s fans come from outside the country. If you don’t have a destination of interest that you’ll return to year after year, you’re challenged. This track will be a seven-minute ferry ride from your room at the Waldorf.”

Unlike COTA, Hindery isn’t building a track but looking to commandeer existing public roads for one weekend each year. “My capital cost is a fraction of a purpose-built facility,” he said. A competitive driver himself, he has connections throughout the racing world that give him a running start in establishing commercial relationships.

But without a facility to sell, he can’t use the race as a loss leader for yearlong sponsorships. Unless the agreement he has negotiated — or ultimately renegotiates — with Ecclestone is substantially different than those Formula One Management has made with the other 19 races on the schedule, he can’t sell much of anything.

“This is a risk proposition,” Hindery admitted. “If it doesn’t work, I’m going to be pretty disappointed. I’ll also be pretty broke.”

Washington State University has rolled out 3-D technology in the suites at Martin Stadium, which industry experts believe is the first sports facility in North America to complete a permanent installation.

A company called 3D-4U, co-founded by Sankar Jayaram, a Washington State professor of mechanical engineering and computer science, has developed proprietary technology that gives suite users exclusive access to live action and replays in 3-D on 47-inch high-definition televisions.

Fans control cameras and angles.
Photo by: RAJAH BOSE
The technology gives patrons control over four unique camera feeds placed in both end zones and on the 25 yard lines on the stadium’s south sideline, where 21 new suites opened this season as part of a $65 million stadium renovation. Using a remote control device, fans in the suites get to choose the camera angle they prefer with the ability to pan, tilt and zoom in on the action. They can navigate their own replays and focus the automated cameras on individual players.

To view the technology in 3-D, suite attendees must wear 3-D glasses provided in every skybox. The unique camera angles can also be viewed in traditional 2-D format, Jayaram said.

The ability for a fan to take control of a live television camera in a suite is not new — Sony and Daktronics teamed up three years ago to form StadiumView at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati — but upgrading it to 3-D is a groundbreaking venture, experts said.

As the quality of 3-D technology continues to improve, 3D-4U could gain traction in sports by providing fans with a “total immersion” experience, said Sandy Climan, president of Entertainment Media Ventures and former CEO of 3ality Digital. Climan’s old company produced the first NFL game in 3-D in 2008.

“I will be watching closely to see the quality and comfort of the 3-D broadcast at Washington State,” he said.

Washington State invested $700,000 in the technology, said John Johnson, the school’s senior associate athletic director. Jayaram said the costs can run as high as $3 million depending in part on the number of 3-D cameras operating on the field.

The market for 3-D televisions remains spotty three years after the first units hit retail stores. There are fewer than 115,000 homes in the U.S. tuned to 3-D channels at any one time, according to a recent story from The Associated Press.

Jayaram said the technology has the potential to generate revenue for schools using the system for advanced coaching tools, high-resolution security and surveillance and on-demand highlights.

In addition, 3D-4U is developing a mobile application for fans to maneuver camera angles similar to what can be done in the suites. The application will start in 2-D format, but is designed for 3-D once smartphones and tablets fully catch up with the technology, Jayaram said. Company officials expect to roll out the application in November. Mobile devices with 3-D technology do not require users to wear glasses, he said.

Jayaram has worked on 3-D technology for 12 years and co-founded 3D-4U in 2004. Silver Chalice, a new-media subsidiary of the Chicago White Sox, bought an undisclosed percentage of the company in 2010.

Last year, 3D-4U tested its system at the National League Championship Series at Busch Stadium, where company officials in conjunction with Major League Baseball Advanced Media placed a camera in the dugout and recorded the games. It was also tested at NBA and NCAA football games, Jayaram said.

Silver Chalice is leading the effort to introduce 3D-4U technology to leagues, right holders and media companies, said Jason Coyle, its chief operating officer.

The feedback from teams has been to use the technology as an enhanced 2-D experience without upgrading to 3-D, Coyle said. That being said, 3D-4U is “well-positioned if the marketplace ever opens up,” he said.

“The output is unlimited,” Coyle said. “There could be 1 million users looking at 1 million things at the same time. There are remarkable opportunities if they can just get a foothold.”