Formula 1 is one of the biggest sports on the planet. Since the early 80s, thanks to television deals and territorial expansion, the success it has experienced is unrivalled.
But just when we thought F1 couldn’t get bigger, the people behind the sport have done the unimaginable and grown its offering, extended its reach and added to its success even more through a recent deal with Netflix, which brought the show, Formula 1: Drive to Survive to our screens.
Formula 1, I doff my cap. Not to the sport, but to the show and its success in attracting a whole new audience to the sport.
They’ve recognised that whilst the sport is already a global phenomenon, it can always be bigger, better, and even more successful.
A new direction
The first series of the show aired in 2019, just two years after Bernie Ecclestone sold the commercial rights to Formula 1 to Liberty Media in an astonishing $8bn deal. When the takeover took place, sport’s governing body, the FIA, assured the public that the new partnership would guarantee the continued success and development of F1. And that, it has done.
Ecclestone’s 40-year reign over the sport saw it make significant commercial progress, particularly in its early phase when Formula 1 was first broadcast live on a regular basis and began to generate significant sponsorship and television revenues.
Nonetheless, while those revenues rose steadily into the 20th century, a failure to embrace social media and promote the sport to new demographics saw global TV audiences drop from over 600 million to below 400 million in the years after 2008.
It may also be plausible to assert that during Ecclestone’s extensive reign the sport only really attracted a specific audience. Those with an innate interest in motor vehicles and those who liken to near-death danger and obscurely are able to convert that rush of adrenaline into excitement. Formula 1 traditionally was largely renowned for the danger that ensued the sport. Between 1952-1970, drivers stood a one-in-three chance of being killed each time they took to the track.[WH1] (Burns, 2017) Within this period 32 drivers were horrifically killed on the track. The modern-day edition of Formula 1 is evidently more sensitized for modern day audiences due to the lower rate of fatality. This in turn, allows the sport to appeal to new demographics for instance, younger children and thus acquire more viewership. To reinforce this point, since the turn of the century only five formula 1 drivers have been involved in fatalistic accidents. F1 in essence, was never a child-oriented spectacle however, as of 2018 14% of its viewers are under the age of 25 [WH2] (Sylt, 2019)reasserting the new appeal that F1 has amongst younger audiences. Sky have also played an imperative role in rejuvenating the brand. In 2011 Sky announced a dedicated F1 channel worth £1 billion lasting through until 2024. Sky currently has a market share of 22% and the F1s continued growth is certainly a reflection of Sky’s dominance in the media market.
So, in that sense, the deal with Liberty Media came at the perfect time. The sport had been losing momentum and needed some sort of pitstop in order for it to refuel and regain some of its old glamour and excitement. Liberty Media came in and did just that.
Something I have spoken about previously in this series is the risk involved in mergers and acquisitions. No matter how successful each entity has been independently, when merging or being acquired, there is no guarantee of continued profitability. Rather, investment, effort and strategy must go into making the deal a success.
But, with the amount of resources required to complete a merger or acquisition in the first place, businesses are often hesitant to allocate even more investment after the event. Liberty Media instead, dedicated a substantial amount of theirs to capturing the behind-the-scenes action of the 2018 racing season.
While it’s likely this decision wasn’t one that was taken lightly due to the risks involved with opening up to public view and opinion, Liberty Media took yet another chance by not going down a traditional route and partnering with a terrestrial TV network. Instead, they struck a deal with Netflix, leaders in the digital streaming market.
And consequently, this has enabled the sport to catch up to 21st century audiences without any geographical restraints or limitations that so often come with traditional, mainstream media.
So, first and foremost, I doff my cap to Formula 1: Drive to Survive for taking those risks. And next, because of how well they’ve made them work in their favour.
Moreover, since Liberty Medias takeover, F1 issued a 2022 rule regulation alteration. A new fleet of cars was announced which were ‘designed specifically to promote better racing’ with ‘safety’ at ‘the forefront of the design’ (this design modification to an extent reinforces F1s more family friendly approach). However, my argument in principle here is that amid Lewis Hamilton’s decade of authoritarian-like dominance within F1, constructive changers are being implemented with the intention of attempting to make the sport competitive and thus fulfil their aim of promoting ‘better racing’. Traditionally the more competitive a sport is the more exciting the spectacle it is for viewers, thus increasing net viewership subsequently. Rule changes are notorious for resetting the pecking order leading to ‘unpredictability’ allowing for more subservient manufacturers to fully capitalise upon this reset. Since the re-modification of the cars, Lewis Hamilton has only had 8 podium finishes in 20 races and is yet to secure a 1st place finish. Lewis is currently 5th place in F1 standings which could represent the beginning of a pre-mature downfall for the F1 starlet. This does reinforce the assertion that F1 is indeed far more competitive and thus a more exciting spectacle for viewers which will certainly help mount a drive for further increasing viewership.
‘Tapping into the US market’
The US market typically provides the serum for any successful brand and it is certainly not in contention that if F1 are able to capitalise upon the historically capitalistic population, the rewards reaped will indeed be of tremendous value. F1s viewership boom within the USA is certainly no secret with ESPN being the predominant benefactor enjoying a 56% increase (Paulsen, 2021) in viewership in 2021 in comparison with the 2020 campaign. In fact, Liberty Media are a primarily US based enterprise, and thus tailoring their new flamboyant product to their native consumer-base is somewhat second-nature to them. ESPN were granted complimentary streaming access of F1 races (which would inevitably serve as an outstanding level of magnitude for early growth). Moreover, race weekends were essentially ‘Americanised’. Without spouting a patronising rhetoric of belittlement, F1 events were developed into a more celebratory, less formal occasion. Liberty media then recognised that in order to drive more exponential rates of growth. Utilising the colloquial ‘mouthpiece’ for American entertainment and epitome of televised innovation was Netflix. How else to access the homes of those undiscerning consumers with a reluctancy to immerse themselves within the future of sport than to tenaciously advertise the sport in a more insightful, encapsulating television series? Absent of the repetitive, bore of antiquated commentary, instead infused with an adrenal ‘fight or flight’ narrative. Evidently, this ‘reluctancy’ was nothing more than ignorant acquiescence, as F1 viewership boomed following the introductory series.
In response to this viewership boom the Miami International Autodrome was built with the sole purpose of increasing the F1s appeal ‘to an American audience’. The Miami construction has pledged to a 10-year deal, a pact that serves as a very real representation of the role that the USA will play in serving as a catalyst for the next stage of Formula 1s monopolisation of the sporting industry. The newly built colosseum is also currently being used in conjunction with the largely notorious ‘Circuit of the Americas’ for the 2022 season. The USA now hosts the joint most F1 races as of the 2022 season, embodying the forecasted exponential rise in growth of the sport within the lucrative nation.
Fuelled with emotion and storytelling
Up until now, F1 has largely remained a closed book – what you see on the track is more or less what you get. Audiences catching any behind the scenes, garage-based action and reaction has historically been rare.
But for the very first time, the Netflix show gave viewers a look under the hood of the sport. The producers of the show did not hold back either. They documented and then released footage of every trial, tribulation, and triumph of the racing season. And with that, viewers became hooked.
Anyone who has watched the show or follows the sport knows that the seasons during which the first two series of the show were filmed were not short of intrigue. There was drama, backstabbing and double dealings between teams, unforeseen victories, and a tragic loss.
The sport itself knows that it has gone as far as it can as a sport, so now it is much more about the people and stories behind it.
Viewers of the ‘Drive to survive’ series have contended that Netflix sought to establish this ‘Hero vs Villain’ like dynamic within the series. This subsequently involves Lewis Hamilton being portrayed as a tyrannical being whom withholds an oppressive level of dexterous skill. Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc, and many others being painted as the tenacious challengers. In a sense this romanticises the ‘under dogs’ whilst villainising the victor. Whilst this portrayal might be perceived as seemingly bias, it stimulates emotion within the audience, bolstering support certain individuals whilst provoking reaction towards the actions of others. Adopting this pantomime like stance is a historically reliable approach when mounting a drive for increasing consumer engagement. Once emotions are almost weaponised for publicity, it boosts brand loyalty allowing for this monopolisation of the sporting industry.
The Netflix show in essence, personifies the post-Ecclestone era approach. An approach that shifted away from corporate rapacious desire towards viewing the fans as a quintessential component in producing long-term sustainable growth. In 2010 F1 issued a fan survey which respondents met with distaste. Within the survey, almost a third of all fans were classified as ‘infrequent’[WH3] (FOTA, 2010). Spectators sought solace out of the comical irony that whilst F1 was undisputedly the most technologically advanced sport worldwide they seemed to have entirely neglected the increasing digitisation and thus had a lacklustre marketing approach. The survey served the premise of realisation amongst the corporation and change was required to substantiate this void-like presence between the corporation and the fans.
“I’m not interested in tweeting, Facebook and whatever this nonsense is. I’d rather get to the 70-year-old guy who’s got plenty of cash. So, there’s no point trying to reach these kids because they won’t buy any of the products here and if marketers are aiming at this audience, then maybe they should advertise with Disney.” - Bernie Ecclestone once famously said in an interview
The beginning of a new age was announced through a shift in ownership from Ecclestone to Liberty Media. A transition from an aging soul towards a growing corporation is a somewhat poetic reflection of the corporate dominated world that surrounds us today.
And for creating such a compelling narrative that evoked a more long-term and invested fan attitude towards the sport, I doff my cap.
More than just a sport
As we move further into 2021, Formula 1 is continuing to be much more than just a sport, and for many, it’s a way of life.
Over the years, the sport has become recognised because of the people it is associated with. Take Lewis Hamilton for example, he has been the face of the sport for the last decade, but because of the modern and social media driven era we all live in now, this is no longer in the sense of a traditional sporting icon.
The people who take part in the sport, massively contribute to its success. You only have to look at the effect of Tiger Woods and golf to see that this rings incredibly true.
In 2013, Tiger competed in the Masters Tournament and this attracted more than 10.2 million views in the US, and a year later, without Tiger, the tournament’s viewing figures were down by almost three million – a testament to Tiger Woods and his phenomenal impact on the sport.
In relation to the commercial impact of golf, Netflix have recently announced a Drive to Survive-style series set to be released in 2023. The series is prospectively anticipated to show the changing landscape of the sport from the emergence of LIV golf to the legal battle between the new league and PGA tour. LIV golf sparked major controversy upon its announcement due to its ‘Saudi backed’ investment. LIV have access to some of the worlds most prestigious golfers yet have failed to secure broadcasting coverage within the US market, only having their tournaments covered on YouTube and DAZN, not across mainstream television and market leaders. Despite the lack of mainstream coverage in the western-world, LIV golf generated an admirable 1.1 million views per day for its tournaments via outsourced streams. They are awaiting media-rights delas to be concluded and following that should see significant inflows from sponsorship deals.
Now, sports stars and icons are recognised as influencers and are utilised in a way to promote the sports and industries they are a part of. And the Netflix show has proved exactly that – that a sport is much more than meets the eye, and to that, I doff my cap.
Building the next generation
But, although F1 fans were already familiar with how the seasons had played out, the show attracted a whole new generation of viewers who, before watching the series, had much less awareness but are now just as gripped.
And that is the power of emotion. Viewers gained a greater understanding of the people behind the wheel, allowing them to form bonds with their characters and stories. By the time the first series came to an end, they had become so invested that they simply needed to keep up with the sport itself, contributing to a 9% rise in year on year viewing figures in 2019.
I, myself am proof of this. I have had a connection to F1 from a young age, having attended various Grand Prix races and met and formed strong relationships with a number of racing drivers, including Johnny Herbert. The Champions Celebrity agency worked with Johnny as he prepared for commentating by training and practicing as diligently as he did for his driving career. During the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Johnny Herbert was one of the best voices describing the exciting action that unfolded, commentating from all but one of the venues on the circuit.
In addition, Champions has worked closely with clients, such as adi Group, who apply strong F1 principles to their business model and internal culture, as well as Powerboat P1, another giant in motorsport.
And similarly, to the Netflix show, our approach for Powerboat P1 was to look beyond the sport, focusing on sponsors as well as the teams and individuals behind it in a bid to create superstars of the future. We achieved just that, as did F1: Drive to Survive.
But, despite all these connections, I must admit that I have never really understood or enjoyed the sport. Until now. The series flicked a switch in me, and I became one of many - newly and heavily invested in Formula 1.
In fact, my daughters have also joined the growing throng of fans, showing not only an interest in the drama but also an understanding of how race results go on to impact behind the scenes action. Well, that is partly true, personalities such as George Russell and Lando Norris appeared to have caught their eyes for reasons that don’t resonate with my interest within the sport…
And because of the show, we now enjoy the sport - not the other way around. Formula 1 is no longer chunks of metal whizzing around a track, but a story filled with real people and real emotions.
This success is largely the result of a thing we like to call the human touch here at Champions. The human-to-human marketing approach is what we base a lot of our communications on.
It’s all about connecting with people on an intrinsic level to form bonds that result in long-standing brand loyalty. And it works every time.
Formula 1: Drive to Survive has fired up the sport’s engines once again and it is 100% emotion driven. So, that’s precisely why I doff my cap to such a genius TV show.
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