How do you increase interest in your sport? A good starting position is to make it easy to watch. In the UK, Formula 1 used to be. Now it’s hidden so far behind a paywall it can barely get up for air. And with races as dull as the procession we just witnessed in Barcelona, how can you tell the story of why people should tune in?
8.9 million people in Britain watched Lewis Hamilton win the F1 world championship in 2008. Yet in 2018, with the insurgence of subscription TV, that number was 1.3m. And with Sky TV’s near total domination of broadcasting the sport from 2019 until 2024, F1 is in severe danger of being a national also-ran in an era where others are thriving.
As Matthew Scott pointed out post-Spain, it was a race which was decided fifteen seconds after Lights Out, Lewis Hamilton blasting past team-mate Valtteri Bottas to disappear far into the distance while supposed rivals Ferrari scrambled for relevance in behind. As a spectacle it was a total non-entity, a Mercedes walkover for the fifth consecutive one-two in five races – already a record.
Mercedes’ dominance is not their fault; their excellence is a by-product of, initially, the dying throes of the Bernie Ecclestone era, and the false start under Liberty Media, where much was promised but little has been delivered.
And there is currently a imperfect storm of a lack of spectacle, plus a lack of access to that spectacle, which is strangling what is one of F1’s traditional strongholds. From a position of being a British institution, F1’s inexorable slide in sporting irrelevance looks difficult to halt, and there’s four clear reasons why.
BBC created a generation of hardcore F1 fans by giving them full, ad-free, uninterrupted coverage of the sport for the entirety of the 1980s and much of the 1990s.
Free-to-air exposure remains so utterly underrated to sport and F1 got their audience then, not now. Indeed the UK and Italy are their two oldest fan bases. It’s difficult to ensure a continuation of that audience when they can’t be exposed to what is happening.
And social media engagement is not an adequate replacement, because in general those who follow F1 on digital platforms come at it from a position of passion, and interest, in the first place. They can’t get to that point if they can’t see it.
The deal that Ecclestone struck with Sky, guaranteeing the broadcaster exclusive live coverage of every race (with the exception of the British Grand Prix) from 2019 until 2024, has already pushed viewing figures even further downwards. Channel 4, now left with a highlights show that is only allowed to be comprised of 50% of track racing or less, recorded 1.6m viewers for Bahrain last month, the lowest audience their recap has ever received.
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And Liberty’s bind is that even if they wanted to take on Sky, with a view to escaping that contract early, it’s currently worth £200m per year to them – a staggering fee which represents 11% of F1’s turnover.
It’s just not in their interest from a balance sheet perspective to rock that particular boat. So we’re left with this impasse, where subscribers only need apply, F1 TV cannot be activated, and, if Mercedes continue on this run, will see viewing figures reach new depths.
Liberty loves to talk retaining the traditional venues, such as Silverstone, and the relationship the UK has with the sport. But is it really their focus? Their revenue guarantee from Sky runs until the end of 2024, an absolute lifetime in business terms.
Meanwhile, markets like China and the US are, slowly, gaining some traction with a younger demographic. China in particular has witnessed a three-fold increase in viewing figures since races moved back to the state-owned and free-to-air TV channel.
Likewise in France, the return of the French GP at Circuit Paul Ricard meant that the race, alongside Monaco, was free on Canal +, increasing the viewing figures by 58%.
All this means that the global viewing figures are going up and contributing to Liberty’s narrative that the sport is growing. It may not be in the places we are used to, but as long as associated revenue can follow, it will be of little concern. Sponsors like a story of a brand on the up.
Not even the best Hollywood screenwriter can try to fashion an interesting story from this damp squib in 2019.
Five Mercedes one-twos, followed by either Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc or Sebastian Vettel in every single race – an almost unprecedented level of monotony. The cars at the front have never been more dominant and the cars at the back rarely ever more inconsequential.
What’s more – no crashes, no retirements, nothing that could draw in eyeballs. A mundane coming together between Lance Stroll and Lando Norris in Barcelona took an entire eight laps of the safety car to clear. Safety car or not, the cars just follow each other around.
Liberty have one shot at this, in 2021 when the Concorde Agreement between owner and teams is renewed and rewritten. They have spoken broadly and brazenly about the changes they want – no, need – in order to restore some kind of balance.
A sea-change could entice a new audience to see what the fuss is about, or cause everyone, old and new, to disengage totally.
Things really are that desperate. In its traditional strongholds F1 really is fighting for its future. How much does it care?