- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 20, 2022

Formula One returns to the U.S. this weekend in Austin, Texas, along with the attendant mobs of celebrities, paparazzi, reporters and enthralled American fans who have helped catapult the circuit from a niche, Euro-centric sport into one of the hottest “see-and-be-seen” tickets in the world. 

Austin hosts its annual Grand Prix and the second F1 event in the U.S. this year after the booming league held the inaugural Miami Grand Prix in May, attracting a who’s-who of A-listers, including Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, Serena Williams, Matt Damon, DJ Khaled and hundreds of other party-goers to glitzy southern Florida.

The surging global racing circuit sees North America as the New World for its races and drivers, and Austin and Miami are just the beginning.

“I’ve been to a couple of Super Bowls, and this feels like a similar vibe,” seven-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton said in May of the over-the-top atmosphere in Miami

“Celebrities have always gone to Formula One races, but Miami was on another level,” said Matt Gallagher, presenter for the WTF1 YouTube channel, which features content and news about F1 and has more than 1.1 million subscribers. “It is showing that Formula One is becoming one of those sports that everyone wants to get involved in. [The U.S.] is an untapped market in a lot of ways. It has so much potential.”

However, the phenomenon that is now F1 was far from that six years ago. 

In 2016, the sport was irrelevant in the U.S. and declining worldwide. F1’s global viewership that year was down 22% compared to 2012. Much of the ire was drawn at then-longtime CEO Bernie Ecclestone, who transformed F1 into a profitable and popular sport back in the 1980s but whose reign was souring.

F1 up until that point had been run by the same man for 40-odd years. Bernie Ecclestone was a real megalomaniac, to be quite frank. He ran everything,” said sports journalist James Gray, who has covered F1 since 2014 and currently works for The i newspaper in London. “Credit to Bernie, because he was a successful businessman from a very humble background. But by the end, it wasn’t a mindset that was very forward-thinking.”

So, in an oddly American twist, in comes a billion-dollar U.S. corporation to gobble up a depreciating asset. Liberty Media Corporation, which also owns MLB’s Atlanta Braves and the uber-profitable SiriusXM, swooped in to buy F1 in 2016 for $8 billion — 11% less than what it was valued at four years earlier. 

Once Liberty Media’s takeover was official in January 2017, its first move was to force out Ecclestone as CEO. Then, it started a campaign to tap into the unactualized $80 billion North American sports market. 

“I don’t necessarily think Liberty Media are some kind of marketing gods that have changed the world,” Gray said. “I just think whoever came into that space was going to have a massive opportunity.”

F1 wasn’t unknown to sports fans in the U.S. Many knew what F1 was: an international racing circuit with super fast cars on unique, zig-zag courses — some purpose-built, some taking place on actual city streets. Faster than NASCAR and with a lot more than just left turns. 

But American sports fans just weren’t that interested, as F1 was marketed mostly to a European audience and the sport lacks U.S. drivers. 

So Liberty Media sought to make F1 relevant to Americans. But how? Turns out, to get Americans to care about something — competitive chess, a cannibalistic serial killer, Formula One — just create a Netflix show about it. 

F1 and Netflix combined to create a docuseries about the sport’s 2018 season, welcoming fans under the hood of F1, its teams and its drivers as the 20-plus race series bounces all over the world from Australia to China to 10 different European countries. Think of HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” but instead during the season for the entire F1 circuit.

The first season of “Formula 1: Drive to Survive” premiered in March 2019 to significant success that has only burgeoned in the years since. When season 4 debuted in March — documenting the 2021 F1 season — Netflix’s audience figures revealed that at least 4 million people tuned in to watch, accumulating 28 million hours watched worldwide. The show has already been greenlit for two more seasons to cover both the 2022 and 2023 seasons. 

More than just boosting the racing series’ brand, the show displayed the faces and personalities of drivers that spent all of their competitive time in helmets. Sure, someone like Hamilton — widely considered the best driver in F1 history — was well known, but youngsters like Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc have gained massive followings in this new era of F1. Verstappen, a Belgian-Dutch driver who just secured his second consecutive F1 world title, and Leclerc, from Monaco, both have over 9 million Instagram followers — each more than Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Yankees slugger Aaron Judge and Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin combined. 

“It’s clear that ‘Drive to Survive’ has really broken down the barriers to Formula One,” Gallagher said. “I think that’s a big thing that F1 has always struggled with: How do you make a sport that’s so complex, with so many different rules and regulations, how do you get the standard person to watch a Formula One race and understand what’s going on? I think ‘Drive to Survive’ has done a really good job of humanizing the drivers.”

The success of the Netflix show has the other streaming services chasing the F1 dollar signs. Apple, for example, has acquired the rights to a movie about an F1 driver — starring Brad Pitt — to stream exclusively on its platform. Pitt and Hamilton will co-produce the film together, while Joseph Kosinski, director of the summer blockbuster “Top Gun: Maverick,” will steer the ship for the F1 film. 

“Drive to Survive” managed to boost Netflix’s bottom line and stoke fan interest in the sport. According to a Morning Consult poll in March, 53% of American F1 fans said the Netflix series was a reason they were following the sport, including 30% who said it was a “major reason.” 

Also according to Morning Consult, interest in F1 has increased 33% over the past two years, with 28% of respondents identifying as fans. That put F1 on par with IndyCar (previously considered the second-most popular racing circuit in the U.S.) and 12% behind NASCAR.

In May, an analysis by Nielsen concluded that the Netflix show could be credited with bringing about 360,000 more American eyeballs to F1 races at the start of the 2022 season.

“In my 16 years coming over here, it’s been such a slow build, trying to bring awareness to the sport,” said Hamilton, who races for Mercedes, in May, according to The Associated Press. “But I think the new step that’s been taken into bringing awareness, you know, the Netflix show, it’s really brought in that amazing fanbase.”

The overall television ratings are up exponentially as well since broadcasts of the races themselves moved from NBC to ESPN four years ago. Since 2018, when F1 races averaged just under 550,000 American watchers, viewership has increased by more than 130%. 

The biggest gains have come in the past two seasons. Last year, races on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 averaged 934,000 viewers — the most-watched season in the U.S. in F1 history. The previous all-time high was 748,000 in 1995 — two years before Verstappen and Leclerc were born.

The growth shows no sign of slowing. Through the first five months of the 2022 season, average viewership was at a record 1.3 million. While F1 is still solidly behind NASCAR, which is averaging about 4.5 million viewers per race this season, its performance in the 18-49 demographic is neck and neck with the pre-eminent motorsport series. The Miami Grand Prix — the one with all the celebrities earlier this year — racked up a record average viewership of 2.6 million on ABC — narrowly behind NASCAR’s race at Darlington on the same day, which garnered 2.61 million viewers on Fox Sports 1.

“There is a massive market [in the U.S.] that if you crack you can pick up a lot of customers very quickly,” said Gray, who wrote a book last year about Verstappen titled “Max Verstappen: The Inside Track on a Formula One Star.” “The U.S. has just been a massive piñata, and I think they’ve finally broke that open.”

The ratings boom netted F1 a lucrative new TV deal with ESPN. According to Sports Business Journal, F1 and ESPN agreed this summer to a three-year contract through 2025, with the Disney-owned network paying around $75 to $90 million per year. 

That’s far from the $7 billion media rights deal that the Big Ten Conference just signed or the $2.6 billion per year agreement between ESPN and the NFL for “Monday Night Football.” But the price tag is still nearly 20-times higher than the shockingly low $5 million ESPN is currently paying to air F1 events. 

F1 fans are even putting their money where their TV clickers are, as the U.S. is now the most lucrative market for F1 merchandise on Fanatics’ website. According to F1, merchandise sales have increased by 200% since Liberty Media’s takeover in 2017. 

The boom in popularity, viewership and merchandise are all part of the reason why F1’s revenue was up 87% in 2021 to $2.1 billion. That figure still puts F1 squarely behind the four major American professional sports, with the closest being the NHL at $5.3 billion during the 2021-22 season, and far behind the NFL’s $18 billion. But F1 is now ahead of MLS, another growing league in the U.S. that brought in $1 billion last year.

With the success in the U.S., F1 is only going to invest more. This season is the first since 1984 with two races in the U.S. The upcoming event at Circuit of the Americas in Austin has been on the F1 slate for years, while this season is the first of a 10-year commitment to race in Miami

Next year, F1 will feature three events in the U.S. when the circuit adds a visit to the Sin City for a race on the Las Vegas Strip. The 2023 calendar — with a record 24 total events — will also add races in Qatar (host of the upcoming 2022 World Cup) and Shanghai. 

But the addition of Vegas in 2023 could be just the beginning for F1’s venture into the U.S.

“I think, easily, there will be five races in America in a few years,” Gallagher said. “If the trend keeps going up and more and more Americans are getting into Formula One, I don’t see how [F1] could say no.”

• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at jmeyer@washingtontimes.com.

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