What course will the sport take in the new era?
By Scott Branch, Head of Communications, Motorsports
This week’s Australian Grand Prix is an historical moment for Formula 1 (F1). For the first time in over 40 years there is a new hand on the tiller. The question on everyone’s lips is; what course will the sport now take? The future is always unpredictable, but the early signs are positive.
Before exploring what that new era could bring, it’s worth taking a look at what the newly named Formula One Group (FOG) have bought into.
Despite a recent dip in TV viewing figures (largely attributed to the switch from free-to-air to subscription TV), F1 remains the most popular motorsport series in the world.
Around 80m fans tune in across the globe to watch each race of a championship that runs for 9 months of each year. There are 20 races in 20 countries, touching 5 continents and the sport generates almost $3bn in revenue annually. Not too shabby.
However, as new Chairman and CEO of F1, Chase Carey commented upon completion of the deal: Formula 1 is a sport with ‘huge potential’ and ‘multiple untapped opportunities’. Therein lies the essence of what attracted Liberty Media Group to the sport, an opportunity to make it even bigger and even better.
FOG put the first building blocks in place with the announcement that Ross Brawn had been appointed Managing Director, Motor Sports and former ESPN Exec Sean Bratches as Managing Director, Commercial Operations. The four priorities subsequently outlined by Bratches revealed much about the future of the sport under FOG:
Refreshing the F1 brand
Embracing digital channels
Re-imagining the race experience
FOG had clearly been watching and listening and the outcome was music to the ears of fans, teams, FIA, promoters and sponsors alike.
So, what does this mean for existing brands and those now considering F1 as a sponsorship platform?
Testing in Barcelona presented FOG with their first opportunity to walk the walk. Among the new bigger, quicker, noisier cars and some early signs from that the rest of the field might have made up some ground on Mercedes, there was a pervading feeling that things had changed.
This state of play on track remains to be seen, but perhaps the most significant activity could be found off the track. For the first time ever we had a Facebook Live broadcast from within the pit-lane. The reaction and exclamations from fans was palpable.
The video has generated over 200k views to date, with strong engagement from fans and overwhelmingly positive sentiment. More importantly than views and engagement however, is what this broadcast represents.
Jason Steele, Senior Director, Content & Social, CSM Sport & Entertainment comments: “This is about FOG casting off of the shackles and truly embracing the digital and social media worlds, it makes their intention to meet the thirst for reality programming from fans very clear.”
Importantly this engaged teams and drivers, creating greater visibility and insight that was previously limited to a select few, now available to fans around the world.
Steele goes on to add: “This was merely a toe in the water. We can expect the full inventory of new technologies: virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR); gaming; and the use of fan data to deliver tailored experiences.”
“All of this will serve to reignite the appeal of F1 to the disenfranchised, but perhaps more importantly for the future of Formula 1 (as referenced by the BBC this morning
) to bring in a new generation of younger fans to the sport.”
F1 is currently playing a bit of catch up with other sports when it comes to digital and social engagement with fans. Expect to see this gap to have narrowed by this time next year.
Outside of the world of digital, what else can we expect to see?
Carey proclaimed his ambition to deliver 21 (now 20) Super Bowls annually through F1 so we can expect more ‘festivals of F1’ combining sport, music, celebrities, B2B meetings and fan zones at track and in host cities.
With the increasing integration of sport and music the likes of a Taylor Swift concert at COTA may become a more regular occurrence at races across the globe. FOG are well placed with their links to Live Nation to utilise this natural synergy and crossover between sports and entertainment.
We’ve already seen other brands adopt this approach: the Katy Perry/NBC collaboration at the 2016 Olympics
and Adidas announcing the Paul Pogba transfer to Manchester United through Stormzy
By carving out new assets FOG will open up new sectors for F1 and reasons to engage with emerging brands that would never have previously considered F1 as a commercial opportunity. In turn this provides openings for those involved in the sport, the teams, the drivers and the promotors.
An even bigger prize, which will likely take longer to fully realise is the largely untapped North American market. The mixed experience of the promotors at COTA has shown that it won’t all be plain sailing, but the sheer size of the market, both in terms of viewers and potential sponsorship spend, is reason enough to persist.
Coupled with the fact that many of Liberty’s investors are based in the USA, there is enough to suggest that at some point in the not too distant future we will be hearing the roar of F1 engines against iconic backdrops such as Miami and Los Angeles.
FOG’s expertise when it comes to cracking the US market also puts it in a strong position. Competing in a sports market like the US will require a number of factors to fall into place; not least some tangible success for the US-owned Haas team, local driving talent to get behind and an enhanced product on track. Either way it makes a lot of sense for brands to get on board early, especially as the price point to access the sport will only be going up.
Against this backdrop the new era is under way in Melbourne. All of these changes won’t come overnight. Indeed this season will be about laying down a platform for long term success. Recognising the need to get it right, FOG will also use this season as a window of opportunity to test and learn, figuring out what does and doesn’t work for its key stakeholders.
Whether you’re a sponsor, broadcaster, publisher, marketer or fan, it’s a great time to time to be involved in Formula 1.
Head of Communications, Motorsports