A new season is upon us and the boffins are hard at work trying to collect every tiny little piece of information from the limited amount of testing allowed by the FIA. Being at the forefront of innovation in one of the most competitive environments on the planet is a tall order for everyone involved in Formula 1, be it the drivers, the engineers, the designers, the mechanics, the strategists, the management or the people in logistics. It’s a hugely well-orchestrated show that commands one of the largest audiences of any sport worldwide.
For a sport of this magnitude, you’d expect it to be at the leading edge of broadcasting, fan engagement and marketing too. Unfortunately, that’s where the sport trips itself. Its not one of the best marketed brands, or one that prides itself in innovative new ways of reaching newer audiences. Sure, the commercial rights holder, Formula One Management (FOM), has taken it to newer places, but geographic expansion does not always translate to equivalent expansion in television audiences. The best examples of this would be Turkey and China. Both venues have the base for a successful race, but, as it stands, one is no longer on the calendar, while the other struggles to fill even 30% of the capacity. The local following of both these events is almost nil and that’s a direct result of almost absent marketing, awareness or any effort whatsoever on part of the FOM to bring the sport closer to the locals. While Turkey might be a terrible waste of a brilliant circuit, China is surviving solely on government money. There’s nothing else in Shanghai that could be counted as a reason for the race’s existence other than the fat cheque that the Chinese government hands to the FOM every year.
To talk about numbers, the worldwide audience of Formula 1 increased to 527 million viewers in the 2010 season on the back of a season widely-regarded as one of the most thrilling in years. FOM added that over 16,000 hours of coverage were broadcast to 187 countries. That’s a very impressive feat, but, hardly tells the entire story.
The following article published in The Guardian, way back in 2009, gives a general idea of how disconnected the teams’ association (FOTA) and the FOM are.
While FOTA might have some differences within itself, it still boggles my mind how Bernie has managed to keep all of it under his reign and how the FOM continues to exploit and suck every little penny out of the sport without giving much back to the teams or the sport in general. FOM has long enjoyed the benefits of a strong following of the sport along with extensive media coverage without spending anything on marketing or investing much in improving viewership.
In today’s date, online presence is no more a novelty, its an utter necessity, a necessity that the FOM doesn’t consider worth its time, effort or money. The official Formula 1 website is, at best, bare-bones. There is nothing on the website that would grab hold of a newcomer’s attention or make them spend more than 2 minutes on it. Trivia, facts, history, all of which are plenty in the case of F1, are a joke on the website. The layman finds it so difficult to connect with the sport that it seems almost impossible to imagine they’ll ever get into it. Marketing of the sport remains abysmal, apart from what individual teams and their various sponsors do. Most of the time, this marketing is not really about the sport in general and hardly benefits the brand of Formula 1.
Its amazing how Formula 1 fails to see what brands like NASCAR and the Super Bowl have achieved with intelligent marketing and efforts to engage audiences in newer ways. The recently concluded Super Bowl featured as many as 36 advertisers, who paid on average $3.5 million for a 30-second slot. The viewership was in the region of 110 million which means it was the most watched US television programme in history, having beaten the previous year’s Super Bowl. This is just one country we’re talking about. One can only imagine how such ideas could impact a sport that’s watched by more than half a billion viewers in close to 190 countries and already gets about 204 million unique viewers per single race.
This year’s Super Bowl was also telecast live on the internet. NBC streamed the Super Bowl live for the first time which resulted in 2.1 million unique viewers. This may not seem much compared to an overall viewership of 111.3 million, but it was easily the most-watched sports event in the history of the Internet. The webcast included camera angles that were not available on the free-to-air programme and was linked to tweets. The viewers had a choice as to whether they watched the advertising or not and some of the viewers were watching on their mobile phones. It is reported that the viewer numbers were almost double the previous record for a sporting event in the US. All of which seems to be common sense today, but, common sense that doesn’t visit the heads inside the FOM. The IPL cricket league in India also did something similar last year when they signed a deal with YouTube to have the matches streamed live on the website. While football and others were contemplating 3D telecasts, we did not even have F1 in HD until as late as 2011. Yes, mind-blowing!
You might ponder as to what and in which decade the FOM seem to believe in, but there’s more that just defies logic. Bernie had always maintained that F1 will be free to air to ensure maximum reach and availability, but, in a way so very characteristic of him, he set fire to his own tongue when the FOM signed a deal with Sky for 2012. Viewers in the UK (one of the most important markets for F1) now have to pay £300 annually to watch the entire season or subscribe to the Sky Sports full package to get F1 coverage. Sweet! All that’s left on the free-to-air BBC are half the races and no qualifying sessions. Delayed telecasts are as good as downloading & watching torrents a day later, so I’m not even going to count that as a part of the F1 package on the BBC. Politicians, dimwits in suits and greedy, lying businessmen do not constitute a healthy bunch for betterment of sport and that’s exactly what’s going on with F1 at the moment, in the UK at least.
Some of the said “torch-bearers” of the sport asserted that “Football fans have had to pay to watch top level football for years”. True, but what do you get for your £25 (extra, on top of your Sky subscription)? This – Premier League, UEFA Champions League, the FA Cup, all the top-level stuff basically, and with 115 Premier League games being played out live on Sky Sports each season it’s quite the bargain, really.
In contrast, having to pay the kind of money asked for F1 on Sky is just a rip-off! I’m afraid there is simply no getting away from the fact that F1 has made a catastrophic error of judgement and, as usual in sport, it’s one that is fuelled by a gross over-estimation of its own importance. As I mentioned earlier, Formula 1 has an enormous audience, yes, but a huge percentage of those people are casual observers. They certainly won’t be paying for Sky Sports solely to watch motor racing and, if the reaction on Twitter and the comments sections of several F1 sites are anything to go by, even the people obsessed enough to visit dedicated F1 sites in the first place aren’t willing to stump up the cash either. The idea that two F1 teams could pack a stadium in the same way that two football teams can is, quite frankly, hilarious. Under his huge piles of money, Bernie has apparently lost sight of this.
In the current financial climate, securing sponsorship for your F1 car is hard enough, and the last thing the sport needs now is a 90% drop in viewers. The idea that extra money from Sky will supplement this drop in exposure is a joke, so struggling teams will be forced to drop out as they fail to get their budgets together, manufacturers like Mercedes and Renault will quickly lose interest when they realise they’re not getting through to enough people and will withdraw their support. Ferrari will panic because “The Pinnacle of Motorsport” has been turned into a sideshow for British football leagues and, alongside McLaren will wander off into sportscar racing. Mind you, this new deal WILL bring a lot of money to FOM (CVC and Bernie basically), but it will bring that money at a monumental cost to the teams and the sport.
So, all in all, CVC, which is an investment firm and nothing more, will accumulate vast sums of money and will eventually abandon the sport when there’d be nothing more to suck out. Bernie will still be buying mansions for his daughters (I’ve got a terrible urge to say a few words about the females in point but will resist here) and go on to add a billion or two more to his stash.
Its not just that, there has been a good lot of negative marketing of brand F1 in the case of the Bahrain GP. Most of you know what the situation is and how its been helped by Bernie’s greed and complete indifference towards ground realities. There’s this article I wrote last year when this saga began. On the other side of the globe, classic races such as Spa, which are the soul of F1 in a way, are being threatened of a cross-out if they can’t pay what Bernie asks. Its already bad enough that we’ll have it alternate with the French GP from next year.
So, yes, the present powers of F1 are hell-bent on taking the sport to the dungeon and doing it with as much debauchery as possible en route. Unless some drastic changes are made in more than one area, there is very little that I can think of to warrant a bright future for Formula 1.