In a rather tenuous team principals press conference on Friday in Austria, the idea of fan engagement was one that came up time and time again. As any talk of a cost cap was put to one side by the bigger teams, the focus instead turned to raising Formula 1’s profile across the globe and attracting a wider audience.
In a nutshell, the problem that Formula 1 is currently trying to curb is the fact that less people are watching the sport than they did before. According to a report published in February, the global audience fell from 500m to 450m in 2013, which has sparked the calls to “improve the show”.
Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo wrote an open letter to the sport’s powers earlier this month calling for a summit to correct the ‘wrong turn’ that has been taken. In his eyes, this largely concerns the new formula of the sport. The introduction of the V6 turbo engines for this season has caused a stir, with their cost and sound concerning some members of the paddock and the fans of the sport.
In his letter, Montzemolo suggested that F1 should take inspiration from Google, Apple and YouTube on how to attract a younger audience, and social media is definitely a big interest for the teams.
“Social media is growing at an exponential rate with us,” Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff explained. “On good days we have more than 50,000 new likes on our Facebook site.” Red Bull’s Christian Horner was equally enthusiastic about his team’s social profile, saying: “We have more than eight million fans worldwide that are following us through social media, our digital platforms and so on. We’re generating a huge amount of hits.”
The problem with social media? Monetizing it. Profit is king for any business, and this is certainly true with F1. You don’t get paid for Twitter followers, no matter who you are. However, it is a cheap form of marketing; simply interacting with fans gives teams a great profile, and is one reason why Lotus has been so popular in recent years.
Yes, Formula 1 should always be doing as much as possible to attract a new audience and tap into new markets. It is for this reason that we are going to Russia in October. However, the reasons behind the fall in TV viewers must be considered, instead of the bare figure.
According to the report in the Wall Street Journal, 50m less people watched Formula 1 in 2013. Of that 50m, 30m came in China where the sport moved away from the nation’s free-to-air broadcaster and onto cable. In France, viewer numbers fell by 16m for the same reason. Add the two together, and there are just 4m fans to account for. That could be put down to Sebastian Vettel’s domination.
In the markets that F1 is trying to crack, such as the United States, viewing figures rose by 1.7m, and are continuing to do so at the beginning of this season. The dramatic drop was by no means common across the globe.
If the sport was only concerned about TV viewing figures, it would only be broadcast on free-to-air TV, meaning that the huge revenues brought in by selling the broadcasting rights to cable companies would be lost. In the UK, the viewing figures for races which are shown on the BBC (free-to-air) regularly dwarf those only shown on Sky Sports (pay TV); it has little to do with the quality of the broadcast.
The knee jerk reaction to viewing figures falling is certainly a puzzler, just as the implementation of double points – a rule that the fans have so regularly expressed anger – also did not seem to be a true remedy for the problem, despite the intention being to keep the championship alive for longer, thus encouraging people to tune in.
Essentially, the fans are being told to buy a product they do not want. Some businesses work by asking its customers “what do you want us to do?”. The fans tell them x, y and z, the business does x, y and z, and sales are made. F1 is working by saying to the fans “this is what we think you want” – double points, standing restarts etc.
The difference here? Even if the fans say “no no no”, sales will still be made. It’s the fact that more sales could be made, and so much more could be tapped into by the sport.
The sport wants more fan engagement, but only on its terms.
The problem with Formula 1 in this regard is that it is a luxury product. To be a fan and follow the sport, it is likely that you have some disposable income. Even just to watch every race of the season on Sky costs hundreds of pounds per year, and you can double that figure if you attend even just a single grand prix.
And as a result, it is not a ‘working man’s’ sport. For football or rugby, you could purchase a season ticket to see your favourite team play every single weekend for roughly the same price as one F1 race. The idea of ‘supporter clubs’ or fan associations are completely redundant in F1; it will never, ever happen.
Yes, the sport does need more fan engagement, but we must know the limitations. The very nature of F1 means that, in order to maintain this ‘luxury’ appearance, will always keeps the fans at an arms length.
On the same weekend as all of this talk, one brand really did hit ‘fan engagement': Red Bull. Great facilities, cheap tickets, awesome seats – everything that fans want.
For one weekend, the sport showed what is possible in terms of engaging the fans. The Austrian Grand Prix was not profit-driven, nor was it about business – it was about Formula 1. The racing and the fans were prioritized. Isn’t that the purest thing we can see in the sport? Amid all the political wranglings, court sessions and strategy meetings, the spirit of racing can be lost. Red Bull reminded us of what it really is all about in Austria.
Images courtesy of Octane Photographic.