Formula One’s popularity has been steadily decreasing over time, so can a change of ownership be the key to increasing viewership numbers?
Much of the chatter in the days leading up to the opening round of the 2017 Formula One World Championship, when not discussing new owners Liberty Media or the effect the new rules would have on racing, surrounded Ferrari and whether the Scuderia’s pace in testing would translate to the real thing.
Too often, the oldest team in the sport have promised the world but had cold water dumped upon them by reality come lights out.
The prayers of the men in red and the marching Tifosi were finally answered in Melbourne. Qualifying may have ended with the oft-told tale of a Mercedes on pole in the hands of Lewis Hamilton, but the first race of the season saw the chequered flag taken by Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel, much to the pleasure of those watching worldwide.
It was a popular victory as fans hope the sport’s 2017 regulations can cut short Mercedes’ stranglehold on Formula One. The past three years has, more often than not, been round after round of a win for the German marque, whose foundation was laid with pole position.
The resulting win for Vettel and co. has led to optimism that the championship will be fought for by teams, instead of just two drivers as the Hamilton – Rosberg duel took place largely in private. Perhaps even a third party may join the fray as a disappointing Red Bull, one that was tipped to shine with this year’s aero regs and Adrian Newey, seek to improve in the coming months from a position of third-best team on the grid.
Adding to the increased warmth around proceedings as it heads to China is the new owners. Liberty Media’s acquisition of the sport, along with its moving of long-time head Bernie Ecclestone to an upstairs role. Part of the excitement around new faces sauntering into an old building is the potential in regenerating and rejuvenating the aged space. And there are certainly rooms that need more than just a facelift.
The estimated global viewership of the sport for 2016 was 425 million, a decline by a third on its viewers in 2008. The move to pay tv in the United Kingdom since 2012 has hurt tv ratings, with recent races having had their lowest viewing figures for over a decade. The subscription model is now more the norm than in the past as many countries, such as Australia and Japan, are also involved in the pay tv gang.
However, Liberty Media has spoken of the need to move the sport forward and with the talk of more races in America and making each Grand Prix into an event with Superbowl-levels of hype, F1 certainly could learn from the US. The NFL trialled showing Thursday night games on Twitter, with the ten-game $10 million deal bringing in an average of between 2.6m and 3.1m viewers a game. Whether through a practice or qualifying session, bringing actual competitive action to social media could bring in new customers who can sample the product through this method and get to see what they can buy.
This future of F1, realised or otherwise now lies with three men.
Chase Carey, who has been COO of entertainment giant 21st Century Fox, now finds himself as the new head of F1. The American arrives with plenty of expertise in the entertainment industry, something which F1 can be accused of lacking. Sean Bratches, former executive of sport broadcaster ESPN assumes his position of Managing Director for the sport’s commercial affairs, while Ross Brawn will chair the position of Managing Director for Motorsports.
Sean Bratches (left), Chase Carey (centre), and Ross Brawn (right)
To the fans, it is Brawn’s appointment that is the most eye-catching. The Englishman served as Technical Director and Head of Strategy for many years during Ferrari’s dominance in the era of Michael Schumacher, was a big part in the fairytale story of Brawn GP’s rise from Honda ashes, as well as being involved in the design of cars in his early years in F1 and other avenues of motorsport. Brawn has talked of needing a calm head as he begins to devise a plan to encourage cars that can race closer and his words have provided much excitement to fans hoping for a change in races which can often see droll processions. Certainly, it is his experience which has got many believing that the future is bright.
As Formula One prepares to move on to China, there is much to look forward to as the single-seater series looks to inject new life into an old formula.