F1 has always been popular but thanks, in part, to the Netflix show Drive to Survive, F1 fandom is now at its peak. But has it gone too far? Is the sport over-exposed with drivers now becoming A List celebrities and appearing everywhere across digital and printed media? Are fans getting to saturation point? NMA Business School Tutor and fan engagement specialist Emma Thomson looks at the phenomenon that is F1 fandom.
A Sponsor's Dream Come True
Of all the many topics I love teaching on my Business of Motorsport degree modules, fan engagement is my personal favourite. For me, it captures the very essence of what sport is about. The theory of fan identification and motivation is both fascinating and, certainly in the case of Formula 1, clear for all to see in the real world. Evidence shows that motorsport fans are amongst the most highly identified, passionate and loyal sports fans around. This translates into high levels of engagement with and consumption of the motorsport product. Everything from TV subscriptions, social media engagement, live event attendance and buying up that lovely merch are lapped up by motorsport fans in large numbers. What’s more, sponsors of motorsport properties benefit from passionate fans too. Supporters of everything from NASCAR to Extreme E show high levels of engagement with sponsor products and services and are more predisposed to purchasing from partners of their favourite team. Fan loyalty is a big win when it comes to sponsorship activation too.
A Radical Rethink
Formula 1 has always been the pinnacle of motorsport, but its relationship with fans has been through some rocky times. Popularity has ebbed and flowed over the decades depending on competitiveness levels (is it exciting enough?), cost (can I watch races for free?) to driver appeal (are they dynamic personalities?). The gradual move behind viewing paywalls was having a detrimental impact on global audience figures. Periods of dominance for Ferrari, Red Bull and then Mercedes were making the sport harder to love. The performance gulf between the well-funded and cash-strapped teams compounded the lack of competitiveness across the field. The diehard fan was just about hanging in there, but it was clear the sport needed a radical rethink
Enter Liberty Media
When Liberty Media took over the Formula 1 brand, everything from governance, technology regulations to growing the fanbase was up for grabs at this crucial turning point in Formula 1 history. Since taking the reins at the start of the 2017 season, the new commercial rights holders have made good on many of their objectives designed to spice up the show. The international audience growth in the last year has been phenomenal, with viewing figures up 89% in the Netherlands, 39% in the UK and 58% in the United States – a key market for the US-based owners. Three races into the 2022 season and it looks like we have some real racing on track again courtesy of the new sporting and technical regulations. Big tick!
But it is the transformation in fan engagement which warrants special mention. I am staggered by the level of growth in F1 fandom over the past 5 years. The new owners have taken the basic product and considered a myriad of ways to ramp up the entertainment factor. They have placed the drivers – and to a lesser extent, the teams – at the core of the sport to generate human interest stories.
This is most prevalent in the phenomenon that is Drive to Survive. As a piece of fan engagement content, it has surpassed even Liberty Media’s expectations. The rapid growth of the young fanbase is testament to the power of this documentary slash soap-opera format as an introduction to a sport which had previously struggled to capture the imagination of the younger generation. Popularity has spilled over into TV audiences and live event attendance, especially in the USA. The sport is also blessed with a crop of some of the most talented and engaging drivers in decades. Their crossover appeal is growing in ways I never thought possible. Articles are creeping into non-sport publications such as GQ, Time and Vanity Fair. Add a healthy smattering of captivating social media content from all the sport’s key players and the sport has fans eating out of their hands.
Contentment to Complacency
But the sport must not rest on its laurels. In the words of the writer and philosopher Simone De Beauvoir, “it’s not a very big step from contentment to complacency.” While things are looking rosy on the fandom front right now, there is work to do to attract and keep highly identified, engaged and loyal fans. Liberty Media must manage the delicate balance between growing a new fanbase and maintaining relationships with the established audience. It would be foolish to suggest all well on that front. Many fans are still enraged by what happened at last year’s championship decider in Abu Dhabi. Social media was positively bursting with messages of fans threatening to switch off from the ‘sport’ for good. While many fans revelled in the close championship battle between Verstappen and Hamilton in 2021, there was an alarming level of toxicity on social media between opposing fans. Twitter no longer feels like a safe space to have healthy, constructive conversations about the sport. The tone of the fan voice has a direct influence on the mood of the whole F1 community and can reflect badly on the sport overall.
The Drive to Survive effect is also proving divisive for fans. For all its proven success with a younger, newer audience, the more established fanbase (and quite a few drivers) have been vocal in their criticism of the sport’s drive to contrive! Formula 1 Group CEO Stefano Domenicali has talked about the need to dial down the false drama portrayed in the Netflix production.
While it is amazing to see the F1 show expanding to new circuits, it is possible to overload even the most ardent follower. Talk of having as many as 30 races per year is asking a lot of fans. Full disclosure – I don’t have Sky Sports F1! But if I did, would I really want to take up more and more of my valuable weekend time (and money) tuning in? Eye-watering ticket prices for some of the newer circuits (I see you Miami) is another concern for fans who want to enjoy live events.
Keeping it Authentic
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the sport and its relationship with fans is around authenticity. The concept of the purposeful fan is a growing phenomenon in the world of sport. Fans are being increasingly vocal about sports organisations being true to their stated values. Followers have been asking some tough questions of Formula 1 in recent months. Are fans really at the heart of decisions about the future success of the sport? Are commercial interests more important than taking an ethical stand? Is the sport truly committed to achieving transformational change in equality, diversity and sustainability? Do actions match the rhetoric?
While there is a lot to praise about how Formula 1 engages with fans, there are clearly still challenges to contend with. I am intrigued to see how Liberty Media builds on these recent improvements to keep both new and established fans sweet as the 2022 season unfolds.
Business of Motorsport tutor Emma specialises in the marketing and communications side of the industry. An avid fan of F1, Emma teaches modules covering branding, sponsorship and media on the NMA’s Business of Motorsport Master’s Degree.