Formula 1 is a global sport, enjoyed by viewers all over the world, with the cumulative audience for the 2021 season reaching 1.55 billion.[i] The sport is growing at a rapid rate in recent years, with that 1.55 billion figure being a 4% increase on the cumulative audience figure for 2020.[ii] Despite this global popularity, F1 has struggled to grow in the US market. This has been attributed to various factors such as the open-wheel racing sector being dominated by the Indy 500 and NASCAR. However, an American firm, Liberty Media Inc, purchased Formula 1 back in 2017 and have since made huge progress in growing the sport in the US market. With a $75-90 million broadcasting rights deal being agreed with ESPN, it is interesting to explore the methods used to help drive this sudden rise in popularity of Formula 1 in the US. Hit Netflix docuseries Drive to Survive played a big part in attracting casual fans and creating a strong audience base in the US, however the measures taken to build on this base must be credited. From 2023, the US will be the country with the most Grand Prix and with each new grand prix, Formula 1 in the US has reached new heights.
Drive to Survive: what were its impacts?
The challenge of making it big ‘across the pond’ is one shared by most sports. This is largely due to the popularity of American sports such as basketball, American football, baseball etc. In the USA, sports are viewed not only as a showcase of elite ability, but also as entertainment. This is underlined by the celebrity status of athletes and half time shows. Sports events are expected to be ‘box office’ in the same way a movie is.
Liberty Media identified this and established a plan to make Formula 1 attractive to fans and enable the growth of Formula 1 in the US. This plan involved several marketing initiatives, including the introduction of a Netflix series, Drive to Survive aimed especially to the younger generation.
Drive to Survive, which first aired in 2019, was a hit in the US market as it revealed behind the scenes footage of races and helped fans build relationships with their favourite teams/drivers. The show was a true spectacle, gaining lots of good reviews and the impact the series has had on Formula 1 in the US was staggering. The viewership per race has increased from 547,722 viewers in 2018 to 1.4 million viewers in 2022.[iii] The correlation between the series’ introduction and this astronomical rise in viewership is evidenced in a poll conducted by InsideHook– more than half of self-identified Formula 1 fans in the US have claimed they became fans after watching the series.
This rise in popularity helped Formula 1 land a new 3 year deal with ESPN valued at $75-90 million. For anyone that still has doubts about the extent to which Formula 1 has grown in the US, the previous broadcasting rights deal was valued at $5 million.
The growth doesn’t seem to be slowing down either, as Apple are rolling out an F1 movie starring Brad Pitt and a documentary on Formula 1 legend Lewis Hamilton. This should help bring in even more casual fans and if Drive to Survive is anything to go off, help raise viewership of races.
The United States’ three Grand Prix
The surge in popularity was translated to the Austin Grand Prix (also known as COTA) as it became the highest attended three-day F1 event ever,attracting 400,000 people over the race weekend!
This represented the breakthrough that Liberty Media were looking for and the popularity of Formula 1 in the US was so high that the Miami Grand Prix was established and added to the 2022 calendar. This made it only the second US Grand Prix. Over 230,000 people attended the inaugural Miami Race at the Miami International Autodrome, where Max Verstappen came out victorious. 15.4 million US viewers watched the race on the Sunday, representing a 27% increase on the figures from the Austin Grand Prix a year prior.[iv]
As F1-fever continues to spread the nation, American fans can look forward to yet another US Grand Prix being added to the 2023 calendar. The Las Vegas Grand Prix will take place in November next year and it will offer fans the chance to see their favourite drivers race through the world famous Las Vegas strip. This race will be an interesting addition to the Formula 1 calendar and, as stated by F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali, it ‘demonstrates the huge appeal and growth of the sport’. A race being held in the entertainment capital of the world goes to show how successful Liberty Media have been in marketing F1 to a US market that has historically been so difficult to crack.
What next for Formula 1 in the US?
Whilst the US will now be the country with the most Grand Prix, there is still lots of room for growth in other areas, which could help further propel the sport. Liberty Media will be hoping to make more ground in the American market as the NBA’s $2.6 billion deal with ESPN highlights the potential that this market has to offer. If the 2023 Las Vegas Grand Prix follows a similar trend to the Miami Grand Prix, it should see another increase in the viewership. Which will make Formula 1 an even more attractive opportunity for companies looking for partnerships.
In the past, a potential limitation to the growth of Formula 1 in the United States has been the lack of American drivers: the last American to compete was Scott Speed in 2007. But from 2023 even this obstacle will be removed with the arrival on the Formula 1 grid of Logan Sargeant, at the wheel of one of the Williams.
It is impressive that Formula 1 has grown so much and the presence of a prominent American could give the series a further boost.
However, we believe that it is only a matter of time before the growing stars and stripes fans base see a compatriot on the podium.
F1 popularity: making one of the world’s biggest sports even bigger
Make no mistake though: F1 popularity isn’t on the rise in the United States alone.
While there is no doubt that the land of the free has suddenly become a paramount market for Formula 1, other areas of the world are showing lots of love. As the world’s largest annual global sports platform, Formula 1 is broadcasted to more than 170 territories, with an average of 71+ Million viewers per race, while figures from stats leader Nielsen show an impressive 1.6 Billion cumulative audience across the season.
Asia, Oceania and the Middle East have also been pivotal in this growth. Just to give some examples, the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix has seen an audience of 108,7 Million (7Mil more than Superbowl LVI) and the Australian GP recorded an attendance of 420+K at the track, making it the biggest live event the nation had ever witnessed. Singapore went sold out before the sales even opened.
Sure, the glamour of Drive to Survive and the pizzaz of the Miami Grand Prix have played a role, but the popularity of F1 has deep roots in how the sport have been managed in the past decade, morphing from a Europe-centered past-time for gentlemen drivers and engineering enthusiast to a videogame-ish show of racing, colors, music and adrenaline. The races are better, the cars are better, the rules are better, the calendar is better.
It didn’t happen overnight and certainly it didn’t come cheap. But, certainly, it worked.
At 504 Million fans, Nielsen says, Formula 1 is today the planet’s second top sport property, just a few million shy from the National Basketball Association. It’s bigger than Champions League, bigger than the NFL, Wimbledon, the English Premier League and the Major League of Baseball.
The sport is still growing. With its biggest-ever calendar, 2023 Formula 1 aims at the top spot on the list. Making one of the world’s biggest sports even bigger and potentially capable of attracting even more new fans than last season.
[iii] Front Office Sports