OPINION: The End of the Beginning for F1

04 Dec 2017

By: Sport Industry Group

The Liberty Media Transformation of Formula One

As the sun sets on Formula One's first season under new ownership, Fifty Digital co-founders Nick Jackman and James Campbell discuss the big changes, as well as what’s next for the sport under the Liberty Media transformation…  


You might think this season was much like recent years. Lewis Hamilton won his fourth Drivers’ Championship and Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport retained their Constructors’ title by a comfortable margin.

But, in reality, 2017 was the biggest year of change for Formula One since the re-organisation of commercial rights back in the late 1970s.

The Big Three

Three men in particular have been pivotal to this season’s changes. Chase Carey, CEO, Sean Bratches, managing director and Ross Brawn, motorsport director. They have set out an exciting core vision for the future of Formula One and haven’t been shy about their ambitions.

It is a future centred around a number of key areas – Digital and Social Media, Entertainment, Commercial Partnerships, Fan Engagement and the Future.

When we met with Sean, his excitement and conviction about the sport was clear as he spoke of having an “extraordinary opportunity to detonate the fan experience in a very positive way using digital and social media.”

Digital & Social Media

In the global sports market, digital-first organisations such as the NBA, NFL, MLB and even WWE have been so successful that they’ve become entertainment franchises, rather than mere sports.

That’s Liberty Media’s ultimate objective and they swiftly hired world-renowned digital strategists, ESPN’s Frank Arthofer and Sky Sports’ Yath Gangakumaran to kickstart the process, along with former Fox Sports President, David Hill, to advise on an overhaul of its on-screen package.  

This overhaul started in pre-season testing with the previous restrictions on teams and drivers filming social media content in the paddock loosened. It heralded a new era of fascinating behind the scenes content which brought fans into the inner sanctum.  

It has since been followed by videos from the secretive world of driver briefings and a sustained policy turning shareable video content around rapidly to hit real-time audience peaks.

The video (below) of Kimi Raikkonen meeting a young fan distraught at his early retirement in Barcelona, trended globally and notched millions of views across social media.

This approach has yielded huge rewards on all channels with Formula One now averaging 21m views per month on YouTube, growth of 18,217 Instagram followers per day, 11m weekly interactions on Facebook and close to 3,000 new followers added per day on Twitter.

In fact, a staggering 23 of Formula One’s Top 30 all-time most watched YouTube videos have been inside the last 12 months, despite the rapid growth of video on Facebook chipping away at YouTube’s user base.

Such growth proves Liberty Media’s strategy is working as they both retain and acquire fans, creating an even more attractive commercial proposition.

Commercial

Formula One needs a robust commercial base to support its operations and that’s what new commercial director, Murray Barnett, formerly of World Rugby has been developing.

Digital and social media has been key to the process, opening the sport up to new fans which in turn is attractive to new commercial partners. If you’re a brand, then the more opportunities to reach, engage and convert fans the better.

Allied to that is the benefit of global superpowers such as Mercedes-Benz, Red Bull and Ferrari performing strongly. Having a world famous social media colossus like Lewis Hamilton, also enhances Formula One’s global recognition.

Entertainment

Part of Liberty Media’s grand vision is to make Formula One a spectacle with the equivalent of “21 Super Bowls” per season.

We saw this throughout the season but most clearly at the US Grand Prix where legendary ring announcer, Michael Buffer, announced the drivers onto track in a first for the sport while qualifying was put back by two hours to coincide better for fans with the track’s post-session Justin Timberlake concert.

There’s been a big emphasis on building the drivers as individual personalities with numbers and flags added to the cars, along with post-qualification on-track interviews to develop Formula One’s emotional pull and drama.

Not all of these initiatives work smoothly first time round, but it’s encouraging to see the experimentation and recognition that a ‘shake up’ was required.

Fan Engagement

Fan engagement is a theme running through all of the reforms. The most striking initiative to date has been F1 Live London. Essentially it was a Formula One festival in Trafalgar Square, culminating in the incredible sight of cars powering along the streets of London.

Considering it was only advertised to the public around 24 hours before the event (presumably for security reasons), it was a smash hit and took the sport directly to the fans while showcasing its attractions to a new audience. We expect more to follow.

Such developments are supported by Formula One Experiences at the tracks, where simulators and a variety of other equipment are now available for fans to try out. When combined with the inaugural Formula One e-sports series, fans are closer to the action than ever before.

Last but not least, Formula One has thrown open its doors to global icons who cross-sports and interest boundaries to reach new audiences. Usain Bolt was driven around the Austin track by Hamilton, while the likes of Mariah Carey, Chris Hemsworth and Owen Wilson have all made appearances, with Wilson among a number of celebrities to conduct the official podium interviews.

The Future

It’s been an impressive and revolutionary first year under Liberty Media with a new logo rounding off the season. But what does the future hold?

We anticipate an ‘over the top’ platform to give fans more flexibility and exclusive content. The likes of the NBA and NFL already have these in place so the path to follow is clear.

There will likely be further tweaks to the calendar – we already have the first triple header race weekends in 2018 – with city races seen as a critical priority to acquiring new fans.

And, Ross Brawn has been vocal in wanting a more competitive sport so there will be further rule changes and perhaps funding changes, to level the field.

In some quarters it was said that in terms of infrastructure and modern company policy, it was like Liberty Media were building a start-up. Therefore, it seems appropriate to say it is the end of the beginning, as there is a general feeling in the sport that it really is the beginning of something and that there may be no end to the improvements that can be made. Long may it continue.


Fifty Digital is a digital and social media agency who specialise in sponsorship and sport, working with the likes of Epson, Pure Storage, Puma, Laureus, Mercedes-Benz, Mike Brown (England Rugby), Kevin Magnussen (F1), Porsche, Susie Wolff amongst others. The company was founded by James Campbell, former head of digital at Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport, and Nick Jackman, former partner services at Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport.