OPINION: F1 fans back in the driving seat

09 Jun 2017

By: Sport Industry Group

Speaking ahead of the Canadian Grand Prix this weekend, Jack Ward, creative strategist at Ear to the Ground's fan intelligence department, Fanatic, considers the changing landscape of Formula One, as the impact of Liberty Media’s recent takeover begins to take shape. But what do these changes in ownership and broadcast models mean for the loyal fans of the sport?

We’re only a quarter of the way through the new season and it’s clear that change is afoot in Formula One. We’re already seeing a tasty rivalry shape up between two former world champions, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, and there’s a palpable buzz of new excitement that’s energising the sport. With two of the most talented drivers of their generation fighting it out for supremacy, everyone agrees that it’s already shaping up to be the most riveting season in years.

But it’s not just what’s happening on the track that’s shaking up F1: American company Liberty Media’s 100% buyout of the sport from old grandee Bernie Ecclestone means that every aspect of the way F1 is seen by fans is about to change. The old empire has fallen and the razzmatazz world of Liberty Media is already making huge changes to the sport.


Chase Carey, the new CEO and executive chairman of the Formula One Group walks the Paddock early in the season 

It’s not just about the glitz and glamour; it’s about the total fan experience, something that Ear to the Ground spend a lot of time trying to understand. Naturally, as experts in fan culture and experiences, Fanatic, Ear to the Ground’s fan intelligent department were keen to find out more. What do changes in ownership and broadcast models mean for the humble F1 fan?

There’s a feeling that, in the last decade, the world of F1 has become stale and predictable, with obtuse jargon not translating beyond a hard core of petrol head fans, an unexciting competitive field dominated by technical considerations rather than driver ability and a dull and predictable fan experience that hasn’t fully embraced digital. And when it comes to connecting with fans having a complete understanding of how they’re expressing their love for the sport through multiple channels is absolutely crucial.

Yes, Bernie Ecclestone’s old-school approach may have worked in F1’s old European heartlands, but when the race calendar now includes Abu Dhabi, Baku and Singapore, sponsors, investors and teams are now chomping at the bit to improve the presentation of the sport. Malaysia has already announced it will stop its F1 race after 2018 due to poor sales, while the financial viability of holding the British Grand Prix at Silverstone has also been brought into question. At the end of the day, it’s all about revenue, and Liberty Media think there are ways in which the commercial value of F1 isn’t being realised in the way it should be.

In essence, their view is that F1 needs to become a more far-reaching and accessible sport, especially in new and emerging markets. In its five-point plan of opportunities to grow the sport, Liberty Media has already identified the distribution of digital content, a general increase in the promotion of the sport as a brand and the establishment of broader commercial partners as key priorities. So what can we expect from the “new” F1? We think that there will be three new approaches to the way the sport will be served up to fans...

A focus on “big media” markets, as well as emerging ones.

Everyone is talking about the race calendar being focused in new, emerging markets, especially in Asia and Latin America but Liberty’s priority will also be to reinvigorate its presence in Europe as well as (finally) crack the US. There’s already talk of moving the US Grand Prix away from Texas to New York, Los Angeles or Miami, to both broaden the appeal of the sport to coastal audiences and attract more media revenue. This upheaval is impacting Europe too; new legislation in the UK means we may even see a move towards “city races” akin to Monaco and Singapore to bring greater excitement and engagement to the sport, moving the F1 brand away from the old-fashioned heartlands like Silverstone.


The Monaco Grand Prix remains a mainstay of the F1 calendar 

A more relaxed approach to digital.

Liberty Media has already sought to create a digital-first approach to engage with new, younger audiences. Social media regulations around F1 have already been relaxed as the new owners look to strengthen the entertainment value of the sport and allow teams and drivers to create a deeper bond with fans. Previously, contractual restrictions with broadcast partners meant drivers and teams were prohibited from posting video content in and around the paddock area. These restrictions have now been loosened, with Lewis Hamilton celebrating the news with his 8 million followers on Twitter and Instagram. When we used our social monitoring tools to examine conversation during the Australian Grand Prix, we found that Hamilton had double the share of voice than his employer Mercedes GP. It’s probably welcome then that there’s now greater room for manufacturers as well as drivers to build their brand behind the scenes as well as off the track. This season expect teams to explore new ways to communicate with their audiences, especially using video content.

An all-encompassing race week experience.

F1 has finally realised that the fan experience isn’t just about the race weekend: it’s about the entire build-up. Liberty’s new approach is starting to bear fruit with double the number of tweets mentioning F1 AND entertainment during the first race week this year than in 2016. Grand Prix, especially in new and emerging markets, are annual events and an opportunity to show off to the rest of the world, driving conversation weeks before qualifying even begins. There are multiple opportunities and touchpoints to engage with fans pre, during and after the event, including digital content, events and celebrations building up to the race. If you’re an attending fan this season you’ll be able to see and do more than ever before, so expect more entertainment at the race itself, more ways to get to know your favourite teams and drivers and a glut of events in your home city leading up to the big day.

It’s becoming very clear that sports fans can expect big changes in the way that they watch and interact with F1 this season. For the sport’s new owners, Liberty Media, it’s not all about expanding reach in new markets; it’s about bringing the sport into the digital age and creating a more accessible and (dare we say it) inclusive sport that has been a little too exclusive for far too long. For years, the agenda has been around creating a level playing field for the teams but now the conversation is shifting to how to better engage sports fans. F1 may have failed to keep up with the changes in fan behaviour that have redefined other sports but there’s a definite sense that this season it’s making the right moves to put the needs of its audience first. It’s an exciting time for F1 and an even more exciting time to be a F1 fan.

Ear to the Ground connects brands and rights holders with sport and music fans by creating activations that are driven by fan intelligence. Its Insights Department 'Fanatic' specialises in understanding the characteristics and behaviours of sports fans.