Time for a social-ist revolution in Formula 1

F1's only social media involvement is a basic Twitter account
10 June 2014 by Graham Keilloh | M

We all know the one about F1 losing 50 million TV viewers in 2013. Mightily careless I’m sure you’ll agree. But it’s not a matter for mirth as far as most in F1 are concerned.

And it all has got renewed focus in recent days with latest reports concerned with slipping numbers and Pirelli boss Paul Hembery admitting that the ‘viewing figures so far this year are extremely disappointing – there's no doubt about that’.

The temptation can be in such situations to attribute the decline to ones hobby horses. A few have said that F1’s recent capacity for gimmickry – DRS, KERS, gumball Pirellis – is the culprit. Bernie Ecclestone rather glibly pointed the finger at Sebastian Vettel’s dominance when the round of disappointing TV figures was published for the season just passed. I’ve encountered at least one person blaming the noise of the 2014 machines. One usually high-quality motorsport writer even suggested some blame could lay with the drivers’ tendency to change their helmet designs as well as to permanent numbers…

But the much-reported drop in viewing figures in 2013 as well as a possible continuation in 2014 are not any sort of break from what had been going on anyway; F1’s decline in audiences had been happening for some years, perhaps traceable all the way back to around 2005. And this suggests something rather more fundamental going on than a reaction to the transient competitive order or to the latest round of rule tinkering (or helmet design).

The nature and geography of the shifts offer us something of a clue too. One change in recent years has been the tendency of the sport’s coverage to disappear behind pay walls, possibly something of a consequence of the sport’s demands of mammoth TV rights fees (in itself a consequence in large part of CVC hoovering up a massive proportion of the sport’s revenues – but I digress). 

And the numbers back up the suggestion that this is a major factor in the decline. Much of the big 50m drop in 2013 can be accounted for by the drop in France – where the coverage went to a pay channel and lost a full 17m of its previous 27m viewers – and in China – where the coverage went from a national broadcaster to a host of regional ones and lost a whack of 30m. Those more like-for-like comparisons without such ‘breaks’ show numbers holding up much more, and the same goes this year with like-for-like comparisons of the BBC’s audiences from 2014 so far with those of 2013.

Indeed generally such big shifts in availability and exposure tend to explain large drops; detail tends not to. People are creatures of habit, furthermore many F1 TV viewers are casual viewers and won’t think of going to the effort of paying for it specifically. They also likely won’t even know much about what DRS is let alone view it as a reason to switch off en masse. We die hards however make up a rather small proportion. To illustrate, in the UK the BBC’s coverage of F1 can get anywhere up to 6-8 million viewers (depending on the time of day) but the number who buy a specialist F1 or motorsport magazine in the same territory in that same week is in the modest tens of thousands only. 

And struggling to drive massive audiences behind pay walls is also not a phenomenon exclusive to F1. Sky, despite much investment and having been part of the UK media landscape for roughly a quarter of a century as a pay channel struggles to get up to 1 million viewers regularly for even its most popular programmes. The free-to-air BBC1 by contrast gets around 28m viewers a day.

But beyond this there may be something bigger going on. Something that Hembery for one has noted: ‘We've been looking at some studies done by Premier League and Sky, and they've seen a very increased take-up on iPad viewing and not watching on TV. That's certainly a way many people are going. You see telephone companies wanting to create their own digital content as well. We've seen Movistar come into Formula 1 for example with that objective.

‘We're seeing the world change and it's not just Formula 1, it's the whole way people follow their sports and get their entertainment.’

And F1 right now does very little on such platforms and virtually nothing on social media. Indeed anyone who seeks to put any F1 on track content up on YouTube, Twitter or wherever tends to have it forcibly removed by Formula One Management pronto. The sport’s coverage via the internet and on mobile devices is also rather patchy. There isn’t yet a centrally-coordinated offering.

Bernie, as intimated, tends to view much of it however as things he can’t make money from. Moreover, judging by his recent comments, he views it also as a bubble that is about to burst.

‘I think the change that is currently taking place is very short-lived, as these social media people are starting to think it is not as good as they thought’ said BCE. And when asked if the sport needed to embrace social media he countered ‘If they find people to pay us then I will be happy’. 

In a certain sense though Bernie is right on this. For all of the ubiquitous nature of all things online and in particular social media these days how to make money out of it remains the great elephant in the room. The expectation among online audiences appears to be that all things are free. They particularly don’t like paying for things that were previously free. The outrage when charges for Facebook and Twitter have been mooted in recent times are cases in point. But in this world things have to be paid for one way or another.

But still the ways of watching sport are indeed changing, and the latest Global Sports Media Consumption Reports have shown that in major markets online lately has grown to cement its position as the second most common avenue of consuming sport, overtaking print and behind only TV. Consuming sport via mobile devices and via social media are both growing rapidly too. It all applies to the limited examples in F1 also, with BBC figures showing its iPlayer coverage – that can be watched online or via mobile devices – growing by 33% last year.

Bernie nevertheless has reached a conclusion that is contrary to that which just about everyone else has, who presumably are just as aware of online and social media’s shortcomings. F1 has pulled up the drawbridge rather than embrace internet and mobile’s convenience and social media’s shop window. So either Bernie knows something just about everyone else doesn’t, or he’s out of step – if one is being harsh a man out of time. I’ll leave you to decide which is more likely.

Bernie may have a point too in that the already-mentioned studies also show that the rise of online and mobile means of watching sport don’t appear to be taking away from TV sport viewership. They also offer notes of caution in that in some major markets few sports fans have in the last two years started to follow sport on an internet device at the same time as watching it on TV, and few also believe it will have a big impact on future sport consumption. But still, it seems not only not very much to bet the sport’s future health on, to go out on a limb as a result, it also seems a glaring miss of an opportunity.

As Jonathan Noble pointed out in a recent Autosport column, NFL for one has embraced social media as a loss leader and a key means of growing its fan base. It has a deal in place since last year to show replays and highlights pretty much immediately via promoted tweets. It’s all perfect for people to view on mobile devices that are so rapidly taking over and there’s no sign that it’s diminished NFL’s ability to sell itself to TV channels. It gets revenue from embedding adverts in their tweets too. MotoGP does something similar these days as well. Moreover plenty of sports offer ‘season passes’ and ‘per game/race’ online streams that can be watched on mobile devices. Internet, mobile and social media also forms a crucial part of FIFA’s strategy for the forthcoming World Cup.

More pointedly the evidence is that offering F1 coverage via such platforms could go a long way to scratching one of its biggest itches. I’ve heard it said that F1 TV viewing figures among young people specifically these days are pretty scary. And this is something that should really concern us. Not only because to coin the cliché they will form the next generation of F1 fans, but also because they matter a lot to sponsors, given they tend to have more disposable income.

Social media, online and mobile sources are growing rapidly as means of consuming sport as mentioned, and they are especially so among young people. To take an example, the 2012 Global Sports Media Consumption Report showed that a whole (and growing) 58% of sports fans in the UK followed sport online, the figures for those aged 18-24 rose to 74% and fell to 45% among those aged 55+. With consuming sport on social media the difference was even more stark – 21% of all UK sport fans use it (and again it’s growing quickly), rising to 47% of 18-24 year olds doing so compared to just eight per cent of those aged 55 and over. With watching sport via mobile devices the pattern is similar.

Indeed, the online, mobile and social media penetration for following sport generally is particularly strong among the young (who F1 needs), men (who it remains the case make up the majority of F1 fans) and the affluent (which will please sponsors no end). What F1 has to gain from it all seems obvious.

F1 seems perfect for the snippet footage that social media and mobile consumption lend themselves to, whether it’s key overtakes, brief race highlights, cars battling wheel-to-wheel, onboard footage, a power slide, shaving a wall, Nico Rosberg disappearing down an escape road, Sebastian Vettel’s doughnuts…

Perhaps also it’s no coincidence that F1’s decline in viewers roughly coincides with the advent of social media and mass internet streaming – Twitter came into being in 2006, Facebook in 2004, YouTube in 2005.

Possibly too there’s something on an even broader level going on. There is evidence that the young person’s love affair with the automobile more generally has been showing strain over recent years. Time was that learning to drive and purchasing your first car was a young person’s rite of passage. But in developed economies this appears rather on the wane, with a downward drift in driving tests and car purchases among this age group. It’s a trend apparently exacerbated by the recent recession but one also that stretches back to rather before it.

Many theories have been floated for this: the economic downturn, high insurance premiums for young people, higher fuel prices, people ‘settling down’ later than they used to, young people’s greater environmental concerns (which if so it would be nice if F1 talked up its 2014 regulations a bit more effectively in this ilk) and others. But one theory that may be instructive is again related to the internet and social media. That while the car used to be vital to allow a young person to see their friends as well as to use as a window to the world, the internet, mobile devices and social media are now fulfilling those functions.

It doesn’t seem too tenuous to suggest that if the young person’s attachment to the automobile is waning then it has the capability to drag down their attraction to F1 at the same time. You’d think that it would be an issue getting the sport’s utmost attention. And the most glaring action in response is to promote yourself and offer content via the media that young people are using. That’s the internet, mobile and social media.



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