When you live in the UK, you often hear people talking about ‘trying to crack America’. Usually it relates to a musician, artist or other entertainment figure, but it’s equally true of what Formula 1 is attempting to achieve right now.
Since purchasing the sport at the start of 2017, Liberty Media – headquartered in Colorado – has made it clear that one of its priorities is to increase the fanbase in the United States, and provide that fanbase with more races to watch on its own shores.
Now a little over two years into that tenure, a second race has yet to be added to the calendar but there is still a real push to take the sport to a new audience, highlighted by this weekend’s Fan Festival at Soldier Field in Chicago that runs in parallel with the Canadian Grand Prix, as well as a later one in Los Angeles.
“I think it’s important on myriad fronts,” Formula 1’s director of commercial operations Sean Bratches told RACER. “Most of the grands prix that we have around the world, I would say, are significantly outside the central cities in which we race. From Monza in Milan, to Shanghai, Austin, the list goes on and on.
“So being able to bring this visceral exposé to the people and have them experience it – people that might not be fans at all, or casual fans, or even the hardened avid fans – I think it’s very important for them to understand the iconography and really have their viscera moved by the sights and sounds of the show that we put on.
“The United States is a priority market for us and has been growing. The U.S. was not in the top five television markets globally in 2017 when we showed up five weeks before the season started, so the season was pretty baked. Last year the United States was number three. So we’re continuing to focus on that. We think these fan festivals are indicative of how we’re going to move the needle in that marketplace.”
A previous fan festival in Miami last year was supposed to be the precursor to a grand prix downtown, but those plans remain in flux. While Bratches admits the success of such events in Chicago and Los Angeles could highlight the appetite for a race in each city, he says the numbers in other areas show just how much interest there is in F1 Stateside.
“I think (gauging interest in hosting a race) is a subordinate objective. We are trying to and will continue to move this show around the States as we go forward. We haven’t identified cities for next year, but it’s the only country in which we’re hosting two. Our teams are big advocates of growth in two markets — the United States and China — so we’re very focused on supporting the overall Formula 1 ecosystem.
“We have conversations going on in multiple cities around the world, which include the United States, that could potentially host a future grand prix. The Formula 1 schedule is dynamic, it always has been and I suspect it always will be. But I’m an optimist and I believe that we will have in the near-term a second grand prix in the United States. It’s a land mass that is equivalent or greater than Europe, as is China. Each only host one grand prix, and Europe hosts 11.
“We think there’s an audience there. One thing that’s interesting is that if you look Formula1.com and our users on a global basis, the largest nominal user base is in the UK. The second-largest nominal user base is in the United States. If you look at F1TV — our over the top, direct to consumer live product — the number one market globally from a nominal subscription base is the United States.
“So we firmly believe that there is a latent audience there that is seeking to be activated with content. We bought a motorsport company at Liberty and what we’re doing is we’re evolving that. Very importantly, we’re myopically focused on making sure that the motorsport — what happens on track — remains the pinnacle of racing on the globe.
“But at the same time, there wasn’t the intellectual capital here, the structure here or the focus here to tell the story about Formula 1. We’ve invested significantly in marketing as one aspect, so now we have a large megaphone. We’ve got an extraordinary brand, we’ve got a global fanbase of well over half a billion fans. We’re digging in and going to tell this story, and I really think our best days are in front of us on multiple fronts.”
It’s not hard to see why. ESPN was handed a two-year deal to broadcast F1 in the U.S., and despite a more limited output compared to previous partner NBC Sports, it has delivered major increases in the television audience. The growth is something Bratches believes has been boosted by the recent Netflix documentary Drive to Survive, as well as a Twitter Live show that draws around 75% of its audience from the U.S.
“Through Spain our ratings in the United States for both qualifying and the race were up 30% year-on-year, and they were up significantly last year,” he says. “The race itself this year on average are up 49% on 2018, which was up pretty significantly, so every qualifying and every race has attracted a higher audience relative to the equivalent season last year.
“So we’re moving in the United States, and I think the Netflix series had a lot to do with it. We’ve had two years now of a global marketing campaign where we’ve put our shoulder behind the United States, with emphasis added there.
“We’re creating topical promos coming out of every grand prix, telling the story of what happened and then kind of setting up the next grand prix. ESPN – among others around the world – has been an active user of that content. Wieden and Kennedy our agency of record are producing those, and I think they’re doing a fantastic job.
“We did that car run in Miami last year; 80,000 people showed up, so we’ve got a lot energy and excitement in the United States. The trajectory in terms of audience in the broadest sense are exceeding our expectations. But in the long run I don’t think we’re close to what we believe the opportunity there is in that market.”
And while there is uncertainty over where F1 will next find a home on U.S. television given the ESPN deal only running until the end of this season, Bratches says the negotiations happening behind the scenes are positive.
“I’m very encouraged,” he says. “We’ve got a number of suitors. ESPN is a great partner and we’re having discussions with them about the future.”
But growing F1 in the U.S. is not without its challenges. As the attempt to secure a race in Miami has shown, it is hard to keep projects out of the public domain for long, meaning there is greater potential for high-profile failures.
Bratches concedes another difficulty stems from F1’s desire to host races within cities where possible, which could mean a number of future attempts also failing to bear fruit. But he insists Liberty has patience for the sport’s current management to take its time in order to secure the right host for a second grand prix.
“Structurally our objective is to host grands prix as close to city centers as possible so we can engage as broad of an audience as we can, and from the television standpoint the iconography and the backdrop is compelling.
“There are complexities in the cities in the states in terms of managing the extraordinary expanse and tenure of a Formula 1 grand prix, managing that in downtown areas politically. But at the same time, we’re not managing this aspect of our business quarter-to-quarter. Liberty is not a private equity company, they’re not looking to sell in five, six or seven years, they’re looking to grow this asset for the long-term.
“So what we’re trying to approach this on is a cadence basis, a thoughtful basis, and one that has continuity where we can find a location that engages fans, creates fantastic sport on the circuit and is financially viable for the myriad parties that are involved.”
Far from being disheartened by the struggles in securing a preferred location for another race in the US to date – with new events in Vietnam and the Netherlands having been confirmed since the Miami project became public – Bratches believes there could be multiple American races eventually added to F1’s calendar.
“I remain very optimistic about a second race in the United States in the short-term,” he says. “And in the long-term I think as we grow the sport there I think there’s bandwidth even for another grand prix. But our focus is on the second one right now, we’re looking at a number of different locations and I’m encouraged by the discussions that we have going on.”