Formula 1 in the United States is enjoying a rapid increase in popularity. We can see it in RACER.com’s traffic numbers, and ESPN can see it in its viewing figures.
Averaging 946,000 viewers per race, this season is up 41% on the last “normal” year in 2019, and a significant 56% on last season. The French and British grands prix both exceeded the one million mark in terms of average viewers, with Paul Ricard delivering to be the second-largest cable audience on record for an F1 race, behind only the 1995 Brazilian Grand Prix – the first race in Brazil after the death of Ayrton Senna.
Records are being set all the time – the last race in Hungary registered as the seventh-largest cable audience on record in the U.S. – and much of the credit for the bump is often given to the Netflix documentary series Drive to Survive. But for ESPN’s director of programming and acquisitions John Suchenski, that overlooks some of the other work that has helped F1 grow.
“I think Netflix certainly hasn’t hurt, right?” Suchenski tells RACER. “There’s no way to quantify it, but I think we all would agree that it certainly has helped. It’s brought in a more casual fan that probably was not even a Formula 1 fan. I see people posting on social media, athletes and others, saying ‘I was not a Formula 1 fan, but now I’m engaged and can’t wait to watch the next either episode or season of the Netflix series or watch our races’. And we certainly have benefited from that.
“But I think this season in particular, a few things Formula 1 has done has made a difference too. It made the U.S. a priority. So they see it as an opportunity, as obviously we do, and they have invested in promotional weight in the territory in addition to what we’re doing to help promote and push people to ESPN.
“We’ve partnered with them already on a couple of activations this season. They did closed VIP events in L.A. and Miami. Obviously the Miami news that came out earlier this year is another positive, and another signal that they’re making the U.S. a priority. So we’ve partnered with those to get more grassroots exposure out.
“We’re going to be doing something similar in Austin – not a VIP party, but two years ago we did an event in downtown Austin with Formula 1. We’re trying to do the same thing again this year. So I think that those, this year in particular, contributed to kind of some of the growth and success we’ve seen.”
ESPN’s live coverage of F1 has been taken from UK broadcaster Sky, and Suchenski says that won’t change anytime soon because “Sky does it better than anyone”. But that doesn’t mean ESPN’s own offering hasn’t increased over the past two years, be it what is taken from Sky, or how it covers other events related to F1.
Having broadcast the world championship since 2018 helps, too. Continuity breeds familiarity for the viewers, making the sport easier to find as awareness of the coverage grows.
“In continuing to work with our partners at Sky, we’re taking some of their shoulder programing as well, too,” says Suchenski. “So we take their lead-up on Sunday, which they’ve now expanded to 90 minutes this year. So I think that that helps get people under the tent earlier in the morning, and gets them to stay longer as they’re watching the build-up and waiting for the race.
“We also take Sky’s post-race show digitally now. So now it gives our fans an opportunity, when we go off air on ESPN or ESPN 2, to continue to live the F1 experience. We’re continuing to offer re-airs of races each Sunday, typically two races – one a little earlier in the afternoon, and one later in the day – again, to get people to watch longer. So we’re certainly distributing more hours and more content than we ever have before.
“And then we’re also making sure that we’re covering it on ESPN.com, on the ESPN app. We’re making sure that when stories necessitated that we’re covering it within our news and information shows like Sports Center and stuff.
“Leading up to Austin last time, we got them set up with cars out on Hollywood Boulevard for the Jimmy Kimmel Show. So we continue to work on with our great partners in F1 on those types of things, which ultimately reaches a broader fan base than those who are actually watching the races, and gets them to come in and experience the great coverage that we provide.”
Austin has given ESPN and F1 the chance to activate around a U.S. race, and as of next year they will have two to work with when Miami joins the schedule in the first half of May: something that is likely to see a further boost in viewing figures on top of wider interest in the sport.
“The Austin race is typically our highest-rated race of the year, and Miami will hopefully be our highest or second-highest rated when it kicks in next year,” Suchenski says. “We’re very pleased that F1 has made the U.S. a priority, that they’re now doing a second event in the U.S.. It’s all good things for us, and hopefully offers some opportunities on the ground, as we do in Austin, to be able to reach a broader fan base and bring more people in.”
But as regular readers will know, it’s not just about attracting a new fanbase or casual viewers to watch a sport. It’s about providing something equally compelling to the existing, hardcore fans at the same time, and that’s where 2021 has been delivering on a different level to previous years as Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen go head-to-head (sometimes almost literally) for the championship.
“I think last year, or two seasons ago when Lewis wrapped it up in Austin, it’s kind of anticlimactic after that, right?” Suchenski says. “That was a big event. That was a big story. The numbers reflected it that year. But then the next couple of races were a little less compelling because there wasn’t anything on the line.
“So I think having Max there side-by-side with him and pushing him – and certainly coming off of Silverstone, and maybe now the rivalry is even further along from that – it certainly helps to have a two horse race down the stretch, and having that uncertainty as to who’s actually going to win the championship this year.”
In a season where nearly all 11 races so far have set some sort of viewership milestone in the U.S., it’s easy to get carried away with the success and look for one core reason. But as highlighted, there are multiple different catalysts for the increase in figures; some that will continue to drive growth but others that might fade at a certain point.
The latter is not a concern to Suchenski and ESPN, because right now they are capitalizing on the wave of popularity but Suchenski also sees the potential for future engagement that gives F1 in the States an even brighter outlook.
“All sports ebb and flow,” Suchenski says. “Formula 1 was very successful back in the early 2000s when Michael Schumacher was winning a lot, very much like Lewis Hamilton has done the last seven years or so. So I think that just like the NBA went through it with Jordan into LeBron – there’s ebbs and flows.
“I think that they’ve got some really great stories, great, great racers and things like the Netflix series and all the other activations that we and they are doing together have really helped broaden that fan base. They’ve done a terrific job with that. And it’s great to see, because it’s a really cool sport.”