Monday, April 6, 2015

How to stop the decline of F1's viewership?

Formula One is struggling with viewing figures. Recently I read the former Mercedes-Benz motorsports director Norbert Haug's comments about how to increase the popularity of the DTM which is also struggling with viewing figures (in German). I think some of his comments would also apply to F1. Especially I liked these:
"When you're once at the track, then you'll surely follow the series in media."
"If I had great TV ratings and the grandstands at the track are half empty, that is not good. Firstly the spectators at the track must be served."
These remind me of the suggestions in Racer's website's IndyCar 2018 article series, where many people emphasized the importance of race events for the series' popularity.

Almost everywhere in the World, the most popular sport is some team sport. You can see it live almost every week during the season, in some sports multiple times per week. A successful team increases the sport's popularity in their city or region. And while tickets are getting more expensive in every sport, the tickets are still affordable for casual fans, who might get hooked and become regular game-visitors.

For a series like F1, or whatever motorsport series, it's different. The series visits a track only once, or twice in some cases in the DTM or NASCAR. Visiting a Grand Prix isn't as casual as visiting a football or hockey game which can be more comparable to going to movies. That's why you don't get those casual fans there so easily. Of course, as a Grand Prix is such a rare event, you get spectators from a larger area. But, with tickets being so expensive, it's hard to fill the stands. If you aren't really into F1, you probably aren't going to spend hundreds of euros for tickets. And even if you're a big fan, you may not be able to afford those tickets. And here's a thing I think F1 has got wrong. As Norbert Haug said about the DTM, when you get people to the track, then you'll begin to follow the series in media. I think F1 needs less expensive tickets to get casual fans there; if they enjoyed the event, they'll come again the following year and follow the series in media. With less expensive tickets, there might be more fans visiting multiple races per year. And less expensive tickets require lower sanctioning fees for tracks, then they can lower the ticket prices.

And make the series seen where they are racing. The only time I have lived in a country where a GP is being held was last summer in Germany. I have to say I hear a lot more about the Rally Finland in the Finnish media than I heard about the German GP in the German media. Maybe I didn't follow the German media enough or maybe the event gets more publicity in regions closer to it, or maybe the FIFA World Cup title took media's attention. But surely a big sports event gets also more TV audience in the host country, offering a chance to get people into that sport. Having a good vibe around the event makes people more interested about it. Positive things like big audience are a way to create that good vibe. When you can say there are well over 100,000 spectators, it's easier to make other people check it on TV. To get a big audience, you need good marketing, affordable tickets, and an attractive event.

As I think experiencing F1 live is a way to market the series, then leaving classic venues where the audience is must have been a mistake. Surely, one can say F1 is trying to expand its fanbase by going to Asia. But I'm sceptical about that having been the main reason for it. F1 has been going to Asia to receive bigger sanctioning fees; expanding fanbase has been a desired side effect of that. And countries like Bahrain and Abu Dhabi don't really offer big opportunities to expand fanbase. I think F1 should put more emphasis on getting crowds than receiving big sanctioning fees. A badly attended Grand Prix doesn't increase viewership, no matter how big the sanctioning fee is. Of course, some attempts to expand into new markets are OK but they should result to getting a well-attended event or leaving the country.

I think NASCAR has got it right; they race in front of big crowds. The races are where there are fans and the tickets are affordable. And I think they have it right with television, too. While I'd prefer all races free-to-air, pay-per-view channels just can pay more for the TV rights. But, the problem with PPV is that then it's mostly the hardcore fans who can watch the races, casual viewers less likely have the pay channels. Even some hardcore fans must stop watching the series as they can't afford the PPV channels. I like how it is with NASCAR in the USA. Certain attractive races like the Daytona 500 and the last races of the Chase are on FTA channels. That helps to keep masses interested in the series but isn't enough for the hardcore fans who will pay for the cable channels to see the other races.

I think F1's willingness to go for money at the expense of viewing figures may undermine its future. Even if F1 got more money from the new Asian host countries than declining viewership costs, the declining viewership is a problem. The huge global audience has justified manufacturers' and sponsors' spending. Is it justifiable anymore when viewership decreases? If F1 lost manufacturers, would it anymore be the top-tier class if the manufacturers joined another series and hired F1's top drivers? And, are those new host countries anymore willing to pay the high sanctioning fees when they get less exposure than before?

I think stopping the declining viewership is important for F1. Surely there are things in the sport that could to be improved to be more attractive to fans. But F1 also needs to be more affordable and accessible for fans. Still, I'd find a big drop in sanctioning fees and TV rights surprising, for sure the commercial-rights holder doesn't want a huge drop in their revenue. Maybe the declining viewership is OK for them as long as they make profit; after all, F1 is owned by an investment company.