June 9, 2021

Formula 1 and the Netflix effect


Formula 1 has die-hard fans and die-hard detractors in equal measure. When discussing the sport with anyone, it’s typical to hear the seemingly binary responses of ‘I love it and have been an ardent fan for years’ or ‘it’s so boring, with all that going round and round’.

But between these two polar opposites, I suspect there’s a mass middle ground of those who are either ambivalent or simply haven’t been exposed to the sport beyond a few fleeting moments.

Formula 1’s owners, Liberty Media, have clearly taken this on board with their strategy since taking over the Formula One Group in 2017. Much like politicians seeking out the masses of the centre ground – although sometimes swayed by the more vociferous voices at the other ends of the political spectrum – Liberty is clearly on a quest to reach the masses.

To achieve this, the strategy has hinged on greater awareness, largely through producing more content. Perhaps the best example is the Netflix series Formula One: Drive To Survive, of which there have been three seasons.

To the die-hard fans, the Netflix series might be lacking the granularity they crave (F1 is awash with jargon and complexity if you want it) but for those who are new to the sport it is pitched at the right level, generating narratives around the people and teams that can’t fail to engage. I’m sure Liberty does care about the aficionados, but it also cares deeply about pulling in new punters, with the Netflix series an obvious example of this.

Reaching new audiences

The other trend that has taken hold during Liberty’s tenure is the greater use of social media to reach younger audiences – although it would be wrong to assume only younger generations have been pulled in by this. In the build-up to – and across race weekends – Formula 1, the teams, and drivers are publishing ever more content in an effort to grab eyeballs and ultimately grab attention for the sport.

While the Covid pandemic will undoubtedly have undermined Liberty’s business plans, it also served to further accelerate this social media trend and the targeting of younger viewers. As the physical race tracks were closed, the virtual ones opened with current drivers and the odd celebrity taking part in online races. These events were often streamed live and promoted hard across driver and team social media platforms, providing yet another avenue in to a sport often not synonymous with Gen Z.

Liberty’s content push also highlights that the line between sport and entertainment is ever blurring. From cricket to boxing, to rugby and football plus everything in-between, sport is increasingly being sold as an entertainment package. The purity of sport and qualities such as athleticism of course still attract paying customers, but that alone clearly isn’t the only ingredient required to attract new fans to any given sport.

The risk for Liberty, as shown by the recent European Super League debacle, is that the pursuit of new audiences for pure commercial gain could cause a backlash from the hardcore fans.

Whatever happens longer-term, Liberty’s ownership has been a textbook example of how to try and grow an audience – and how to produce a slick Netflix series while at it too.