On the face of it, there doesn’t seem to be many similarities between Formula 1 and organisation known as World Wrestling Entertainment. One features colourful characters competing in a mix of sport and soap opera, the other is wrestling.
The single area where they do converge however is the way that both have jealously guarded their archives. Vince McMahon and Bernie Ecclestone built empires around creating hours of footage and then guarding it like angry dragons, and WWE has recently leveraged that resource to create one of the most successful sports streaming networks in the world. It’s a lesson that F1’s new owners should learn from.
For the uninitiated, the WWE Network is essentially Netflix with dropkicks. Users pay a monthly fee – currently fixed at $9.99 – and in return gain the ability to stream most of WWE’s programming on-demand via an app on their TV, phone, PC, etc. It’s not a new idea – the NFL and NBA have both had similar products for years, but it’s the way in which WWE uses this platform that makes it interesting to F1 fans.
The central problem with streaming networks when it comes to sports (and, in the case of wrestling, “sports entertainment”) is that fundamentally you can’t offer all of your content to just a small number of subscribers. Existing TV deals are too lucrative and too complicated to back out of entirely and ultimately you need a shop window to attract new fans, which you can’t have if everything is behind a paywall.
WWE’s solution was to keep their weekly live shows on regular TV while offering original programming, some live events and, crucially, their entire back catalogue to network subscribers. It’s a genuine “have your cake and eat it” situation as WWE is able to offer a compelling product without severing ties with broadcasters completely. Consider how that philosophy could be applied to F1 and things start to get very interesting.
Now, you’re not going to get every race live via direct streaming (not for a while at least) but imagine if for a monthly fee you could open an app and watch any race from F1’s long history. Want to watch the 1997 British Grand Prix at two in the morning? Done. Want to see James Hunt win the 1976 world title during your morning commute? Easy. Now consider the possibilities of things like alternative commentaries, retrospectives, behind-the-scenes shows to support the current season, the list goes on. It’s an exciting prospect.
Of course, we shouldn’t get too sucked into like-for-like comparisons here. For one the WWE Network has about 1.6 million subscribers worldwide, F1 has about five times that number of viewers in the UK alone. Indeed, none of the established sports streaming networks even come close to the kind of numbers that F1 commands. Nor is it as simple as just saying £10 per month x 400 million fans = happy shareholders. As the big streaming companies themselves are discovering, many countries are simply not that interested in on-demand content right now. F1 is a global sport, one of the only ones in fact, and that brings global issues.
So what is the solution? Liberty is fond of saying that they’re looking at a range of options and as vague an answer as that is, it’s probably the closest to what we’ll actually get. TV is still how most people consume F1 globally and that isn’t likely to change overnight – certainly not in the UK where Sky have live races locked up until 2024 – but it is changing.
If F1 wants to make the most of its strengths and attract the young fans it badly needs then streaming is a part of that solution. The F1 archive is a powerful tool; it’s time for Liberty to use it.