F1 and I go way back. I discovered the sport back in 2004, while sharing a flat with an avid fan, and we bonded over Ben & Jerry’s choc chip cookie dough. I in turn have infected a few people with the fandom by being the motorsport-mad housemate who provides pancakes and tea/coffee/yerba maté if you’ll wake up and watch the flyaway races with me. We’ve had some good times together. This one time, at Silverstone, I chatted special relativity with Sakon Yamamoto, and then later, a group of friends and I stayed up half the night chatting with Crofty. That was a mad weekend.
F1 and I are so close that during a rough patch at University that followed a bereavement, the student shrink advised me to come in and see her if I lost interest in F1. That was the barometer of feeling not okay that she thought would be most predictive. She was accurate in her assessment. F1 was my guilty pleasure (I majored in biology at South Africa’s most liberal university, firmly cementing my status as an eco-hippie) despite my viewing options being limited to bribing the bar tender at my local bar $10 to put the commentary on the audio system (F1 in South Africa is behind a paywall that my student budget didn’t afford), and being constantly hit on by older, married men for the duration of each session.
Lately, though, I’ve lost interest in F1, and it has nothing to do with my mental state. From comments on social media, I am far from alone in thinking these blasphemous thoughts. Even the drivers think something needs to change. I’m just tired of all the drama happening off-track rather than on. Now we have Formula E, which comes with a free online stream, better racing, and fewer ethical conflicts for me as an eco-mentalist.
Aside from the green factor, it seems that Bernie and the powers that be are, for some reason I can’t fathom, trying to run the business into the ground. I don’t know what they would gain from doing that, though, as they have so much money riding on their decisions.
Take the recent qualifying débâcle, for example. They made up some new rules for quali. The rules suck. Then F1 wanted to think up some new rules, but now they’ve just gone back to how it was.
All the measures taken lately to ‘liven up the show’ have felt like gimmicks. While I remain unconvinced about the seriousness of Bernie’s suggestion that they would install sprinklers at tracks, similarly gimmicky strategies have actually made it into the rule book. I’ve come around to the DRS idea; Formula E’s FanBoost is similar, and I’ve become quite a consistent voter.
They have lost the fans’ support, if the decline in viewership figures are indicative of more than just illegal streaming. They’re making less money from us than they have in a while, and now they’re trying to make up the difference by putting F1 coverage behind a paywall in one of their biggest markets. Screening rights are now about £1 billion over six years, which prices all the smaller networks out of the market.
They say that this money will go back to teams in prize money, but the back of the grid will only see about £3 million per annum. Basically, CVC and FOM will benefit more from this than anyone else. They’re doing this in the worst recession in living memory, and the general public are still cutting back on luxuries seven years on from the initial crisis. I think the Sky deal is a colossally short-sighted idea, and predict that if they go through with this plan, they will lose a large chunk of their supporters.
Paul Mason, an economic journalist, published a book last year in which he suggested that the current recession is the start of capitalism’s death throes. Obviously, it will take time to transition from capitalism to post capitalism, but the shift has already started. See 2008, and all that has happened since.
Mason goes on to say that the economics of the future will be highly networked. Basically, he hypothesised that many small providers will provide goods and services directly to the public, marketed via social media. While I disagree with Mason on the viability of a creative life in a postcapitalist economy – creatives are already networking with their fans, and making a living out of their art – he has a valid point on the increase in networked business models.
It’s already happening. See Patreon, Etsy, iTunes/Spotify, Netflix/Amazon Prime, the self-publishing revolution, AirBnB, HitRecord. Millennials – the future leaders of Formula 1 – graduated into the worst recession in living memory, and have made jobs for themselves where none existed, which is why we see an increase in job titles like ‘social media manager’. The existing power structures didn’t see a need to change with the times, but the new generation are dragging them kicking and screaming into the future.
F1’s social media strategy is improving, but on the whole is still a long way off best practice. They have very little engagement; they don’t listen to the fans; other series are doing it better. They have very little free, online content, and few, if any, rewards are given to fans who interact with their official accounts online. In a highly networked postcapitalist economy this is a very unwise strategy to take.
Millennials, the current generation of fans who are young enough to spend cash without worrying about food and bills, want brand authenticity. We tend to buy from companies whose CSR policies, marketing strategies, and social media presence we like. We enjoy feeling like we’re doing business with a human. Formula 1 is building ever-higher fences to keep out the riff-raff and retain their old boys’ club. And I mean ‘old’ very literally – they market to the sort of white man who has spent a lifetime amassing wealth to spend on frivolous pursuits like race cars.
Instead of making Rupert Murdoch the broadcaster of F1, the sensible option would be to make a pay-what-you-can online stream. A good example would be $3 gets you live stream of qualifying and the race, $5 gets you all sessions, $10 gets you all sessions plus downloads of whichever segments you want to keep for posterity. Yes, they would take a drastic pay cut in the short term, but not forever.
Sky F1 reports viewership figures of about 700,000 views per year. That excludes people who watch pirate streams – especially those from non-English-speaking countries whose local channels broadcast less interesting coverage – and those who watch free-to-air content. I would bet actual money that if they dropped the exclusivity clauses and switched to an online Patreon-style broadcast model, they would regain the audience of their glory years within a decade.
Crowd-sourced content is another potential avenue to engage fans. Other series – or, perhaps more accurately, teams within other series – run fan art competitions in several media. Believe it or not, fans love cutting clips together, photoshopping memes, and other creative forms of engagement. Some of them are really talented, but there is no room for their skills in the mainstream broadcasters’ business models. If the online channel were to include this content, particularly if they remunerated the creators, they would have far more brand loyalty because of a cognitive bias called the IKEA effect.
Before I conclude, we need to have a discussion about Formula 1’s ethics. Mason pointed out that Millennials are far more liberal in their political orientations than previous generations. We get most of our news from liberal-biased providers online or from outlets like Comedy Central that make an art form of mocking the establishment and its abuses of power. Most Millennials refuse to give money to Rupert Murdoch on moral grounds, so Sky may not be the best broadcaster in terms of the fan-base’s politics.
Formula 1’s management add races to the calendar in countries that have oppressive, dictatorial regimes, not bothering to read what people are saying on social media about governments like Bahrain and China. They continue to subscribe to out-dated gender roles, despite vocal objections from the public. They target the super-rich, or at least the wealthier-than-average, in their marketing campaigns, regardless of whether the majority of their fans can afford those products. Then there’s the green issue, which is a favourite complaining hobby-horse of Bernie’s, as he digs his heels in about modernisation.
Bringing fans back to the sport would require a drastic change in the business model, possibly to the extent of excluding races like China, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan from the calendar. The complaints that fans have about the sport are mostly based in a more postmodern set of ethics than those seemingly held by FOM. Yes, we’re all allowed to hold our own opinions, but above all we must do no harm (and by extension, we must not financially enable others to do harm). Yet whenever there’s a twitter storm over a moral issue – eg. supporting corrupt regimes, sustainability/green issues, gender equality, gimmicky race-enlivening strategies – the fans are dismissed as ‘having too much time on their hands’ or ‘caring too much’.
Joe Saward responded to the GPDA’s open letter by calling for a revolution. We don’t need a revolution; we need evolutionary regime change. Try a new strategy – informed by actual peer-reviewed research, of which there is actually a lot of relevant work available – for a year, and change it if it doesn’t work.
Obviously, some people will lose out in the evolution. The world has moved on without them, and their way of doing things is obsolete in the current climate. But if they are not willing to be the sacrificial leaves, the whole tree will die. There are already series doing better than Formula 1 on the points I have mentioned above. The fans have alternatives, and they will vote with their dollars if something is not done about the state of F1.