Formula 1’s American audience has exploded over the past few years, thanks in large part to an innovative partnership with Netflix.
When Netflix was founded back in 1997, it’s unlikely that the company foresaw itself as a primary reason for the growth of a sport in America.
But here we are. Seventy-two years after Formula 1’s inaugural season, it’s finally getting an audience in the United States.
Since that first season in 1950, there has been no shortage of drivers willing to compete in the sport. They’ve just mostly hailed from outside of America, with the top two most successful countries in the sport being Great Britain and Germany, sharing 32 Formula 1 World Champions titles between the two of them.
There hasn’t been a shortage of fans either. Again, they’ve just primarily been in every other country but America, with annual viewing figures and attendances for the 2021 season being the highest they’ve ever been. Over 107 million people watched the final race in Abu Dhabi, a 29 percent increase from the previous year. To compare, the 2021 Super Bowl, the most televised sporting event in the United States, drew 96.4 million total viewers, a five percent decrease from 2020.
F1’s established fanbase isn’t surprising. The sport is thrilling, has great inter-driver rivalries, and constant drama.
During the 2021 Drivers’ Championship, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, two of the biggest F1 drivers currently, were on equal points going into the final round. At the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the race came down to the final lap, with Verstappen managing to beat Hamilton and win his first Formula 1 World Drivers’ Championship.
The win was steeped in controversy as F1 race director Michael Masi decided not to allow all the cars to unlap themselves and remove a safety car early in the race’s final stages. This caused Hamilton, who had not pitted for new tires, to be overtaken by Verstappen, and lose his healthy 12-second lead.
The unprecedented series of events saw several legal disputes and Masi be removed from his role as race director. Nonetheless, despite the controversy, the race has been described as one of the most intense and hard-fought battles in sporting history.
Hamilton and Verstappen are massive sports stars both in the UK and the Netherlands, respectively, and worldwide. Other drivers, such as Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo, also have a gained mass following in recent years.
But somehow, the sport had barely made its mark in America, something that Formula 1 Group has been desperate to change.
Only two American drivers have ever won a World Drivers’ Championship title. Phil Hill became the first American to take it home in 1961, and Italian-born Mario Andretti won it in 1978. Heading into the 2022 Formula 1 season, no American drivers are set to compete.
So how does a sport that has zero ties to a country actually grow in said country?
Formula 1 figured out how to grow their American audience with a creative strategy
That was the question that Liberty Media Corporation was adamant on answering when they purchased F1 for $4.4 billion USD back in 2017, when viewership in America was averaging a mere 538,114 across NBC, NBCSN, and CNBC, the rights holders at the time.
From the beginning, Liberty Media, who also have stakes in SiriusXM and the Atlanta Braves, knew that to be successful, they had to find a way to cater to a younger audience.
When the deal was finalized, Chase Carey became CEO and Executive Chairman of Formula 1 Group. At the time, he said that the fanbase would grow if Liberty Media focused on successfully “telling the Formula 1 story.”
It’s not like there wasn’t an appetite for racing in the United States. Both Nascar and IndyCar have had relative success in the country, but it’s clear that Liberty Media’s goal was to have F1 compete with the likes of the NFL, the MLB, the NBA, and the NHL.
Five years on, it’s obvious to see they have put a ton of resources into expanding the sport’s online and digital presence.
When Liberty Media first made the purchase, Formula 1 did not have a digital media department.
This allowed them a ton of creative freedom, as the only possible growth was upwards.
The abundance of digital content skyrocketed.
The first significant implementation was having the races stream live on YouTube. From there, Liberty Media has invested in modern graphics, instant highlights, behind-the-scenes footage, podcasts, collaborations with influencers, listicles, and mini-documentaries, all readily available for new fans to grow their understanding of the sport.
Since the purchase, Formula One has also upped their social media game, with the series becoming the fastest-growing major sports property across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Tiktok, Snapchat, and Twitch.
However, the biggest success by far has come from Liberty Media’s partnership with Netflix.
Formula 1: Drive to Survive, Netflix’s hit docuseries, which is a behind-the-scenes look at the races of the Formula 1 World Championship, has become a massive hit since its premiere in 2019.
In Drive to Survive, Liberty Media has found a way to attract fans to a sport they did not care about. The fly on the wall series has become a full-proof recipe for building and sustaining interest in Formula 1. They’ve figured out how to make a new fan.
With three seasons met with acclaim and the fourth currently underway, the show is a significant factor in attracting an American audience to Formula 1.
The series has been criticized for over-dramatizing certain events and focusing on the negative parts of the sport, specifically the high-speed crashes, but that is clearly intentional. Liberty Media are attempting to prove that an F1 race can be just as exciting as a game-winning 3-pointer in the fourth quarter.
The second season extensively covered Daniel Ricciardo’s unexpected move away from Red Bull. The Australian driver mentioned a notable difference in how he has been perceived in the United States.
“I definitely feel F1 is becoming much more of a thing here in the States. Drive to Survive put it on the map,” he said on The Daily Show a couple of years ago.
“It has been cool. I spend a bit of time in the States, and up until a year ago, not really anyone would say ‘Hi’ to me. Not in a bad way, but they wouldn’t recognize me for being an F1 driver. And now it’s all, ‘We saw you on Netflix, it was great, Drive to Survive.’ We wear helmets, so not really many people can see our faces a lot of the time. Putting a face to a name, that helped.”
Since the show’s release, the fastest-growing demographic of F1 fans are 18-24-year-olds in North America, with a 35 percent rise in interest. The success of the Drive to Survive, alongside The Last Dance and Amazon’s All or Nothing series, has made the PGA tour and tennis look to sign similar deals.
Television figures have been steadily rising in the country, with the 2021 Formula 1 season being the most-watched ever in the U.S. averaging 934,000 viewers, a 54 percent increase from the year prior.
The next step for Liberty Media is to find an American driver.
Both Formula 1 and the United States pride themselves on nationalism, and having a native driver would be critical in expanding the sports reach in the country.
The driver would likely be someone who already competes in professional automobile racing. Colton Herta, the youngest person to ever win an IndyCar Series race, was heavily rumored to make the switch into Formula 1 throughout the past year. The California native, who recently announced that he’d be competing in IndyCar for the season, is still only 21 years old and has time to make the switch.
Whether it is Herta, or someone else, the American driver who breaks into the F1 scene will likely be a catalyst for growth beyond what Liberty Media have ever imagined.