F1 is Not the Super Bowl—Thankfully

It is now officially impossible to read an article about Liberty Media’s takeover of Formula One without at least one mention of the Super Bowl.

Back in December, an F1 executive told the Financial Times‘ (h/t Business Insider) that Liberty is planning to make each race, “the equivalent of the Super Bowl.” Naturally, such a juicy quote has been picked up over and over and over again—even if it doesn’t really make sense.

The goal, it seems, is to attract people to watch F1 races beyond hardcore motorsports fans, just as the Super Bowl attracts millions of viewers who don’t normally watch football. But the analogy is imperfect, to say the least.

For one thing, the Super Bowl occurs once a year in prime time in the biggest television market in the world (rather than at random, often inconvenient, times every two weeks). After weeks of ubiquitous coverage and hype in every American newspaper and newscast, even people with no interest in football tune in, just to see what all the fuss is about or as part of a herd mentality—you don’t want to be the only one at the water cooler the next morning who didn’t see the half-time show. And even so, it’s not like everyone in the world is watching the game…not even close (despite what the NFL would like you to believe).

F1 does not get that kind of media attention—not even in England, the sport’s heartland—and it is difficult to see that changing, no matter how many peripheral events Liberty ties in with its grands prix.

The simple fact is that a large percentage of people are not interested in watching cars race around a track. F1 (and other motorsports) are not as relatable as games with a bunch of guys running and throwing or kicking a ball. I can’t count the number of times I have heard a variation of, “What’s so interesting? They’re just driving in circles,” when I mention F1 to someone. I have never heard that reaction if I mention football, hockey or soccer. Not everyone understands or enjoys those more traditional sports (especially the Byzantine rules of American football), but they can at least understand the appeal of them.

Besides, some F1 races already do transcend the realm of devoted motorsport fans and draw in casual observers, at least to the party atmosphere surrounding them. But those are specific events that take place in large cities (think Melbourne, Monaco or Montreal). It’s not so easy when the race takes place out in the countryside with no public transit and very few hotels or other amenities nearby.

The other problem with a focus on attracting casual viewers is that it can come at the expense of the die-hard ones.

Here’s a dirty little secret: hardcore NFL fans, the ones who watch the games week in and week out, the league’s bread and butter, are often annoyed by the Super Bowl, with legions of people who don’t really know anything about the sport suddenly opining as experts, commentary dumbed-down for an audience that only watches one game a year and often more focus on the commercials and half-time show than the game itself.

Is that really what F1 wants? To alienate its core group of fans (more than silly ideas like double-points and DRS already have) to gain a few more eyeballs that will drift away as soon as you don’t need a race ticket to see Taylor Swift?

And speaking of Swift, the 2016 U.S. Grand Prix seems to be the prototype for Liberty’s F1/Super Bowl hybrids. In case you didn’t hear, the promoters in Austin got Swift to play her only concert of the year after qualifying on Saturday and you needed an F1 ticket to get in. It gave the event an attendance boost, certainly, but nothing off the charts. The race attracted about 32,000 more fans over the weekend (many individuals are counted three times, once for each day) than the 2014 version (in 2015, attendance was hampered by a massive storm) and just 4,000 more than the inaugural event in 2012.

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With a 21-race calendar (perhaps expanding to 25), not every grand prix will be able to offer the year’s only concert by one of the most popular recording artists in the world. So that isn’t exactly a sustainable model.

F1’s biggest problem with capturing the attention of casual fans (and especially American ones) is not that the sport isn’t interesting or exciting or lacking in angsty pop-country music—it’s the fact that the race times are inconvenient for anyone not living in Europe. It’s hard enough for hardcore fans who want to watch every race—forget about casual viewers stumbling across a race at 3 a.m. on Sunday mornings.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a real solution to that problem—most people won’t sacrifice their weekend sleep for a race, even if it is the equivalent of 10 Super Bowls. Big events surrounding the races might entice a few more fans to actually come to the track, but the fans who attend races represent a very small fraction of F1’s global audience.

If Liberty wants to increase F1’s audience, their best bet is to focus on making the on-track action as entertaining as possible by closing the performance gap between teams. That’s what the sport’s current fans want—exciting racing—and that is what will draw in new fans.

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