Formula One can be a contradiction — it is cutting-edge on the track, but a marketing anachronism off it. However 2017 is the year when the speed of change off the track may outpace the cars on it.
New owner Liberty Media has bought the commercial rights to the sport for a sizable chunk of change, US$8 billion to be exact, and has started detailing where it sees the chance to make good on that investment.
The new management team of chief executive Chase Carey and managing director of commercial operations Sean Bratches have outlined clear plans to revolutionise the way the sport is marketed and experienced. Carey has spoken about creating ’21 Super Bowls’, while Bratches has laid out four priorities, including refreshing the F1 brand, embracing digital channels, democratising decision-making and re-imagining the race experience.
There is no doubt that there are plenty of players in F1 that will find change hard when many teams and sponsors have been following the same rules for such a long time. But equally this is music to the ears of many people in F1, who have been arguing for years that the controlled and conservative commercial model it had pursued was causing F1 to fall behind in the race for consumers’ attention.
The new model is looking to build and market the F1 brand — not just the sport. One of the most exciting implications of this is F1 sponsorship becoming more attractive to consumer brands. It’s no coincidence that many current sponsors are B2B brands. With a creative lens on it, F1 can open up huge consumer marketing opportunities.
Another item that will no doubt be right on top of the new American owners’ agenda will be breaking into the US — the toughest and most domestically saturated sports market on the planet — but also the one with the greatest growth opportunity.
The new model is looking to build and market the F1 brand — not just the sport. One of the most exciting implications of this is F1 sponsorship becoming more attractive to consumer brands.
As Bratches has said: “Having the theatre of Formula One in the backdrop of iconic US cities could be very attractive.” It’s not hard to see why. For F1 to call itself truly global, and to reverse a downward sponsorship income from US$950 million in 2011 to US$750 million in 2015, it must become more than a niche sport in the world’s biggest media market, with the vast eyeballs, engagement and sponsorship dollars that entails.
Even though it is still largely viewed as an unknown curiosity, F1 is associated with a mixture of cutting-edge technology and old world European glamour, which is not a bad place to start. NBC, the domestic F1 broadcaster, has showed some growth in F1 ratings over the last few years, albeit off a low base.
And the good news is that Bratches, a 27-year veteran of ESPN, knows better than most how to build a sports fan base in the US. He knows the power of storytelling to capture the imagination of the audience. Focusing on the personalities of the drivers, the intense rivalries and the rich history of the sport (including two American world champions in Mario Andretti and Phil Hill), F1 provides an extraordinarily rich vein of content for an audience that can’t get enough of sports history and stories.
Of course, for a country that loves a winner, it will also be critical for the US-owned Haas team to see some success, while getting home-grown and competitive drivers behind a steering wheel as fast as possible is also imperative. It would also not be a surprise to see the introduction of some technical and format changes that would spice up the racing and make it more appealing to a US audience.
All of this might mean that sponsors — many of whom are based in the States — might need to invest a little bit ahead of the curve. But with so much to play for, surely it’s a risk worth taking. What could be enticing? Week-long festivals, which combine world-class sport with technology, music, fashion and celebrity, based around street circuits in New York, Miami or LA and heavily marketed to a millennial audience through re-vamped social channels and distribution platforms. Now that’s a future for F1 that’s easy to buy into.
As the cars take to the grid across the globe this season, it will officially signal the start of a new era of leadership for F1. Liberty Media has talked an impressive game in terms of up-front investment, focus and desire to expand the sport. Now the race is on for teams and their sponsors to rise to the challenge.
Dominic Curran (@synergydom) is CEO of sports marketing and sponsorship agency Synergy US, part of Engine Group.