One Year In, Can F1 Make it in the USA?

  © Sutton Images via:  Formula1

© Sutton Images via: Formula1

Drivers such as Senna or Schumacher, teams like Lotus or Ferrari, courses such as Imola or Silverstone, and even course turns like #17 La Rascasse in Monaco are all names that evoke incredibly deep emotion in fans of F1 racing throughout the world. But in the U.S., these names most likely mean nothing…until NBC showed up.

Like it or not, Formula 1 (F1) is coming to the United States. Between NBC’s heavy investment in showing all races, Rush, Ron Howard’s F1 movie chronicling racing legends Niki Lauda and James Hunt, as well as a salivating lust by luxury brands to reverse their post-recession slow-down and grow their addressable market, F1 is set to deliver a return on investment to the FIA (F1’s governing body), NBC, marketers, and luxury brands.

NBC (and its property NBC Sports) heavily promoted the celebrity-studded, luxurious, and well-known Monaco Grand Prix as it rolled out its coverage, and the results were impressive. Viewership of the Monaco Grand Prix jumped 241% over 2012 when it appeared on SPEED. Coverage in two highly coveted demographics (P18–49 and P25–54) saw massive triple-digit growth.

After a $3 million deal in which NBC acquired the rights to air the races in the United States, F1 was shown in the USA for the first time on NBC Sports and will broadcast all 20 races. This $3 million deal had NBC replacing the Speed Network as the broadcaster after 17 years.

In an interview, John Miller, President of NBC Sport Group, stated that “Formula 1 is a perfect fit for the NBC Sports Group as it provides content across three platforms – broadcast, cable, and digital – for nine months a year with more than 100 hours of premier programming annually.”

NBC has shown its desire to pull a rather esoteric European sport into its portfolio in the United States, but the question remains: is it worth it? All major players in the deal must see value: the FIA (F1’s governing body), drivers, all network channels, and brands.

The Monaco Grand Prix on NBC was the most watched F1 race on TV in six years. Thanks to Fast National data provided by The Nielsen Company we know that nearly 1.5 million viewers watched it, making it the most-watched F1 race on U.S. television in six years, and up 241% vs. last year’s race, which aired on SPEED.

NBC racked triple-digit increases vs. SPEED’s airing last year among two key demographics, adults P18–49 (461,000 vs. 127,000, up 263%) and Adults P25–54 (674,000 vs. 160,000, up 321%).

In order to promote the race, NBC developed two 30-second promotional spots with creative that focuses on the speed of F1 and aims to appeal to the upscale sports fan by highlighting its international appeal and cultural significance. The spot currently is running on NBC Sports Group properties such as Golf Channel, NBC Sports Network, and NBC Sports Regional Networks.

Based on Nielsen data, demographics of the U.S. F1 audience provide synergies for all parties bringing F1 to the U.S.: wealthy, worldly, and educated with disposable income. This audience matches the desired audience of the sponsoring brands, provides viewership for NBC, and provides the FIA with fertile ground to grow the sport’s brand, which sells millions of dollars in licensed merchandise across the multitude of teams that compete in the circuit.

The core audience being discussed in this small case study is male, living mostly in the Northeast as well as the South, educated, and overindexing in the early 20s, 30s, 50s, and 70s. Furthermore, they live in urban and near-urban environments, have high earning potential, on average, earning more than $70,000 per year, and watch four or more races per year.

There are two things to keep in mind as F1 finishes its initial year in the U.S.: what will cause F1 to succeed in the US, and without an American driver, will the luster of fast cars and luxury timepieces wear off on the American audience?

Answering the first question: the network’s sales team signed a deal with Rolex that makes the watch company the presenting sponsor of all of its F1 coverage. It also picked up advertising commitments from ExxonMobil, Mercedes-Benz, Pirelli, John Deere and other companies. So, no apparent issues with getting sponsors; NBC must be doing a good job of bringing the audience. But, with no American driver, is this all for naught? Mario Andretti believes that if F1 is to succeed in the U.S. there must be a U.S. driver. Andretti might know a something about this: he was the last American to find any success in F1, which ended in the late 1970s. Furthermore, with the revival of the American Grand Prix held in Austin, TX, the FIA is attempting to bring the sport closer to Americans. But, with no major U.S. favorite, some fans might have a hard time switching from IndyCar or even NASCAR.

  © Sutton Images via: Formula1

© Sutton Images via: Formula1

F1 in the United States has seen a rather resplendent return thanks to the work of NBC and its associated media properties, and it seems that NBC has a strong core demographic tied up with the airing of these events (which usually overlap the Sunday morning news magazines). But for F1 to stay relevant, it needs a strong continuing American presence and marketing efforts. The goal is not to satisfy current fans, but to attract new ones and to bring wealthier spectators to the doors of the marketing partners such as Rolex and Mercedes-Benz.

Currently there is no vested interest for the new American fan, nothing that might make him switch from other motor sports or engage in a new one. With only the addition of F1 onto the nation’s airwaves as well as one race in Austin, TX, NBC has a great deal more to do to attract fresh viewers.

By no means are the Nielsen data an aberration, but is it possible that without a consistent message, F1 will remain a core-fan sport only? The Monaco Grand Prix was marketed with celebrities, high-end consumer cars, and other luxury items without displaying the pedigree and pomp of what makes Monaco such rich and hallowed ground for both racers and true fans of the sport. After the glitter falls to the ground and the music is over, we are left with a race–is that enough to keep fans engaged?

To add a personal note, I am thrilled that F1 has come back to America with such force (a triple-digit growth in viewership is fantastic), but I am concerned with its maintenance. I will always be a fan and I will go to the ends of the Earth to watch the races, but it seems like that tacky NBC ad that the FIA is using to grow the sport within the borders of the United States means removing the aspects that make it truly unique: it’s body-punishing, high-octane burning, physics-defying, rude, innovative, engine-shrieking, European panache.

This article originally appeared in Hill Holliday's "Thinking" section.  
It was written by Christopher van der Lugt.