How Formula 1 became the world’s most engaging sport

The 2020 season-opener took place in Austria. Photo: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images.
The 2020 season-opener took place in Austria. Photo: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images.

Formula 1 transformed into a globally engaging sport during the pandemic

With the world at a standstill in the middle of a pandemic, Formula 1 increased its social media audience, beating leagues like the Bundesliga, NBA, NFL, UFC and LaLiga by a staggering margin. Unlike previous years in the Bernie Ecclestone era, the digital philosophy of Formula 1’s new owners Liberty Media has started to pay off. While other sports suffered a decline in viewership amidst the pandemonium, Formula 1 witnessed significant growth across its social media platforms.

Despite a revised 17-race calendar in 2020, and non-ticketed races, Formula 1’s TV audience maintained an average viewership of 87.4 million viewers per Grand Prix, only 4.5 percent less than the 2019 season. On social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, TikTok, Twitch and Chinese social platforms, Formula 1 had an impressive spike of 35 percent in its follower growth.

Demographics courtesy of Formula 1's press release.
Demographics courtesy of Formula 1's press release.

Formula 1’s cumulative audience in 2020 was a reduced figure of 1.5 billion, compared to 2019's 1.9 billion. The CEO of Formula 1, Stefano Domenicali, said:

“We had strong growth figures in China, the UK, Netherlands, Germany, and the USA, combined with the huge boost in our digital figures. We saw only a marginal reduction in TV audiences, caused by multiple reasons but clearly driven but a shortened and limited geographical calendar compared to 2019, but something every major sport has experienced in 2020.”

Stepping into his pivotal new role, the former Ferrari boss added:

“We are proud of what we delivered in 2020 and know we have an incredibly strong fan base and audience platform to grow in the coming years. We are delighted our fans feel a strong satisfaction with the sport, our season, and the way we responded to the global pandemic.”

When Liberty Media came into the world of Formula 1, their digital focus on Netflix with the 'Drive to Survive' series and Esports, expanded the sport's reach on various digital social media platforms which reflected in the 2020 audience figures. Netflix’s Drive to Survive has not only helped Formula 1 engage with its audience but has also reached Gen Y and Gen Z.

Unlike previous decades, where the sport was followed exclusively by automotive intellectuals and core motorsport enthusiasts, Formula 1 has now grown beyond its core audience base and connects with modern millennials.

From drivers like Lewis Hamilton, who has 21.8 million followers on Instagram to Lando Norris who has an average of 18 million views on his Twitch account for e-sports streaming, Formula 1 content trends frequently on social media platforms on race and non-race weekends. The growing interest in e-sports peaked engagement during the lockdown period, as several young drivers like Alex Albon, Charles Leclerc, George Russell and Norris engaged in simulator races.

According to global sports analysts Nielsen Sports, Formula 1 audience between the ages of 16-35 will grow to one billion by April 2022. Tom McCormack, head of rights holders at Nielsen Sports, said:

“Formula One continues to benefit from its strategy of expanding its content offering – through additional peripheral and story-telling programming – which appeals to that 16 to 35-year-old market.”

Nielsen Sports data showed a growth of 77 percent in the age group of 16-35, which is 43 percent of Formula 1’s key audience. The sport's overall growth of 20 percent last year accounted to 73 million people in key fan bases in countries like Brazil, China, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, South Korea, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.

McCormack, from Nielsen Sports, said:

“By embracing these platforms – as well as OTT services such as Netflix, with its Drive to Survive series – Formula One is now well-poised to convert newcomers to the sport to long-term fans and generate unprecedented interest levels.”

Formula 1’s new strategies not only educate new audiences of the sport, but engage with them to understand an excruciatingly technically complex sport.

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Edited by Utathya Ghosh
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