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F1’s boom in the US and its lessons for soccer leagues

F1's lessons for soccer leagues

The 2021 F1 season was the most-watched ever in the racing league’s American broadcast history. The competition ended with yet another massive audience for its climactic circuit.

An average of nearly a million viewers tuned into ESPN2 to see Max Verstappen controversially win his first world championship at the chaotic Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on December 12th. This, for a race that began at 8 a.m. ET on a Sunday morning.

In recent years, European soccer established dominance of traditionally sleepy Sunday mornings. However, F1 dominated each Sunday this year.

ESPN2’s average audience of 963,000 for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix more than tripled that of NBCSN’s West Ham-Burnley match that was on at the same time. Also, ESPN’s other big foreign import, La Liga, doesn’t compare either. Just 465,000 watched Barcelona beat Real Sociedad in the league’s ABC debut back on Sunday, August 15.

Admittedly, it is apples and oranges to compare an individual sport like F1. Every Grand Prix offers a superstar-laden, championship-level event. Meanwhile, a team sport like soccer could have superstars, or strong teams; there is potential for a healthy mix.

Still, it just might be a comparison worth making. As Second Captains podcast co-host Ciarán Murphy said on a recent episode, “every sport is now trying to say ‘how can we pull an F1 here'”?

F1 and Soccer’s beginnings

In the 1990s, F1 and soccer both served relatively niche sporting communities. Each vied for attention in the US’ crowded sports field. Since then, soccer has grown to become arguably the fourth-most popular team sport in the US.

Meanwhile, F1 bounced from network to network over the past two decades until finally reuniting with ESPN. Fortunately for F1, the return paid dividends. In the cord-cutting era where leagues are happy with holding steady or modest growth, F1 enjoys phenomenal growth. American viewership boomed from 672,000 a race in 2019 to an all-time high of 934,000 a race this season.

F1 lessons for soccer leagues

Lewis Hamilton

Similarly, Canadian viewership skyrocketed in recent years. Viewership this season averaged around 728,000 a race (528,000 on English-language TSN and 200,000 on French-language RDS). Moreover, the viewership numbers were truly insane in Lewis Hamilton’s native United Kingdom. An average of 3.4 million watched the final race on free over-the-air Channel 4.

F1 vs. soccer viewership

F1 shines even when compared to some of club soccer’s biggest matches in the US. For one, F1’s most-watched race this year was the United States Grand Prix on ABC with 1.2 million viewers. Comparatively, ABC’s broadcast of the MLS Cup Final attracted 1.14 million. Yet, this number ballooned to an impressive 1.5 million with the Spanish-language audience on UniMás and TUDN.

The most-watched Premier League match last season, the Manchester Derby, got 973,000 on NBC. Again, Spanish-language audiences on Telemundo and NBC Sports Digital viewers brought this number to 1.2 million. But, F1 cannot compete with the most-watched league soccer games in the US – the Champions League Final and the Liga MX Finals. The recent 2nd leg of the 2021 Liga MX Apertura final between Atlas and León pulled 2.4 million viewers on Univision/TUDN. Furthermore, 2.1 million watched the 2021 Chelsea-Man City Champions League final on CBS.

Despite F1’s hype, NASCAR remains far more popular in the United States. Sports Media Watch reports an average of 2.93 million viewers watched races across FOX, FS1, NBC, and NBCSN. On top of that, IndyCar’s viewership average is slightly higher than F1’s. The enormous audience that the Indy 500 still attracts buoys their average. A more advantageous start time for races also helps.

Influences in growth

If you do not watch F1, then perhaps you feel like Irish Times columnist and Second Captains podcast co-host Ken Early. On a recent episode he incredulously asked a question existing in many fans’ heads.

“Why would anyone be interested in this? I don’t understand! But, apparently, Netflix has saved it somehow. People watched the Netflix thing and are suddenly like I’ll watch the race as well!”

It could be the Netflix effect, as well as ESPN’s mighty influence, that has made F1 so popular among fans, influencers, and prominent media members this season. Ben Axelrod, a journalist in Northeast Ohio, joked, “Soccer twitter & F1 twitter – randomly taking over the timeline on weekend mornings.” Ryen Russillo, host of the 8th most popular sports podcast per Spotify and Apple, started a regular F1 segment with the Ringer’s Kevin Clark this season. College football’s Spencer Hall, who writes at Channel 6 and hosts the SEC Network’s “Thinking Out Loud”, is another recent convert who often spends Sundays irreverently covering the races.

As Ken Early hinted at, F1 broke through to the mainstream among non-racing fans in a way that other leagues haven’t. Many factors fueled F1’s rise. An underrated factor is that most of F1’s races start early on Sunday mornings when the main competition for action is European soccer.

Netflix brought in an entirely new audience with its popular Drive to Survive docuseries. As John Suchenski, ESPN’s director of programming and acquisitions, said multiple pathways of watching can accommodate an array of audiences.

“Having additional F1 content out there that reaches a wide and different audience helps increase awareness and interest and, hopefully, incentivizes them to tune into the races. A rising tide lifts all boats.”

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F1's lessons for soccer leagues

Max Verstappen racing

Then there’s F1’s star power – now centered on the budding rivalry between the circuit’s charismatic champions Hamilton and Verstappen. And it’s not just the drivers. Liberty Media’s immersive F1 race productions bring viewers deeper behind the curtain than almost any other sport. During the chaotic finale of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, viewers got to hear Mercedes Race Team CEO Toto Wolff strenuously object to the race’s restart rules, saying “[y]ou need to reinstate the lap before, that’s not right!” To which F1 race director Michael Masi blithely replied, “Toto, it’s called a motor race, ok?”

And there’s the ESPN effect. As NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said when announcing the league’s return to ESPN, “I’m well aware of [ESPN’s] ability to promote and market and reach more sports fans than anybody else. That is going to continue our growth and was an extraordinarily important part of the attractiveness of us coming together.”

F1’s lessons for soccer leagues

But, can other leagues looking for significant growth in the US draw any lessons from F1? Sportico writer Jacob Feldman, inspired by F1’s rise, cleverly came up with “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Sports.” Let’s see if there are anything soccer leagues could do better at.

F1 embraced social media

Feldman describes how F1 used to prevent footage from being shared on various platforms. This hasn’t been a problem for MLS, which has a strong online presence. And its teams do a great job of sharing highlights. Same goes for the European leagues even if some are foolishly geo-blocked in the US. Liga MX could do a better job of penetrating the English-language audience.

F1 turned races into events

Here’s where soccer just can’t compare with F1. There are usually only around 20 Grand Prix races in a season. Each one occurs in a photogenic, if sometimes despotic, location. NBC has done the best at turning weekend matches into big events with their Premier League Fan Fests. The other European leagues simply don’t have big enough fanbases in the US to do likewise. But MLS could easily hold regular fan fests with so many fervent fanbases around the country. And ESPN, which already produces College Gameday, is the perfect partner to make it happen. Liga MX also has huge followings in many of America’s biggest cities so regular fan fests would be a natural.

F1 made telecasts more welcoming

We haven’t seen as many TV production innovations with soccer as we’ve seen in, say, the NFL. Unfortunately, we’ve even seen the production go backwards into the SD era with ESPN’s presentation of the 2021 MLS Eastern Conference Final.

F1 let ESPN broadcast for free

This was a bold gambit from F1 that will pay off enormously with their next TV deal. But even if a soccer league wanted to give away its product in exchange for more visibility there’s the problem of network bandwidth. Networks simply don’t have enough broadcast windows to show all the various soccer leagues. Thus, we’ve now seen Serie A, La Liga, and the Bundesliga go mostly behind a streaming paywall in the US. And with the shuttering of NBCSN, it’s likely that more and more Premier League matches will be on the Peacock pay streaming service.

Thankfully, MLS trends in the right direction of making its games as easy to watch for the greatest amount of people. The year 2022 will feature a record 48 matches on free over-the-air TV (ABC, FOX, Univision, and UniMás). And Liga MX already offers a regular slate on broadcast TV, including its super popular playoffs.

F1 improved its racing quality

The top European leagues already feature the best players in the world. Liga MX offers Concacaf’s most dominant clubs. And MLS is now producing elite talent highlighted by the recent transfers of Brenden Aaronson and Gianluca Busio. And while not all came from MLS, the United States is now tied for having the fourth-most players in the 2021-22 Champions League of any non-UEFA country.

F1 developed storylines

This is subjective, but it’s the Premier League with its combination of historic clubs, elite players, world-class managers with distinct personalities, and internationally famous/infamous owners that has the most dramatic storylines. This factor also ties into the debate between a league having parity versus a league having super teams.

It’s a subjective opinion but it’s also an area where MLS struggles a bit. Due to the economics of the game, as soon as a young MLS star becomes known among casuals and fans outside the team’s home market, they usually depart for Europe. Golden Boot winner Taty Castellanos might be the latest to leave. The league certainly does have big stars like Josef Martinez and Carlos Vela. But MLS seems to, justifiably, rely more on the atmosphere at its matches as a selling point rather than individual stars.

F1 benefitted from growing digital communities

This one holds true for all the various soccer leagues competing for attention in the US as well. The various subreddits and Twitter communities for clubs and leagues are thriving.

In short

There’s only so much that other leagues can learn from F1’s boom. Ultimately, an F1 Grand Prix is more like a golf or tennis Grand Slam or a WWE pay-per-view than a soccer match. Many are watching for the personalities and behind-the-scenes drama as much as the actual racing. With soccer, those side interests can’t be served as well, even if soccer’s managers and owners were to don microphones.

But, soccer leagues can learn to offer fans a better sense of big stakes, just like F1 does. In the crowded American sports field, it may not be enough to trot out regular soccer league matches every weekend and magically expect massive audiences to materialize. We see it with the pedestrian regular season viewerships for Liga MX, especially on cable. It’s only in the playoffs that the Liga MX audience becomes huge. Same for the MLS playoffs and the latter stages of the Champions League.

But, it’s not just about offering knockout games. CBS’ Golazo Show, which lets viewers see a little bit of action from all the Champions and Europa League games instead of having to sit through one specific game that might be a dud, has proven to be popular. The biggest game-changer in the US might just the newly revamped Leagues Cup to be contested by all MLS and Liga MX clubs in 2023. It’ll draw from the English and Spanish language audiences in the United States in a time of year, midsummer, with little competition from other sports. By then, we may be talking just as much about the MLS/Liga MX combo as about F1.

 

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22 Comments

22 Comments

  1. locofooty

    December 23, 2021 at 9:08 am

    Damn Ra, harsh lol

  2. Ra

    December 22, 2021 at 10:27 pm

    @Bobb I’m with you. Put commercials or make it hard for me to watch and I’ll find something else to do in no time. I have a hard time following anything EPL because of the fragmentation and vast abundance of great leagues out there. Without following full story lines, I lose interest in no time.
    The final F1 race also left me with a bad aftertaste. They are going for a new audience, but alienating anyone who has a minimal understanding of the regulaments. I already canceled my F1TV and will watch the Netflix show instead (which I just started) if that is the whole reason for the races. If Hamilton decides to retire, I will take the opportunity and retire from watching the sport as well. I think I am done with it and I am as disgusted with FIA as I am with FIFA.

  3. Bobb

    December 22, 2021 at 9:57 pm

    FWIW, I used to watch a ton of NCAA and NFL football but my patience wore thin with length of games and amount of commercials. Soccer was a no-brainer once I moved outside the US where there was massive affordable availability of all major and even less major leagues. Two easily digestible halves and no commercials.
    Now I’m back stateside, still loathe commercials, have ESPN+ and F1 is available. I hadn’t watched F1 in decades, but being included with ESPN+ I started watching again. LOVED watching this season (until the farce of a final race). I want to continue watching F1, but the way the final race was handled (in addition to mind numbing inconsistencies with rules enforcement) they will have to win me back. NetFlix had nothing to do with me getting into F1 this season, solely the availability of it on ESPN+. Though most were likely influenced by NetFlix . I now want to watch NetFlix and see how they did with that series.
    And for any executives out there thinking to offer a commercial-filled and commercial-free soccer or F1 two-tiered price plan option… See how fast I ignore your sport and take up a new hobby.

  4. El Jefe

    December 21, 2021 at 11:44 pm

    @Ra I think it had to do with the Playoff thing they didn’t like. Also, remember the big controversy in NASCAR in regard to the fake caution flags to bunch up the field? I think that may have had something to do with it as well. I know thats the reason I really never got in to NASCAR during its peak of popularity back in the early/ mid 00’s. Some of those guys were also F1 fans as well but just stopped watching NASCAR. I always preferred F1 and Indy Car myself. I agree with your point that F1 production is about as pristine as it gets, It really makes even the most boring race seem spectacular.

  5. Ra

    December 21, 2021 at 10:11 pm

    @El Jefe Good point. What made those ex-Nascar fans switch? Also, I think that F1 fans are disproportionately represented among expats here.

  6. El Jefe

    December 21, 2021 at 9:15 pm

    A lot of f1 fans I know personally are total rural pickup truck driving conservative/ gearhead redneck types (absolutely nothing wrong with that by the way) who also enjoy NASCAR or are ex NASCAR fans. On the flip side of that, I know a lot of F1 fans tend to fancy themselves as worldly people of high taste that scoff at anything and everything Americana. It’s a funny fanbase. If US soccer/MLS can learn anything from F1- having such a wide spectrum of fans like that is something that they should definitely strive for.

  7. Don Dickerson

    December 21, 2021 at 5:13 pm

    Ra the problem is definitely the racist person. However I will say this if you have ever been near the bench area of any sporting event the homophobic talk is definitely a problem with players especially basketball IMO.

    I personally think heavy drinking is a major issue with what people say to others. I hate going to games with drunk people around. Hell I only get box seats now if I go to a major event because you will be thrown out of those suites if you get “crazy stupid”.

    Nascars issue is they wanted Hollywood stars and not homegrown farming-country-county fair stars that made nascar what it was in the 60s 70s 80s and 90s.

  8. Ra

    December 21, 2021 at 3:51 pm

    @Fechin The politics were quite different in the 90s, though. I don’t think that something that represents rural America will grow in urban America today, and vice-versa.
    So they added “a black driver, lady driver and a Mexican driver” and now they are supposed to be viewed as diverse and progressive? Not so fast…
    I have a friend that went to a Nascar race because one of the customers was a corporate sponsor. It was the worst sporting experience he ever had – the crowd could not be more racist. He told me, he never felt so uncomfortable at an event as he did that day.

  9. Ra

    December 21, 2021 at 3:43 pm

    @Chris Do you know what NBC will do with all their sports properties? They have quite a few, I bet a lot of them will end up on Peacock. USA Network would become NBCSN if they were to move all these properties to USA ( https //en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NBC_Sports).

  10. Fechin Attuah

    December 21, 2021 at 2:39 pm

    @Ra- Nascar leaving their fan base and trying to go for fans in other places was a big problem in the first place. Being a Corporate sport is not what fans what and it turs away fans on what the sport is all about. So what if stock cars are popular in the eastern south, nascar was there in the 90s and the sport grew in the first place. The first rule of business is to not leave your core audience. The younger fan base does not like cars in the US like the older generation do. I wouldnt be surpised if F1 gives US 4 races a year in the future while they take away races in Europe thats called leaving your core audience. Indycar is growing in UK, Mexico and Canada, Nascar even races on six road courses a year now since the younger generation like the road courses and older fans like short tracks where there is beating and banging.
    Formula E races live are only on CBS sports network. Formula E post the races on youtube when the season is over
    @Mercator- It is not a redneck sport to me at least they race in the west and north as well but the problem is they visit places where it isnt the most car friendly of places, like California for example. There is a black driver, lady driver and a Mexican driver and we have a drive to diversity program. But i have been losing interest in nascar since i started watching F1, Indycar, IMSA and SRX. The premier league i watch too, Serie A and sometimes Bundesliga in my own time and NHL. I do not watch NFL, MLB and NBA i used too but the politics and the commercials and soft foul calls turned me off from the nba. I like to focus on niche sports and in 2022 ill try to watch more MLS as possible. Soccer, Hockey and Motorsports are my cup of tea.

  11. Mercator

    December 21, 2021 at 1:03 pm

    @Ra – Of course NBC will botch the Winter Olympics. They screwed up the summer one entirely. It’s just not a competent organization and this is why I have little hope for the EPL. If they can’t get the Olympics right, us football fans truly have no hope.

    @Fechin – Can’t speak for everyone but NASCAR is a nonstarter, seems like a redneck picnic most of the time and to the uninitiated appears to be a 4 hour left turn. Formula E seems to still be more of a gimmick than the real deal. The best drivers are in F1 for a reason, people want to see the best and with the other races you really aren’t getting. MotoGP I just have never seen or come across, probably one area where the sport is really hurt by not being on a broadcaster with more prominence, like ESPN. This is the sort of thing I would pop on if it came on ESPN+ and nothing else was on.

    @Matt – Bang on and I think you are right the race length and generally 2-2.5 hour races are critical. I’m just not going to sit down to watch 4 hours of anything. It does make you realize though that football is probably competing with F1 for a certain market in the US – global sports, limited commercials, under 2 hours in length, on weekend mornings (depending on the TZ).

  12. Ra

    December 21, 2021 at 12:34 pm

    PS 2: Here is the link to all Formula E 2021 races – it is from the official channel:
    https //www.youtube.com/watch?v=hIg7M3L0Nzc&list=PLiSlrzIEN5WKL4DjxIQ1QYOh_yMFmg3HM

  13. Ra

    December 21, 2021 at 12:33 pm

    PS: The deal with NBC has really hurt MotoGP (as usual). They seemed to be better off even with BeIn. Do you think NBC will botch the winter Olympics as well?

  14. Ra

    December 21, 2021 at 12:30 pm

    @Fechin You can watch all full Formula E races for free on Youtube as well. Just go to their channel.
    The other reason why F1 is gaining ground is that it is a technical masterpiece. It has also a global appeal, which is not true for Nascar and Indy. Nobody really cares about it outside of the US. “According to statistics the global TV viewership’s for Formula 1 in 2019 stood at 471 million. The same source claims that TV viewership for NASCAR stood at 2.92 million in 2019.”
    Even domestically, they have been struggling with demographics. Nascar has been having a hard time distancing itself from the confederate deep south. (hello, Brandon)
    Also, F1 production is really sophisticated and they were able to master the delivery with many alternative platforms. The 1M viewer #s includes only cable – it does not include F1TV (where I watched). Here is an interesting video that shows how it is filmed. It is quite extraordinary.
    https //www.youtube.com/watch?v=78wxrEbuHFA

  15. Matt

    December 21, 2021 at 12:11 pm

    @Chistopher

    While I do agree with you, one of the biggest draws for me personally for Formula 1 compared to Nascar is the races length. The fact majority of races go just under 2 hours at most without too many incidents is just a big draw. As for MotoGP & Formula E, think it comes down to marketing. Formula E doesn’t really draw a lot of interest already and barely know anyone whom watches it. As for MotoGP, it comes back down to accessibility. NBC has the right but doesnt even do anything to try and draw toward me. I have watched highlights of GP in the past but you compare both F1 and MotoGP there isnt a draw like F1 does. Liberty Media has truly mastered this with ESPN viewing on Sunday, advertising and its push into the states.

    @Mercator summed it up perfectly.

    Great write up Aram, enjoyed it.

  16. Fechin

    December 21, 2021 at 12:01 pm

    Why I think F1 is popular in the US and no Netflix isn’t the only reason
    Social Media is one reason since even when the practice and qualifying and races are finished, it is instantly posted on YouTube to watch highlights and announcements and alerts of F1 are all over the place and their Instagram is also great, trending on Twitter etc. Memes are popular as well.
    Another reason is the tv side of F1, ESPN got the rights for free and not just that there are other ways you can watch F1 other than ESPN. You can watch some live races on ESPN+ and F1 tv subscription service so it’s more than just one to choose from. There’s also no commercials during the races and the races are only like 2 hours. The commentary is good since they can tell stories on the championship battle between Max and Lewis and the presentation is good as well.
    Netflix is the icing on the cake for new fans to learn what the sport is all about and they explain everything you need to know about F1. In doing that you have more new fans tuning in to watch the races and F1 has done the work.
    What will really make F1 boost popularity and maybe overtake nascar in the US is a American driver in F1.
    Also the Miami race in May 8, 2022 could be even bigger than the 2021 US Grand Prix.
    Can’t wait for the new 2022 car regulations that will improve the field and not just let the same two drivers run away with the championship points.

  17. Fechin

    December 21, 2021 at 11:41 am

    @Christopher agreed man, but nascar has been declining when the 36 race season goes on, it’s because no one likes the playoff format nascar created and the 550 horsepower package is terrible. Nascar would be much better if they raced 25 races a year instead, less is more. Nascar has been also declining because the younger drivers are so boring that they all sound corporate, so you can’t relate to these drivers. Races are too long they are like 4-6 hours long and with todays generation people want instant gratification and have a shorter attention span. I think that’s where soccer comes in since it’s only takes up 2 hours of programming of your time and there’s no commercials during the matches and only half time. I watch Formula 1, INDYCAR and IMSA and SRX. I wish I can watch Formula E but I don’t have CBS sports network.

  18. locofooty

    December 21, 2021 at 10:01 am

    If ESPN Deportes didn’t show the races, I would not have watched so it’s a great plus to authenticate ESPND on the app and watch that plus all the footy on ESPN+.

  19. JP

    December 21, 2021 at 9:56 am

    @Christopher, agreed on MotoGP. Would watch a lot of it when it was on beIN (live), but NBC buries it or only shows on delay if at all. They need to have the races live on Peacock.

  20. José Cerrato

    December 21, 2021 at 9:54 am

    ¿quién mira F1?, ver carros dando vueltas y vueltas, mejor miro Cartoon Network.

  21. Mercator

    December 21, 2021 at 9:45 am

    Social Media – F1 is everywhere on twitter and very easy to follow, you can see every clip with no blackouts. Compare this to the EPL, half the stuff I see on twitter is from Sky, and geoblocked in the US despite the US broadcaster also owning Sky! This is compounded by the fact that some of this same content is available on youtube, without geoblocking! It’s a kafkaesque nightmare and its basically down to Comcast being ridiculous. It’s off-putting, particularly to new fans, to see the EPL trending every morning on twitter and US viewers can’t watch 80% of the clips.

    ESPN – ESPN sends daily updates all week about the next F1 race. Who took poll, notable commentary etc is all pushed to your phone and you get a popup. I watched a few races I otherwise would have completely forgotten were going on because the ESPN app is pushing me notifications. Needless to say, I and millions of other Americans, do not have the NBC app or anything like that installed. Every race was on ESPN2 AND ESPN+, so the races were easily available to anyone who wanted to watch, regardless of whether you do or do not have cable. The addressable market is much larger with such an approach.

    Netflix – Drive to survive gets interest but the most important thing is it teaches the basics about F1 so new fans can easily follow along. No one has to explain the difference in tyres or DRS because Netflix has explained it all. No introduction to the drivers is needed because Netflix explained it all. Again compare this to the EPL – they can’t even put the full team name in the score title so I have people asking me who WHU and NEW are. The EPL is so harsh on out of line comments you basically get no personality (other than Kloppo lol) during the interviews, nothing really insightful. Even the Amazon docs are dull now, everyone playing to the camera (although Arsenal’s should be a mess).

  22. Christopher

    December 21, 2021 at 9:45 am

    I’m not going to comment on how football can be like F1 or learn from F1 to gain popularity etc, but I will say there is a lot of general race fans in the US and I’d say that F1 gain in popularity is because NASCAR is horrible and has been for quite some time. Who wants to watch cars go in a circle ? Even NASCAR is trying to race on tracks that F1 would race on ( which they have done before, but you see the reason they are doing it more now) to stay relevant.

    I’m just surprised that people are not seeking out Formula E and Or MotoGP, which I find far more fun to watch. I guess the difference was the Netflix documentary and ESPN in the end.

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