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.
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.”
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.
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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