Grands prix should be public events that get an entire nation talking'

Full coverage of Formula 1 races is restricted to pay tv, writes Joe Dunn. Can it pocket the cash while remaining alive and relevant?

img_9-5.jpg
Browse pages

February is never easy. But in my household the cold, dark mornings were brightened by live cricket on terrestrial TV beamed direct from a warm-looking Chennai. Coverage of the England-India test match may start at an ungodly hour but the return of live cricket to a non-subscriber TV channel has meant that I have been following the team’s progress over my morning coffee and cornflakes.

But here’s the thing. Although I enjoy the game, I would not pay a fee for watching it. This has meant that since cricket disappeared behind Sky’s paywall in 2005, I have stopped following it other than via the newspaper sports pages. It is a passion that withered on the vine.

So the fact that Channel 4 is showing it, has meant that I am now following the tour and engaging again in a way that I haven’t done since the heady days of free-to-air test matches in the 1990s.

Unlike the 1990s, my enjoyment doesn’t start and end with TV coverage. I have now found myself downloading Channel 4’s All 4 app on my phone so I can watch highlights or live coverage on the move. I followed the commentary team – including the impressive Ebony Rainford-Brent – on Twitter, and did the same with the England Cricket account on Instagram. Then I started searching up archive footage on YouTube.

In short I became a fan again. TV was the gateway to engage with the sport in new ways.

Making a sport part of a national conversation keeps it alive and relevant

Formula 1 could learn from this. As we look forward this month to the new season, it is clear that the biggest challenge F1 faces is increasing its fan base in a crowded market. It will be hard to do that from behind a paywall.

At present, and until 2024, fans or potential fans can only watch entire races live if they subscribe to Sky. Then on top of the standard Sky subscription they will need the Sky Sports F1 add-on which costs £18 per month (or £10 per month for 18 months if you’re a new customer). Alternatively, you can buy Complete Sports (all the sports channels) for £25 per month, again for an 18-month contract.

If you’d rather not sign up to Sky because you only want F1, then there is an alternative: you can subscribe via Sky’s streaming service, Now TV. That’s available on your phone, tablet or via a web browser and also via a Now TV streaming stick. This will cost £33.99 per month for the Sky Sports Pass.

For confirmed fans, like most readers of Motor Sport, the cost will not be a barrier. For those sitting on the fence – exactly the people who the sport needs to reach out to – it might be the difference between engaging again and not. The implications are huge.

According to some estimates there are 500 million people globally who say they follow motor sport. Of those, the majority are F1 or NASCAR fans. But only a fraction tune in to F1 races and fewer still watch the races consistently during the season. Tapping into the vast reservoir of casual fans is crucial if F1 wants to set itself on a sustainable footing and increase its fanbase.

Putting any sport behind a paywall does exactly the opposite and reduces the number of people who can watch. This is important because it is by making a sport part of a national conversation that you can inspire the next generation of fans and participants. It keeps a sport alive and relevant, and gives it the energy that it needs to survive and thrive. It is telling that the Channel 4 cricket coverage saw a strong growth in younger viewers aged 16-34.

Liberty is well aware of this and has talked about making F1 more accessible via live streaming. But while it is true that Liberty operates an online streaming service – F1 TV Pro – you can’t watch it in the UK because of Sky’s exclusive deal. And even if you could, not everyone is convinced that streaming sport is the answer. What people want – especially in a post-Covid world – is not narrow streams on their phones but set-piece broadcasts on big screens that they can watch with their friends. Grands prix should be like the FA Cup Final or Super Bowl: public events that get an entire nation talking. Remember Des Lynam’s “Shouldn’t you be at work?” intro to England’s first game of the 1998 World Cup?

This is not to negate the importance of digital channels. One of Liberty’s successes is its embracing of social media, building a community of online fans and allowing more direct engagement with the sport. But as I discovered with England’s test match in India, if you watch the live sport free on TV, then you’re likely to engage more deeply with it via social media. It’s the best of both worlds.

Follow Joe on Twitter @joedunn90