Why F1 should be seriously worried about Formula E’s latest move
It’s the world’s top racing series – but for how much longer?
Next month sees the start of the fifth season of Formula E racing, when the series kicks off again in Saudi Arabia.
Leaving aside the political hot potato that is the location for the season opener, the series itself has been pulling off some major moves in the last few months as it seeks to break into the mainstream consciousness of race fans, particularly in the UK – a market that has always been extremely passionate about motor racing.
A couple of weeks ago Formula E announced they would be streaming every race live in the UK via YouTube.
Now this is a game-changer in itself.
We all know viewing habits are evolving. Many of the younger colleagues I work with don’t watch TV on a TV. They use streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime to watch shows on iPads, phones and laptops.
Many of them don’t even own a TV – they don’t see the point.
They are also heavy users of YouTube, and are more likely to sit down and watch the latest videos from their YouTube subscriptions than they are to sit down in front of the telly and watch Eastenders.
So in a rapidly changing world where younger audiences consume their entertainment in a different way, Formula E has been extremely canny in taking their product to where the audience already is.
I have no idea whether the signing of YouTuber KSI as part of the presenting team is a good idea or not (I am old enough to still have a telly, so I don’t know who he is), but the strategy of moving FE to YouTube and thus saving UK fans the bother of trying to find an illegal online stream, is likely to be highly effective for long-term growth.
Good work so far.
Then this week, FE followed that up by announcing a deal with the BBC that will see the UK’s state broadcaster show every race live on its website and via the red button (for those oldies like me with a TV).
But crucially, the deal will also see the Beeb show at least one FE race live on either BBC1 or BBC2. And that, I believe, is another masterstroke. Let me explain why.
I am a big Formula 1 fan. And I became one because of the BBC. Specifically the old Grandstand programme that used to run on Saturday afternoons when I was a kid.
My Dad, who is not particularly interested in F1, would have Grandstand on to watch the athletics and get the football scores (far more his cup of tea). But in between that, and a bit of curling from somewhere and some horse-racing from somewhere else, Des Lynam would throw to Murray Walker at Monza or Spa or the Hungaroring (say that to yourself in Murray’s voice, emphasising each of the syllables: “HUN-GA-RO-RING” – it’s very satisfying), for a few minutes of qualifying action.
I would sit there and be transfixed as the likes of Nigel Mansell, Gerhard Berger, Ayrton Senna and the rest would power round in their amazing machines. And pretty soon I was hooked. As I got older I began to follow the sport myself – which was easy then, because it was always on TV. For free.
But the crucial point is this: my Dad was not much of an F1 fan. He was certainly not enough of a fan to have paid for a subscription service to be able to watch it. And even if he had wanted to, I doubt he could have afforded it.
A wall has been put up around F1 coverage in the UK (Photo by Jonathan Chng on Unsplash)
So without exposure to the sport via free to air TV as a youngster, I think it’s highly unlikely I would be a fan now. I was exposed to it at just the right time in my young life. How many others can say the same? I suspect lots.
And that’s the point: from next season, no one in the UK will be able to watch F1 live on free to air TV – while at the exact same time, Formula E’s chiefs have cleverly capitalised on this by ensuring that their series WILL be available for all to watch, completely free.
Big fans of Formula E like my colleague Mike Fernie, always insist the racing is fantastic, and with each passing season the series builds up its own identity, rivalries are created and played out, and it starts to take on a narrative for potential fans to follow (and that part is essential, too).
In the future, the young version of me will be becoming a Formula E fan – because F1 has locked itself away behind an expensive pay wall. That’s fine for short-term profits, but every sport is judged on its popularity, and in ten year’s time Formula One could well be number one in name only...