When Formula 1 announced the move away from FOX Sports, which had taken over from long-time rights-holder SPEED, in 2013 in favor of NBC Sports, a great amount of skepticism was met by fans and media alike. Over the next five years, however, the burgeoning sports network won their fanbase over, thanks in large part to an extremely knowledgable, enthusiastic, and entertaining series of hosts, behind-the-scenes production staff, and compounded with NBC Sports’ willingness to create additional content. This included ample pre-race and post-race programming, extensive promotion, and generally a commitment to making the most of the F1 opportunity.
The result? The audience grew. From 187,000 in 2013, to 440,000 by the end of 2017.
The actual result? Losing the contract to ESPN for 2018 and beyond, a move that was confusing to many fans, but the speculative business reasons behind it are the most curious.
When Liberty Media acquired Formula One from 2017 and beyond, the directive was clear… modernize the sport. To their credit, we’ve seen a number of improvements. Extensive YouTube content, more interactive elements, and a general relaxing of some of the “no access” dogma the sport has become accustomed to.
Where it hits a head is when it comes to broadcasting. While Netflix and Hulu have undeniably blown up the reality of streaming content as a viable means of living room entertainment, to this point there has been one hold out: live sports.
With all of the major cable players holding the rights to nearly every major sport, including Formula One, the streaming mantra of developing original content that encourage the “switch” has been left behind when it comes to sports. People don’t crave new forms of sport developed by streaming providers, they want their traditional game they’ve been watching their whole lives. The only way to get that… is with major cable providers. Recognizing the need to protect their holdout with live sports, cable networks have repeatedly done all they can to block independent streams, opting instead to force consumers to streaming apps exclusive to their service.
Recognizing the future, Liberty Media has opted instead to take a proactive approach, developing a new subscriber-based streaming service. The rub is, the service is not out yet, but knowing this would be a sticking point in television contracts, this had to be forced in to any 2018 agreements in beyond, even without a product yet.
Given the expense of producing original content, not to mention licensing, it can be assumed NBC wasn’t interested in giving away their audience to an outside streaming service.
The assumed result? A makeshift arrangement between ESPN and Liberty, effectively giving ESPN an opportunity to broadcast F1’s “house feed,” with ZERO in-house production and U.S. commentary, but with the allowance of the soon-to-be announced streaming service to infiltrate the U.S.
It’s a forward-thinking move, recognizing the potential of a streaming audience, but of course not without pain. During this weekend’s season opening Australian Grand Prix, the reviews of ESPN’s broadcast were far from glowing. The U.S. has enjoyed their own commentary and way of watching F1 dating back to the 1980’s (ironically through ESPN), so it’s going to be a bitter pill to just accept an F1 “house feed” in the long-term hopes of a more customizable livestream.
Will it be the right direction? Time will tell. In an era where F1 is at a crossroads for the future of the sport, it will be interesting to see how this develops.