As F1 TV viewing figures continue to fall globally, is there a solution to the problem?

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The current financial crisis that is engulfing Formula 1 has been debated to and fro over the past few months, with the collapse of Caterham and the uncertain future faced by Marussia giving many cause for concern about the future of the sport.

As things stand, we are set for a nine-team, 18-car field racing in F1 in 2015 – a quarter less than we saw just three years ago.

Will a lighter grid make much difference to the spectacle though? After all, the backmarkers rarely enjoyed a great deal of TV time, so perhaps having four less cars will mean very little in terms of the casual fans viewership from his or her armchair at home.

Even with 22 cars, F1 TV viewing figures have been falling for some time, losing a grand total of 175m in the past six years. 2015 saw 425m viewers tune in across the world, with a number of broadcasters seeing a fall in their numbers.

This has been the big dilemma for F1 over the past few years. TV figures have plummeted, so a remedy needs to be found. This was used as a factor when criticising the new cars introduced in 2014, saying that their reduced sound and look would only prompt fans to turn off.

It was also the reason behind the ultimately futile double points rule for 2014, intended to make the championship race last longer and therefore keep viewers tuning in. It has thankfully been scrapped for 2015, having firstly had no impact on the championship race whatsoever, and secondly not prevented a further fall of 25m in global viewership from 2013 to 2014.

So are people simply going off Formula 1, or is there a bigger reason behind the fall?

The quality of the racing is important, yet it is not the problem here. 2008 was the ‘peak’ in terms of viewership, booming at 600m. However, this was a year dominated by McLaren and Ferrari, and arguably less exciting than the recent clashes between Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. There is little reason for less fans to be watching because they simply don’t like what they see.

Accessibility is better than it ever has been, also. The majority of broadcasters offer some kind of online streaming service, meaning that fans can watch F1 wherever they may be on their phone or tablet. However, the flip side of the internet revolution is that many may choose to opt for illegal streams instead of paying for a TV contract.

And here lies the crux of the ‘problem’: money. The only correlating variable in the fall in TV viewership is the rise of pay-per-view contracts for the sport. In a bid to increase the sports revenues – which is, of course, good business sense – the F1 Group has been chasing more and more pay TV contracts. Broadcasters who get their viewers to pay for services have more money to offer for the broadcasting rights, thus increasing the sport’s revenues. The F1 pie grows bigger.

It is simply a case of looking at the facts. In 2013, there was a fall of 50m that prompted many a well-documented concern in the F1 community. However, less well-documented was the fact that 46m of this fall was in just two markets where the sport had switched to pay TV. The move away from free-to-air (FTA) cost the sport 30m viewers in China and 16m in France – so a relative fall of 4m is far less concerning.

The same is true of the falling British F1 audience in recent years. For 2012, the BBC gave up its exclusive rights to show F1, with all of the races moving onto pay-TV Sky Sports. The BBC shows half of the races each year live, with highlights for the remainder. Unsurprisingly, there was a decline in the audience in one of the sport’s most important markets, but it was self-induced.

Interestingly though, the United States has been bucking the trend in this area. According to a recent report by the Wall Street Journal, the F1 audience in the U.S. grew for the second year in a row, increasing by 10.1% to 12.6m. Clearly, the market that the sport has tried to crack for so long is coming around.

A constant global decline is not something that the sport can simply accept, though. Instead, efforts must be made to combat the fall whilst also aiding revenues. FOM has recently begun a crack-down on those sharing illegal streaming links on Twitter, and it is likely that more and more of these websites will be targeted to get more tuning in on TV.

There could yet be another fall in 2015 though, with rights in Australia now being shared in a similar deal to that of the UK. Fox Sports will show all of the races live, with half of them also live on FTA Channel 10. With Daniel Ricciardo leading the sport’s charge Down Under, many may lament the fact that they cannot watch every race live and free.

So what does the man at the top of the F1 pile think of the situation?

“[It] is working alright,” Bernie Ecclestone told the WSJ. “We are still getting very good TV coverage. It just means that we are getting more coverage from the pay people now.”

The decline may have been sizeable in recent years, but it is not without reason. If the F1 pie is continue to grow, steps such as these must be taken.

However, if the sport can continue its recent drive to harness new technology streams via the F1 App and greater Twitter interaction, the decline may be limited and perhaps even reversed. It is not a trend that can persist, but the reasons behind it are clear.

3-time NHRA champ Larry Dixon gives back to save lives on the streets

Photo courtesy Larry Dixon Racing
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Three-time NHRA Top Fuel champ Larry Dixon is a man on a new mission: to save lives on the streets and highways as perhaps the fastest driving instructor in the world.

Because he’s not currently hurtling down a dragstrip at 330 mph on the NHRA national tour, Dixon is at a point where it was time for him to give back and help youngsters the way so many individuals helped him in his own life and career.

Much like when he became the protege of mentor Don “Snake” Prudhomme – first as a crew member and then as Prudhomme’s hand-picked choice to replace him when he retired as a driver – Dixon is now imparting some of his vast knowledge behind the wheel upon thousands of impressionable teens and young adults around the country.

Dixon recently signed on as an instructor with fellow former Top Fuel champ Doug Herbert’s nationally renowned B.R.A.K.E.S. (Be Responsible and Keep Everyone Safe) driver safety training program. Since Herbert formed the free, non-profit program in 2008 to honor the memory of sons Jon and James, who were both killed in a tragic car crash, B.R.A.K.E.S. has trained over 35,000 students across the U.S. and five countries to be better and safer drivers.

MORE: Drag racer Doug Herbert turns son’s deaths into program that has helped over 35,000 teens

After putting two of his own teen children through Herbert’s program (with a third child to go through the program soon), Dixon was so impressed with the training that his kids received that he told his old buddy he wanted to become involved with B.R.A.K.E.S.

“I’ve known Doug since we were in high school,” Dixon told NBC Sports. “We both worked at a chain of speed shops in Southern California, Doug at one in Orange County and me at one in the San Fernando Valley in Van Nuys. We came up together racing Alcohol cars and Top Fuel cars kind of along the same lines. That’s how long I’ve known Doug.

Photo: Larry Dixon Racing

“I ran my son through the course a couple years ago when it came through Indianapolis (where Dixon and his family now live), and then my daughter signed up for a class a couple months ago, and that kind of got the talk going because I’m not on the (NHRA national event) tour now and I’ve got more time and the conversation just snowballed and here I am.

“I obviously believe in the deal if I ran my own kids through the system. The program is very methodical but still personal. When you put the kids in the car, you’ve got one instructor and three students, so they’re getting taught one-on-one almost.”

Even though he’s been driving for nearly 40 years, Dixon, 52, readily admits with a chuckle, “I’ve even learned things from the program already, which shows you’re never too old to learn.”

In a more serious vein, Dixon said from his perspective as both an instructor and a parent of two of the program’s graduates is how parents are so vital to the program’s impact.

“It’s mandatory that when you’re running a student through the program that at least one parent or guardian is also there, so the message you’re teaching the teens, you have to rely on the parent to not only be on the same page as what we’re teaching, but to also drive that message home for the rest of their lives.”

Dixon isn’t teaching students to drive 330 mph or to become aspiring drag racers. On the contrary. Dixon is right at home giving instructions on how students can avoid incidents or accidents on streets and highways at speeds typically between 30 and 50 mph.

“It’s more impactful as far as your legacy,” Dixon said of his motivation to teach. “Obviously, I’ve won a lot of races, but what I have to show for those wins are trophies but they’re in the basement, and if you don’t dust them, they get dusty.

“What I’m doing with B.R.A.K.E.S., you’re making a difference for people hopefully for the rest of their lives, and that’s bigger. I remember when I first got my own racing license. The first day I had my license, I was a race car driver but I wasn’t a great race car driver right away, I just had a license. It took a lot of years and a lot of runs and laps down the racetrack to be able to be good.

“It’s the same thing with a driver’s license. You go through the driver’s education course and such and they hand you your license, but that doesn’t make you a great driver. It takes a lot of road time to be able to get that experience. And the great thing about this course is you’re trying to ramp up that experience and put the teens in situations ahead of time so that when they’re in the real world, they’ll know how to react to them.

Larry Dixon is interviewed recently during his debut as a driving instructor for B.R.A.K.E.S. Photo courtesy B.R.A.K.E.S.

“These cars nowadays have so many safety features on them, but they don’t get taught. When you go through a basic driver’s education course, they don’t teach you that you can slam on the brakes and if you have an ABS (anti-lock) brake system, let alone how to use it, so that’s part of what we’re running the kids through. It lets them speed up and then slam on the brakes and feeling what ABS does and that a car isn’t going to spin out or flip over like you might see in a ‘Fast and Furious’ movie. Most people don’t know what you can do with a car and how great cars will take care of you as long as they use the tools you’re supplied with.”

Dixon has already taught three different classes in the last month, with five more sessions scheduled primarily in the Midwest in the coming months. You can immediately hear the passion and self-satisfaction he’s getting from being a teacher.

“I really do enjoy it,” Dixon said. “You get to see the difference you can make in someone’s lives. When you get them on a skid course and they’re learning how to get out of a spin or slide, they’re having fun but also learning a valuable lesson.

“After they’ve taken the course, they have a bounce in their step and know and understand cars better and have a good time doing it. That’s what Doug has done, out of his tragedy, he’s really making a difference in other people’s lives. We’re not trying to turn the kids into Mario Andretti or anything like that … just to be better and safer drivers.”

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