Is good coverage the key to cracking America?

By on Saturday, September 29, 2012

COTA hosts the US Grand Prix in November

Formula One will return to the United States of America for the first time in over five years when the Circuit of the Americas near Austin, Texas hosts the penultimate round of the championship. It’s the sport’s latest attempt to crack the American market and with a second race in the States joining the calendar in the form of the New Jersey street track next season, there’s a common feeling that this time, it’s important.

On the other side of the world, Formula One has ramped up its involvement in the Asian market and the rewards are starting to be reaped. Events in China and Singapore are well attended and as McLaren team Principal Martin Whitmarsh explains, F1 has had it easy in the Orient.

“We go around parts of Asia, South America and Europe - one could plonk a grand prix down and there's a natural fanbase. It's been easy for us and I think we've taken it too easy”

But there’s one major market yet to be broken into. The Canadian Grand Prix remains one of the highlights of the season, but their Southerly neighbours are the market that Formula One is desperate to get a stranglehold on.

“We've got to recognise that we've got to work harder at it than probably any market we've worked at”, Whitmarsh adds. "I think it's important to remember that America's important to us but America doesn't need us. Therefore we've got to go there with the appropriate humility recognising that we haven't done the greatest job for Formula One there in the past, for a host of different reasons that we know of, from the tyre fiasco in Indianapolis and the venues we've been to.”

Mercedes-bound Lewis Hamilton agrees with his boss. "It's obviously such an important market for Formula One because there's so many people there that we need to turn to Formula One to show them that it's better racing than some of the other racing that they're watching, or as good."

Several of the USA’s top circuits have hosted Formula One events, including the likes of Long Beach and Watkins Glen. Now with two new and very different circuits at almost opposite ends of the country, this, as Mark Webber says “is the best chance Formula 1 has ever had of doing a good job over there.”

Television is a crucial part of Formula One

But is the issue with the American fans, or is it simply an issue of how the sport is presented to them? The use of race promotion and Television coverage is vital in presenting a good image of the sport. You’ve only got to look at how Bernie Ecclestone elevated F1’s status through the selling of TV rights or how other sports are promoted on the small screen. In the United Kingdom, the return of the BBC coverage helped the sport, for example, showing practice sessions, no advert breaks and a post-race forum that lasts for an hour or so after the podium ceremony is complete. The majority of people would agree that they enjoyed Formula One on the BBC much more than when it was on ITV. Sky Sports are now doing a similarly excellent job as the BBC, as they have done previously with football to great success. F1 is not football by any stretch of the imagination, but it demonstrates how crucial the TV coverage is in the popularity of a sport. Remember when thousands of people would tune in to live stages of the World Rally Championship on terrestrial channels? Ten years on, few people realised the championship had even rolled into Wales. Conversely, ITV broadcasts six hours of live coverage of each round of the British Touring Car Championship and the profile of the series has been raised enormously. Race promotion plus good broadcasting equals success? Is this the equation that can help Formula One in burgeoning markets?

A few American friends have told me that they cannot stand the coverage they receive. One has even reverted to simply missing the race and watching it when BBC or Sky coverage becomes available online; bemoaning the ‘terrible’ team and the lengthy advert breaks every six laps. Crucially, as someone who has moved from the UK to the US, he knew of the sport beforehand. But if, as an American, you switched onto F1 for the first time, would you come back if you got frustrated with inadequate coverage?

I asked esteemed F1 journalist and Speed TV broadcaster Peter Windsor about the issue of TV coverage in the United States and he acknowledges how vital the small screen is for the sport’s success.

“TV plays an enormous role in the success of F1's economy. That's why F1 uniquely produces its own world feed and exercises very strict control of how that feed is used by the local rights holders”.

But Peter doesn’t agree that SpeedTV’s coverage needs improvement when compared to their European counterparts, citing the uncontrollable time zones as a main issue.

“No - I think Speed's coverage of F1 is excellent - a case study in how to do it well without spending millions and millions of dollars. [The issue of popularity is] mainly because of the time difference to European countries. Sport needs to be watched live. Period. Beyond that, we need a lot more F1 races in the US. And then, finally, we need those races to be well-promoted in the US. That generally doesn't happen in F1 because the circuit promoters have no budget and the F1 teams themselves, together with the commercial rights holders, believe that the onus for promotion should be on the race organisers”.

Sebastian Vettel has done some promotional work in the USA. Photo Credit: Getty Images

Red Bull Racing has been in the US in an attempt to promote the races, but there has been little action from other teams.

I also asked Peter whether a key issue is the country not being able to get behind one of its own, as the majority of countries – the Alonso, Hamilton and Kubica effect in Spain, Britain and Poland respectively – receive a boost from a compatriot competing in the sport.

“I don't think an American driver would make much difference unless he was running right at the front and contesting the World Championship. As a general rule, US fans appreciate sporting excellence (regardless of nationality) more than their European counterparts. That's why the SpeedTV ratings were relatively high during the Michael Schumacher/Ferrari era (and relatively low in the UK). F1 is predominately an international sport and Americans appreciate it as such. IndyCar, however, would benefit much more from having a whole bunch of US drivers running at the front”.

So getting the TV coverage right is important, but perhaps more key is simply the race promotion. The two go hand in hand, but what about in another market where sport is rapidly growing?

The Middle East is becoming another important reason for sports such as Formula One. Sir Frank Williams acknowledged this fact as early as the late 1970s, when he acquired Saudi Arabian sponsorship for his team. In 2012, the sport has a race in Bahrain, a race in Abu Dhabi, as well as several teams being heavily involved with Middle Eastern countries and companies. But whereas European and American championships have junior series for young drivers to hone their skills, this is lacking in the Middle East. Lebanese racing driver and pundit Khalil Beschir agrees that while TV is crucial for the area, blending this coverage of Formula One with the need to establish a proper ladder in the region is important.

Is the Yas Marina Circuit style over substance?

“It is very crucial to have F1 on TV there. Actually it has been always on TV live there since I was kid. This is what brought me to Europe and engage to racing from the beginning. Unfortunately the TV is not the problem. The problem we have in the Middle East is that the money is spent hugely on the circuit and to show off and not in the right places like making a proper karting championship and proper academies and so on.”

“This is what I have been working on closely for the future in the region. A proper karting championship, good education about the sport, good academies and proper development programs for the youth. Now I help young drivers coming to Europe and starting in single-seaters here but we are still steps behind because we do not have proper karting there, and you cannot bring a young kid of 6 years old to live in Europe. You can when he is 16 [or] 17.”

The sport is still young in the Middle East. Motorsport has been present in Europe and America for over a hundred years and has spent this period of time learning from mistakes. Khalil admits there are problems in trying to compete with this level, without the advantage of experience.

“With Abu Dhabi TV coverage in 2010 and 2011, we started very well with a great educational program, as I asked them to take everything from GP3, GP2 and all the racing they could so we start educating the region how to get to F1, what the steps are, how important it is to start young and get into the right categories and move step by step.

“In 2010 and 2011, ADTV did a great job, they covered all of the races and in the studios we started receiving 20-25 emails per week end from fans, by the end of 2010 we were at 600 to 700 per weekend. This shows how much you can do. But unfortunately it was still hard to get sponsors involved in the sport and ADTV was urged to cut the costs mid-2011 and stop the full coverage.”

“Surely an Arab driver in F1 will be massive boost and I am working day and night [for young drivers]. A test driver role will be good as a first step just to pass the message and have credibility to bring more attention and put the F1 project and the motorsport project on the right track for once. But Abu Dhabi TV covers F1 in 21 countries…”

It’s certainly a problem if a major TV broadcaster has to cut back on coverage and it isn’t limited to the Middle East. As has been well documented, the BBC coverage has been outstanding but costly. Hence only half of the races are shown live. Italy will be adopting the UK model next season, while coverage in the Netherlands is also set to go behind a pay wall.

So having good TV coverage isn’t the only reason for why the sport hasn’t cracked America and you could write a book detailing the list of reasons why, but it is an important aspect that Formula One needs to get right. Only time will tell whether F1’s latest venture in the USA will be a successful and long-lasting one, but all the word is that this time, getting it right is crucial. The TV coverage can go a long way to ensuring that it is.

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