Formula 1’s viewing figures in the UK bucked the worldwide trend in 2020 and increased in volume, with Sky Sports benefiting the most, analysis conducted by Motorsport Broadcasting shows.
Viewing figures quoted below are sourced from consolidated data released by BARB. The audience figures are for those viewers who watched coverage via the TV set, either live or up to seven days after broadcast.
Although this excludes viewers who opted to watch via PC/laptop, tablet, or their smartphone, it does allow for the most accurate historical comparisons.
Comparing 2020’s audience figures with that of previous years may seem unfair given that the 2020 season took place primarily in Europe, whereas the 2019 season featured events across the globe.
However, previous analysis published by this site last October shows that the early morning flyaway races and primetime American-based races off-set each other, meaning that the 2020 data is comparable to previous years.
Sky Sports F1 reaches more viewers as figures rise…
2020 saw Sky stay on the air longer than ever before as events unfolded around them.
Their race day coverage from Bahrain lasted almost as long in length as their cricket broadcasts, after Romain Grosjean’s horrific accident stretched their offering out.
The pay-TV broadcaster stayed on air for six and a half hours, from 12:30 all the way to 19:00, including Ted Kravitz’s post-race Notebook. Six and a half hours on race day is easily a record for any UK broadcaster covering F1.
Sky’s coverage of the Bahrain week (from November 23rd to 29th) reached 3.37 million viewers on Sky Sports F1, the channel’s highest reach in eight years.
The last time the F1 channel reached such highs was in July 2012, when Sky’s free coverage of the German Grand Prix on the F1 channel reached 3.52 million viewers.
Pierre Gasly’s shock victory at Monza also reached over 3 million viewers on Sky F1, becoming the first race week to do so on the F1 channel since the 2014 Brazilian Grand Prix.
Of course, Sky have simulcast many races since then on Sky Sports Main Event, depleting the F1 channel’s overall reach, and therefore painting a fuzzy picture across years.
Nevertheless, it shows overall that Sky’s audiences have risen compared to previous years. Races in previous years have aired exclusively on Sky Sports F1 (without simulcasts), but failed to reach over 3 million viewers.
Across the whole of 2020, Sky’s F1 channel reached an average of 1.25 million viewers each week, an increase of 2.6% on the 2019 figure of 1.21 million, despite there being four fewer races.
Accounting for race weeks only, the channel reached 2.72 million viewers, a much bigger increase of 19.8% on last year’s figure of 2.27 million.
…as over one million viewers on average watch each race on Sky…
Consistency was the name of the game for Sky, as audience figures fluctuated less than usual throughout the year, helped by the championship remaining in Europe.
Note that there are some missing data points to the below figures. At most, this means that the figures below are likely 10,000 to 20,000 lower than reality, however this is not enough to make a material difference to the overall picture.
COVID did impact Sky’s race day structure in 2020. Sky scrapped plans for a marathon 130-minute build-up, the broadcaster opting to stick with their tried and tested 100-minute build-up.
On average, an audience of at least 1.22 million viewers watched each of the 17 races on Sky (excluding wrap around content), a jump of 19.1% on the 2019 average of 1.02 million viewers, and avoiding a slump in their second year of exclusivity.
For the first time since F1 moved to Sky, every race averaged over 1 million viewers on their television platforms.
Their highlight was the title deciding Turkish Grand Prix which averaged 1.44 million viewers across Sky Sports F1 and Sky Sports Main Event (the simulcast part of the reason the race does not feature amongst Sky F1’s highest reaches for 2020). Turkey was Sky’s highest race average since the 2018 Mexican Grand Prix.
Bahrain ties with Turkey at the top, and draws ahead when taking the race and post-race segments as a weighted average.
For Bahrain, there was no post-race segment officially recorded, but the race segment averaged 1.21 million viewers across a 4-hour duration, higher than any of the other combined race and post-race weighted averages.
The demand for content from fans during the fast and furious F1 calendar filtered through to their wrap around broadcasts.
Sky’s F1 pre-race segment averaged 347,000 viewers across 2020, an increase of around 39.7% year-on-year, this despite the loss of Martin Brundle’s grid walk owing to the pandemic.
…whilst Channel 4’s average also increases…
Channel 4’s audience increased, but not to the same level as their pay-TV partners.
The broadcaster aired a longer highlights edit in 2020 compared with 2019, with around 60 minutes of each race airing on the channel.
Their race day offering averaged 1.72 million viewers, representing a 4% rise year-on-year on the 2019 figure of around 1.65 million viewers. The exact 2019 figure is unknown, as both Mexico and Brazil failed to make Channel 4’s top 15.
The free-to-air broadcaster’s average increases to 1.77 million viewers when accounting for their live coverage of the British Grand Prix.
Like with Sky, Channel 4’s highlight was Turkey, which averaged 2.06 million viewers on its return to the F1 calendar as Lewis Hamilton sealed his 7th Drivers’ Championship.
Whilst above 2 million, Channel 4’s highlights high is below their 2019 highlight, when 2.10 million viewers watched a dramatic German Grand Prix.
Unlike Sky, which held up remarkably well after Hamilton sealed the crown, Channel 4’s highlights audience fell sharply, dropping to two season lows following Turkey. Sakhir averaged 1.22 million viewers (albeit in a later time slot), whilst Abu Dhabi brought in 1.38 million viewers one week later.
This is not surprising though: the free-to-air highlights audience has always fluctuated more depending on ongoing events, and two ‘dead rubber’ F1 races are not a draw to the free-to-air audience.
…resulting in a 10% increase year-on-year
An average of 2.98 million viewers watched Formula 1 across Channel 4 and Sky in 2020, the audience split 60:40 in Channel 4’s favour.
The average covers Channel 4’s highlights programming, plus live coverage of the race segment itself on Sky Sports (excluding the bulk of pre- and post-race content).
F1 themselves report a 10% increase year-on-year for the UK market, in-line with Motorsport Broadcasting’s analysis.
Worldwide, F1’s audience dropped 4.5% on average compared with 2019, so for the UK to buck the trend is impressive.
China and Russia saw bigger percentage growths at 43% and 71% respectively, whilst Max Verstappen’s continued impact in F1 helped audience figures in the Netherlands rise by 28%.
On one hand, it would be easy to argue that the UK rise was due to lockdown. But, if that was really the case, why did other countries audience figures not increase by a similar number?
Lockdown did help, but for the UK audience, there clearly was an added excitement of always having ‘something new’ around the corner, whether it was Mugello, Portimao, Imola, Turkey or the short Bahrain circuit, even if this is not necessarily reflected in other markets. The winner may have stayed largely the same, but the journey to the destination was not.
F1 tried to revert to their pre-COVID calendar for 2021, but events around them mean that this is unlikely to be possible. Arguably, it is disappointing that they tried to do exactly that, instead of formulating a new calendar for a new era.
Should F1 have used COVID as an opportunity to ‘reset’ their entire calendar structure or, is getting back to normal (even if it is, for F1, the same structure as before) of greater importance?
Should F1 start their season in Australia, only to then head back out east later in the year, or should races in a similar time zone be ‘clustered’ together to form one regional group, an idea that was mooted many years ago?
F1’s 2020 audience figures – for the UK at least – suggest that fans liked the consistent start times, with viewing figures remaining stable throughout as a result.
Neither Sky or Channel 4 responded to a request for comment at time of writing.