Is Formula 1 really ‘taking off’ in the US? What the data says…

It is a perennial question that comes around every so often in Formula 1 circles, both within the paddock and within the fanbase.

‘When will F1 finally break America?’ F1 has tried multiple times in the past to cut through to the wider American population, but with limited success.

Now, the question is changing. ‘Is F1 finally breaking America?’ With TV audiences on the slide, the job for F1 is increasingly difficult, but we look at how well F1 is succeeding…

A history lesson…

Over the past 30 years, multiple different venues in America have hosted F1 races, whilst many cities, such as New Jersey, have tried, and failed, to enter the arena.

After stints in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Watkins Glen, amongst others, Formula 1 returned to America in 2000 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

F1’s stint at Indy lasted eight years, the circuit playing host to the infamous race in 2005 which saw only 6 cars start, a race which arguably led to F1’s Indy spell ending.

Austin has hosted the US Grand Prix since 2012, minus 2020 due to the pandemic, and next year sees the arrival of Miami to the Grand Prix calendar.

Despite F1’s flirtation with the US, only three drivers have competed in F1 since 1990 with limited success: Michael Andretti in 1993, Scott Speed in 2006 and 2007, and Alex Rossi in 2015. And, well, the less said about the attempted US F1 team, the better…

On the broadcasting front, the championship has moved around different broadcasters in recent years, moving from Speed to NBC, and now ESPN.

Will Buxton, Leigh Diffey, Steve Matchett and David Hobbs led the broadcasting team on NBC, but the move from NBC to ESPN for 2018 saw the line-up disbanded, ESPN instead opting to simulcast Sky’s UK coverage.

Although fans reacted negatively to the removal of the NBC line-up, the move to ESPN did lead to two benefits, but not without their hurdles.

Fans in the US were able to access F1’s over-the-top service from launch whilst ESPN, from race two onwards, aired commercial free coverage of F1. The commercial free move came only after the network faced a barrage of criticism following the opening round in Australia.

Around the same period at the start of 2017, US media giant Liberty Media acquired the sport from Bernie Ecclestone and private equity fund CVC.

Under Liberty, F1 has made tremendous strides on social media to reach new audiences, including commissioning Netflix to produce a documentary series. Entitled Drive to Survive, the series has been a hit with fans.

Drive to Survive’s popularity has led to some claiming that F1 is reaching new audiences in the US. But, is this really the case, and does the publicly available data back up the claim?

…what the data shows…

Motorsport Broadcasting has analysed four years’ worth of television audience data, available publicly via Showbuzz Daily to get an idea of the year-to-year trends.

The industry website publishes audience data for key sporting events each weekend, both total people and those aged within the 18 to 49 demographic, pertinent given F1’s desire to attract younger audiences.

Total audience

In 2017, the last year of F1’s contract with NBC, four races aired on NBC’s main broadcast outlet, with the other races airing on NBC Sports Network (NBCSN) or NBC’s business news channel CNBC.

An average of 645,000 viewers watched 16 of the 20 races in 2017. The figure is slightly lower than suggested, as it excludes Australia, China, Malaysia, and Japan, which aired in the early hours for US fans.

In addition, the average drops further when removing the four races that aired on NBC. Excluding those four races drags the figure down to 483,000 viewers, giving us a better baseline to work with.

Three of the four races that aired on NBC in 2017 averaged over 1 million viewers, hence the discrepancy between the two averages. The four NBC races did little to boost F1’s regular NBCSN and CNBC programming over the course of the 2017 season.

The averages include NBC’s wrap-around content, consisting of around 30 minutes of build-up and some post-race reaction, as well as commercial breaks during the races.

Fast forward to 2020, and none of the 17 races aired on broadcast television in the US, owing to the pandemic affected schedule. Instead, every race aired live via ESPN or ESPN2.

An average of 603,000 viewers watched the 2020 action, this figure for the race segment only, from F1’s 5-minute introduction through to the initial post-race analysis.

Viewing figures for the 30-minute segment immediately before the race are unavailable, but including that segment is likely to push the average closer to 550,000 viewers, which is still an increase on the NBCSN/CNBC only figure from 2017.

F1’s growth in the States pre-dates 2017, starting as early as 2013, as reported by Motorsport Broadcasting at the time. Early data from 2021 suggests that the upward trajectory is likely to continue.

ESPN says that an average of 906,000 viewers watched the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, the 6th largest cable audience on record and the biggest F1 audience since the 2019 Canadian Grand Prix, which aired on broadcast network ABC.

18 to 49 audience

From a demographic stand-point, an average of 196,000 viewers aged between 18 and 49 watched each F1 race in 2017, but this figure drops to 142,000 viewers when removing the four races that aired on NBC.

In 2020, an average of 218,000 viewers watched the action, this metric likely dropping to around 190,000 viewers when accounting for 30-minutes of build-up to bring it equal with NBC’s 2017 offering.

Since 2017, F1 has attracted a younger audience in the US. Around 30% of F1’s audience in 2017 were within the coveted 18 to 49 demographic. The skew has since increased over time to around 36%, although analysis shows that the 2020 skew was slightly lower than 2019.

Nevertheless, 2021 has started brightly in this area: 46% of the Emilia Romagna audience were aged between 18 and 49, equating to 416,000 viewers, a massive number for the sport in the US.

From a wider motor racing perspective, NASCAR remains comfortably on top of both F1 and IndyCar, but F1 skews considerably younger than both commodities, making it a more attractive proposition to advertisers.

During the same weekend as Emilia Romagna, a NASCAR race averaged 3.31 million viewers on Fox, but only 650,000 of those were within the crucial 18 to 49 demo, a skew of just 20%.

In contrast, IndyCar brought in 6,000 more viewers than F1, but 159,000 fewer viewers in the 18 to 49 demographic.

…still small pickings in the grand scheme of things

In the wider context, an average audience of just under 1 million viewers for F1 in a country with over 320 million people feels like very slim pickings.

However, Formula 1 is fighting an uphill battle in the US from the outset, with unfriendly time slots throughout the season, especially compared to IndyCar and NASCAR.

Most races start at 06:00 PST / 09:00 ET, meaning that F1 is relying on fans either watching live during their breakfast or catch-up later to engage fully in the sport.

The alternative for F1 would be to move European races to later in the afternoon, and ensure that the likes of Australia, Japan and China start early in the morning.

Both moves would likely result in higher audiences in the Americas and Europe, but lower audiences in Asia and Oceania, making it impossible for F1 to please everyone in this scenario.

In addition, television audiences in America are rapidly declining, and F1’s increases (slim or otherwise) on the traditional platforms should be considered even better in that context.

While TV audiences initially rose as COVID hit in March 2020, figures soon went back into reverse and, as Hollywood Reporter put it, the gains “couldn’t reverse larger, systemic declines on ad-supported networks.”

For F1, and many other sports, traditional TV is only part of the picture, with fans able to easily access F1’s over-the-top platform and watch the live action, cutting the cord.

Or, alternatively, fans can watch bite sized highlights on F1’s YouTube channel, something that has only been available during the past few years.

Only F1 knows the true scale of how many fans in America are accessing this content, as F1 does not release these figures publicly.

But, given that F1 has seen slight increases via the traditional, yet declining, linear platforms, it therefore is an accurate statement to say that F1’s popularity in the US has increased, and more so with younger audiences.

With two more series of Drive to Survive on the horizon in the pipeline1, and a new race in Miami, things will only improve further for F1 stateside, as F1 begins to take off in the US.

Can F1 break through the glass ceiling and cut into the mainstream conversation in America? Only time will tell…

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1. See Episode 29 of the Australian Grand Prix podcast ‘In the Fast Lane‘, featuring Drive to Survive’s executive producer James Gay-Rees.

6 thoughts on “Is Formula 1 really ‘taking off’ in the US? What the data says…

  1. Thanks for the detailed analysis. As a U.S. viewer (West Coast), the switch to commercial free broadcasts with the Sky commentators was the most positive change for the U.S. audience.

    I don’t know if they’re available to you but another metric for the U.S. that should be considered are the F1TV Pro viewing figures, which includes live and replay options for qualifying and races. For the West Coast fans, where qualifying and races often take place at 5am or 6am, the replay options (available immediately) are a very attractive option.

  2. I personally think the Sky broadcast is a huge improvement over the previous NBCSN broadcast, for being commercial-free most obviously but also for the pure amount of resources Sky has. NBCSN was the world feed, commentary from a team thousands of miles away, and Will Buxton at the track. Sky does so much more than that.

    Also beyond the quality of the broadcast, ESPN is much more prominent than any other sports network. I’m not sure if there’s an analog in the UK, but in the US, if a sport isn’t on ESPN it sometimes feels like it doesn’t exist. (This is often mentioned by NHL fans, which left ESPN in the mid-00s but is coming back next year).
    Having F1 promoted in the bottom-line scroll during Saturday college football in the fall, golf and tennis in the summer, and all of ESPN’s other big events is a huge deal.
    Of course, Sean Bratches spent decades at ESPN before he joined F1, and he knew this.

    Also for most of the years you’re studying, most races started at 5 AM PT/8 AM ET. I honestly think F1’s US ratings are impressive given that it’s only a live broadcast a couple times a year, or for the most hard-core fans.

  3. Back in the day, there was always a reference in tennis to “Breakfast at Wimbledon”. The Premier League’s popularity grew with breakfast matches where the sports bars would start serving breakfast at 6 AM (GMT-5) to host the noon hour matches, which is 7:30 AM local time. Formula One piggybacked on the “Premier League Breakfast” shows. It was that “Breakfast with the Premier League” which gave Comcast’s Golf Channel US rights to The Open.

    “Breakfast with the Premier League” led to “Breakfast with F1” marketing. The only concern is with NBC shutting down its sports channel and CNBC going to sport on weekends, and ESPN not interested in the “Vice City” theme of Miami that is being pushed because NBC owns the trademarks in question (Miami Vice franchise belongs to Comcast’s Universal Television/Pictures), it could hurt ESPN’s long term fray in F1, especially if NBC (which technically produces F1) brings their stars to the paddock, including Dale Earnhardt Jnr, the star commentator who has penetrated sportscar coverage, Mike Bagley, Calvin Fish, Steve Letarte, and Jeff Burton. Earnhardt, Bagley, and Fish calling certain positions would send viewers in the UK probably asking what type of broadcast if they did the popular station-to-station format that NBC has done at Watkins Glen numerous times.

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