The COVID-19 pandemic threw Formula E off-piste, and arguably hurt the championship more than its competitors.
After a period of strong growth until season 5, the arrival of the pandemic in March 2020 forced series organisers to throw together a series of double headers to finish season 6, with 6 races across 9 days in Berlin.
But now, with COVID-19 hopefully in the rear-view mirror, Formula E is hoping to become a tier 1 sport, a message reemphasised on a near monthly basis from those hoping to drive the championship forward.
In a wide-ranging interview, Formula E’s chief media officer Aarti Dabas sat down with Motorsport Broadcasting to discuss:
- The Jakarta success story
- The COVID-19 ‘reset’ for the series
- The double header debate
- The UK picture
- The future broadcasting landscape
The Jakarta success story
Formula E has visited 9 venues so far during the 2021-22 season, most of which were fan attended prior to the pandemic.
The exception, Formula E’s debut in Indonesia, as the championship headed to Jakarta in June for its inaugural E-Prix in the Indonesian capital. Nothing out of the ordinary, except the reaction to the electric series’ arrival caught those on the ground by surprise.
For Dabas, the story begins months before the event, thanks to her relatives in Indonesia. Already, Formula E was prominent across their Facebook feeds months before the championship had even arrived, only increasing from that point onwards.
“I’m thinking, ‘okay, that’s a game changer,’ for this to happen,” Dabas says. “And she [Dabas’ relative] is from a remote part in Indonesia, it’s not like she’s from Jakarta.”
“I’m already at this point thinking that the awareness in the market is huge. And then when I got there with a week to go, I got an audience with the governor of Jakarta, and I’m thinking ‘okay, there’s something happening here’, which has not happened earlier.”
Dabas compares the situation to her previous work in cricket. “Look, I’ve worked on the cricket in India and different parts of the world, and you still don’t get an audience with the political figurehead. And Indonesia is a huge country, population wise.”
“We realised that with the government backing, everybody in the streets, it felt like a massive sport had arrived. There were team buses going past and people were waving on the streets, it was completely different, it felt like a football World Cup.”
The E-Prix itself aired on RCTI, Indonesia’s largest free-to-air network, as well as Metro TV at the suggestion of Jakarta’s governor “because he knows the market well,” with 13.4 million viewers watching on TV and 60,000 fans in attendance.
“We’ve not had that from a single market and when you start getting those numbers you know, as a sport, you’ve arrived in that territory, and people are still talking about it now,” Dabas continues.
“They’re talking about the race coming next year and, they want a double header, there’s discussions on social media channels. Everybody really bought into the sport, the government, the people, and the channel we put it on also helped.”
The “hunger to have a big sports event or a concert” after the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the Formula E “electrification story” helped the series generate attention in Indonesia, according to Dabas.
Can Formula E replicate their success in Jakarta elsewhere, and if so, how? The answer is not straightforward, given that the situation in each market is radically different.
“What we had in Jakarta was what I call, in strategic terms, a white space, motor sport wasn’t that huge. I know that MotoGP was there before us, and we were lucky they were before us, we learned a lot of things from there.”
“But I think the point is that in our key markets, UK, for example, we can’t replicate that [the Jakarta model] because we’re not the only sport, look at the clutter of sports this weekend for example [during the London E-Prix weekend].”
“We can’t replicate what happened in Indonesia, but I think I’m quite enthused by what we’re doing in each territory.”
Qualifying format helps drive engagement following COVID-19 reset
The pandemic forced Formula E into a reset, which the championship is now recovering from. On the horizon is Gen3, which makes its debut at the start of 2023.
Motorsport Broadcasting understands that Formula E will have a ‘different look and feel,’ with an overhaul of the championship’s branding on and off-air expected before season 8 and Gen3 arrive in January.
The new generation of electric machinery gives series organisers another opportunity to promote the championship’s green values, and attempt to attract more younger fans in the process, which remains the aim for Dabas.
Dabas says that engagement levels for the series have increased by 30% season-on-season at the half way stage, highlighting the new ‘Duel’ qualifying format as one of the drivers behind this.
“And when I say engagement levels, people are watching for longer and there are two reasons people watch for longer,” Dabas reiterates.
“One, which is critical is the sport must be good. You can’t put on a rubbish sport and great coverage and hope that people will watch.”
“Our qualification format has been fantastic this season. So that means that there is competition for top spots, and you can now identify who the top drivers in the championship are, and that’s important.”
“For any sport, and even with cricket we used to say, if the pitches are terrible, you will not get a good match. So, you need to have the sporting conditions right to create a good narrative.”
“Once that is right, your coverage must engage fans. This season, we’ve got a good sports format. The drivers are more recognisable because, we know who the top five or six drivers are, and then the coverage around the world which has meant that people are more engaged.”
“What I’m trying to say is we need to increase the number of people aware of Formula E, bring them into it, but then once they watch it, they need to be hooked onto the product for longer, and we are seeing that’s happening.”
Watching from one of the vantage points in London, it was clear that the television graphics for the Duel format not only worked for those watching as home, but the format also worked for those in attendance.
Every time a gap between two drivers tightened, the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ echoed around the ExCeL, fans rooting behind their favourite drivers, including ex-F1 driver Antonio Giovinazzi, and home hero Jake Dennis.
Not all the metrics are rosy for Formula E: their total audience declined in season 7, although Dabas highlights the increase in live audiences for the championship.
“Season 7 was the foundational season for setting it right, as the distribution deals had all expired. When I came in, we did 40 deals with different broadcasters. Season 8 has been a growth season, 100%,” Dabas believes.
“I know season 5 people say was the biggest season for Formula E but in all honesty when I look at the numbers, we had 97 million live audience then and in season 7 we had 197 million.”
“If you look at the overall numbers people watching the live sport has gone up and that’s what the big sports will talk about. Yes, there was more consumption of highlights and different things, but the live numbers increased.”
“I think this will probably be our biggest season ever in terms of audiences in our history, and we can only grow from here, no doubt.”
Dabas cites a recent example from the New York weekend, where Dabas met informally with multiple US broadcasters to discuss Formula E’s roadmap moving forward.
“They asked us for meetings because they wanted to know more,” Dabas says. “And that’s a sign for me, having been in this business for 22 years, that there’s market competition, which means that people watch your product.”
“And if people pay decent money for your product, then they invest in marketing it as well.”
“The more you invest, the more you spend on marketing, advertising, creating an awareness and, as we have seen in this country with what Sky Sports has done with Formula 1, if you have an invested broadcaster, that can be a game changer for you.”
Debating the ‘merits and demerits’ of double headers
London was another of Formula E’s double header weekends, an increasingly common feature of the calendar. But while Dabas sees the value in them from a broadcasting perspective, it is not something she believes will be a feature throughout the whole season.
“If you ask within Formula E, we can sit in a pub and talk for hours discussing the merits and demerits,” she says. “I think double headers has its place, but it can be an overkill sometimes.”
“But what double headers does is bring people into the ecosystem on Saturday and then you can give them something more [on Sunday].”
“If you talk to certain broadcasters, some of them have told us this is why they like double headers. You can do a tune in for the next race and there is something more coming up in the inventory.”
“On the flip side, who do you say was the winner of New York? There were two winners! I don’t think it’s going to be a success everywhere, and that’s why we pick and choose, and Jakarta is a good case [where it may work].”
“We had 60,000 fans watch and honestly, you could have filled the stands again the next day, there were queues. Where there’s a demand and the narrative works from a sporting perspective, I think we can do double headers but it’s not every location in every city.”
“It’s important that we don’t end up doing 10 races in five locations or 20 races, 10 locations. We must go around the world, we are an FIA World Championship, it’s a mandate that we should be in different continents around the world.”
Provisionally, Formula E’s 2022-23 calendar features 5 double header weekends, with 18 races currently scheduled in 13 locations across 7 months.
London shines despite F1 clash
Both races over the London weekend inexplicably clashed with F1’s Hungarian Grand Prix, which The Race understands was ‘directly specified by Formula E’s TV international broadcast management.’ Sources close to the data suggest that Channel 4’s Formula E audience took a significant hit due to the clash.
Despite the congested sporting schedule which Dabas highlighted, attendance was good, with a near capacity crowd on both days at the ExCeL in London, and room for further growth in terms of activities inside the arena.
The Allianz E-Village was decent for its first year with paying fans at the ExCeL, but there was still a significant amount of unused real estate, which Formula E should look to address in future years.
On the television side, the race weekend aired live on Channel 4, with the Seoul E-Prix set to follow suit. It means that 10 of the 16 races in season 7 have broadcast live on the free-to-air channel, a higher proportion than what the BBC offered during its coverage of the series.
Formula E want ‘channel consistency’ from their broadcast deals, and Channel 4’s offering this season has helped move the series in that direction from a UK point of view. Although the BBC offers a wider reach than Channel 4, Dabas argues that the latter is a better fit for Formula E.
“Everyone when I joined said that the BBC is the best platform to be on [for Formula E]. But the reality is the best platform for us is where we have audiences that match our sport.”
“And if you look at all the free-to-air broadcasters, Channel 4 is probably the one that has that match. The shows they have are quirky, its progressive.”
“I speak to the Head of Programming [at Channel 4] and they love us, they’re like, you’re in and performing and you’re doing a great job. And that, for me is like an indication that we’re doing okay. We are happy with them; the partnership is solid.”
“We started last year and the product is getting better, we’re getting more races on Channel 4 than we had on BBC. And for us that visibility in our core market is important.”
Dabas also points out that Channel 4’s Formula E coverage skews younger than their F1 offering. Figures for the British Grand Prix showed that around 12% of Channel 4’s F1 race day audience were aged between 16 and 34.
“Channel 4 tells us that the audience we get for Formula E is much younger than Formula 1, and that’s an important data point for us because they carry both.”
“How do we then reach that audience is important. In Indonesia it may have been RCTI, here it’s Channel 4 and maybe in one years’ time it may be a streaming platform, I’m just saying that we have to go where the audience is and that’s really important.”
Sport ‘no longer only free-to-air reliant’
What the future looks like from a distribution perspective in the medium-term is unclear, with the streaming picture ever evolving.
And, according to Dabas, free-to-air is no longer as important as it once was, although it still plays a crucial part within the overall picture.
“I think it’s hard to ignore the streaming platforms,” Dabas believes, “and, it’s not just Amazon and Netflix. Look at what is happening with Warner Bros. Discovery with the merger. In India, for the first time for IPL, the digital rights are more expensive than broadcast rights.”
“And ultimately, I look at my daughter, she doesn’t watch TV. If we say we’re a sport for the future, we must see what the right balance is. Free-to-air is still in the picture. But I think we’ve moved on from a sport which is only free-to-air reliant, to a sport where maybe our primary carriers could become streamers in the future.”
“I think we still need the free-to-air to get the audience in, but with a deepened engagement and the products we can offer, and the coverage, maybe the streamers can help us over there, so it’s really important for us.”
“And when I say streamers, it’s not about getting someone to pay $2 for it. I don’t want to put Formula E behind a subscription pay wall. I think many sports have learned that there’s very few fans who sign up particularly for just one sport, it’s better to be in a consolidated platform, which exists with Paramount+, there’s Peacock in the US, there’s Apple.”
“Apple’s done a great deal with MLS, so we just need to look at where the market is heading. But more importantly, where are our fans consuming this sport.”
The season 7 season finale airs this weekend, live on Channel 4 on Saturday 13th August and Sunday 14th August from 07:30.
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