When the Miami Grand Prix gets underway this weekend, the inaugural Formula One race in the city heralded by many as “Formula One’s Super Bowl” not only signifies the international motorsport organization’s growth and acceptance in the United States, it also represents the start of what’s to come.
“The growth in the U.S. is very important,” says Formula One CEO Stefano Domenicali. “It’s significant for the whole F1 world for many, many reasons.”
The highly coveted U.S. market has been sought after and battled for by domestic and international industry giants and up-and-comers. While Formula One understands it won’t be able to compete against legacy sports and entertainment titans like the NFL and NBA, it does, however, understand there is a golden opportunity at hand.
“There’s a different level of maturity of our product that changes from country to country,” Domenicali says. “We have the privilege of explaining it and starting from zero (in the U.S.). There are a lot of dimensions we need to explore. This is on our side to make sure we keep the hammer on with content and give our fans new ways to develop a knowledge of something here that is brand new.
“The future is depending on us.”
Formula One’s rapidly expanding popularity in the U.S. is a welcomed relief for the world’s most popular motor racing series after failed attempts to break into the market in the 1980s with races in Phoenix, Indianapolis and Las Vegas that were met with an underwhelming and lackluster response from an American audience that favored NASCAR and its domestic open-wheel IndyCar Series.
There was even a point when F1 contemplated staying in the United States, but everything changed in 2017 when Liberty Media completed the acquisition of the Formula One Group from private equity firm CVC Capital Partners for $8 billion.
The American-based media company, which also has stakes in SiriusXM and MLB’s Atlanta Braves, helped F1 land a three-year U.S. media rights deal with ESPN in 2019, reportedly for $5 million per year. To celebrate and complement Formula One’s new home in the U.S., Formula 1: Drive to Survive debuted on Netflix that March. The docuseries pulls back the curtain on F1, giving casual and diehard fans an intimate look at the top-20 drivers in the world as they compete on and off the track for supremacy.
Seasons 5 and 6 of the show were confirmed by F1 on May 6.
“I’m not going to deny that Netflix was very important in this market for the growth and awareness,” Domenicali says.
The content cure-all boosted Formula One’s popularity, especially in the United States at a time when fans were starving for sports and content at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. The 2021 U.S. Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, attracted a record 400,000 fans last October, up from the approximately 224,000 who visited over the three-day event in 2015. ESPN viewership has been steadily increasing as well with an average of 1.44 million viewers for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in March, marking the network’s largest F1 audience since 1995.
And there’s no signs of slowing down with Miami set to look like a mini-Monaco from May 6-8.
There have been a reported 250,000 ticket requests for this weekend’s Miami Grand Prix at Hard Rock Stadium, which boasts a capacity of 80,000. As of last week, SeatGeek reported an average ticket price of $2,414 for the race, while tickets have reached as high as $33,704 on the resale platform.
Prices for tables, experiences, concerts, hotels, all-inclusive packages and more are even more expensive as the three-day event is expected to attract celebrities and athletes including David Beckham, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, Serena and Venus Williams, Michael Jordan and Renee Zellweger.
Next year’s inaugural race in Las Vegas, which was announced in late March, is already drawing a lot of interest and attention according to Domenicali despite no concrete date set for the Saturday evening race in November.
“Vegas, Miami and Austin represent the three key pillars of our growth in the U.S.,” he says.
Could Formula One evolve its three-headed monster in the future by adding a fourth American race?
“Never say never in life,” Domenicali says. “I would say from zero to three is already a big step, so that’s not bad.”
Unsurprisingly, other sports leagues and organizations have taken note of F1’s formula for success and are hoping a Drive to Survive-type series will help propel their sports to similar heights.
Box to Box Films, the production company behind the hit docuseries, is currently working on similar series with the PGA Tour and professional tennis.
“It’s great we are trendsetters and others are trying to match the success of Drive to Survive,” says Domenicali, who was appointed CEO in January 2021. “We need to share the beauty of being one of the most popular sports entertainment platforms in the world, but we also need to be humble. We need to look around how to improve the way we present the sport. We need to be unique, but also look at others who are doing incredible things we need to understand.
“There’s no problem copying some others who have been successful as others are doing with us. It’s just a matter of being humble and making sure the attention is always on the customer.”
Paying attention to that customer, especially the coveted Generation Z, has been a focal point for Formula One. The organization has prioritized content and connection, partly in thanks to the Netflix series, in order to engage with a broader audience, regardless of a race being in Singapore, Monaco or Miami.
Followers across Formula One social media platforms were up 40% to 49.1 million and video views were up 50% to 7 billion in 2021, according to F1.
“The availability of our content has to meet the needs of the customer,” Domenicali says. “The new generation wants to be connected to what they love at the time they want. We need to understand that. The traditional way of promoting sports is no longer valid, or it’s more valid in certain places and less valid in certain areas of the world. That’s something we need to bring home to make sure we’re attractive, otherwise you lose opportunity and we cannot allow that to happen.”
Not only does social content play a major role in that, but so do media rights.
Thanks to its rapid ascension in popularity as well as skyrocketing costs in the live sports rights gold rush, Formula One is poised to cash in on its next U.S. media rights deal.
According to reports, F1 is seeking upwards of $75 million per year from a broadcast partner in the hopes of landing a rights deal similar to that of international soccer. For comparison, ESPN is paying Spain’s LaLiga approximately $175 million annually and Germany’s Bundesliga $40 million per year for broadcast rights in the United States.
New players including Amazon and Apple have also entered the U.S. media rights race, securing deals with properties including the NFL, MLB and One Championship, while Netflix is remaining on the sideline for now.
“ESPN has done an incredible job for the development of our sport and we need to thank them for what they’re doing,” Domenicali says. “The commitment, energy and content they’ve provided is really great and we’re very, very happy. We’re in the process of understanding how the market can evolve on that. The beauty of the growth that we’re living in is that there are a lot of other stakeholders who would be interested to discuss that, therefore it’s something that’s on the table.
“So far, we have no update, but it’s true that new players are understanding that Formula One could be a very, very attractive platform which they can develop their business.”
Domenicali says he hopes to announce Formula One’s home in the U.S. for 2023 and beyond this summer.
Regardless of where Formula One ends up, the biggest priority is making sure its prized possessions are still easily accessible and available to its U.S. fans because without fans, Domenicali says, the point is moot.
“We believe we can have an incredible and bright future in the U.S.,” he says, “so we need to make the best decision in terms of Formula One in the U.S.”