Averaging 946,000 viewers per race, this Formula 1 season is up 41% on the last “normal” year in 2019, and a significant 56% on last season. Formula 1 has now grown beyond its core audience base and connects with the younger generation. The question is: what can tennis learn from this?
In early 2017 when Liberty Media bought F1, they embraced social media. Prior to the takeover, teams weren't allowed to share footage on social media. F1 have used social media as a tool to educate newcomers to their sport thus deepening their interest in it. Across all platforms F1 had an impressive spike of 35% in its follower growth and a 99% increase in its engagement rate. The digital philosophy of F1’s new owners has started to pay off.
Tom McCormack, an analyst from Nielson Sports, has said that “by embracing these platforms – as well as OTT services such as Netflix, with its Drive to Survive series – Formula One is now well-poised to convert newcomers to the sport to long-term fans and generate unprecedented interest levels.”
Documentary style series and social media now provide better gateways into sports than watching live broadcasts. They shine a spotlight on some of the most iconic moments and the story lines behind them. The story lines in sports are becoming increasingly important for the modern fan. Drive To Survive is regarded as one of the best series on Netflix and surprised everyone with the impact that it's had. Chess saw a similar rise in popularity when 'The Queens Gambit' became an instant hit on, you guessed it, Netflix.
Unfortunately, tennis is a long way behind this; archaic rights-holder agreements mean many classic matches, highlight compilations and interviews are immediately removed from all social media due to copyright strikes. This is despite other sports associations choosing to leave the videos up but claiming monetisation, something that has been possible for years. Whilst other sports are working hard to cast their nets wider in the search for new fans, we are cutting holes in ours.
Formula 1 also made tweaks to their broadcasting. Managing Director, Sean Bratches, called for a total revitalization of the production - "We are trying to make it simpler to help convey what is happening." F1 has seen the value in educating people as to what is really going on to deepen their appreciation for the sport.
Other changes to the broadcasts included lowering the cameras to play up the speed of the cars. In tennis the camera angle is often too high up to really exhibit the speed and power of the modern game. This camera angle from the trial event, Ultimate Tennis Showdown (UTS), demonstrates how lowering the camera and getting closer to the action can help to show the speed of tennis in the same way.
The UTS event also trialed a different scoring system. Rule tweaks in F1 have been credited for bringing teams closer on the track making for more exciting moments. Cricket is another great example of this, with 'The Hundred' being the most recent adaptation of cricket. Statistics showed that 100 deliveries would often leave teams on a very similar score, increasing the probability of those tense moments occuring. There might be a way tennis can rework its scoring system to produce more nail biting moments or possibly to change tournament formats.
Back in 2017, Liberty Media talked of creating ‘20 Super Bowls’ – extending F1’s audience reach by promoting each race better and making every Grand Prix a huge event to be savoured, rather than two hours of action on a Sunday afternoon. Grand Prix events have developed into festivals, offering constant spectacle on and off the track. Some of the worlds most popular music artists have performed at these events, attracting interest from outside of its regular fan base. New and improved fan zones have provided a place for driver appearances and autograph sessions as well as more hands on experiences. Fans can attempt to change a wheel in three seconds like a pitstop or compete on driving simulators for prizes such as garage tours and backstage passes. The bottom line is a Grand Prix is now much more than just the race itself and this has helped to attract many new fans. Whilst I don’t think Wimbledon should aim to become the new Glastonbury, I do believe more could be done to make going to watch tennis more exciting.
Formula 1 has got it right in so many ways over the last five years and they’re reaping the benefits. They have provided a template on how to grow a sport in the modern day. It‘s not just tennis that should be taking notes, but every other sport in the world.