If one suggests that the fans of a sport are getting old and the format needs to change it is inevitable that one will get two kinds of reaction: one will be from the old fans who think everything is peachy, and do not want to see any changes; the other will be from youngsters who ARE interested and think, therefore, that their whole generation is. There are always going to be exceptions to every rule, but everything that I see and know from first hand experience is that there clearly is a problem, as Luca di Montezemolo (and many others) have noted.
The question is not so much whether the problem exists because of the sport, or because of the changes that have happened in society since the beginning of the Digital Revolution. This continues to reshape our lives and is an upheaval on the scale of the Industrial Revolution, which began in 1750 and not only transformed the way in which people lived, but also affected almost every aspect of daily life, as industrial machinery replaced more traditional techniques. The digital revolution means that individuals now have instant access to information, which has fundamentally changed the way people live, learn and do business. The resulting society is still being formed, but what is clear is that in the post-digital revolution era, the structures of many industries will be changed. Our lives will be very different. We are seeing ever-increasing urban living and a decline in interest in the car in general. Once the automobile brought freedom, today it is often seen as creating hassles. The younger generations are happier to use alternative transportation, while some don’t feel the need to travel because the Internet will take them places – virtually. Participation in sports and other activities is going down as the Internet takes up more time. You can do so much more these days, without ever leaving home.
What is clear about the Internet is that when kids are growing up, they can do things that their parents and grandparents could never do. They can fight wars in space, command armies, drive racing cars, fly jet planes and build cities. None of it is real, but that is not the point. They get a kick out of doing it. Their heroes are people like Ken Block, who do wacky things with cars and then sell shoes to the kids. It seems that Formula 1 is simply too formulaic and not spectacular enough.
I don’t know what the right answer is, in terms of changing the sport to attract youngsters, but I do know that it is necessary to do something because despite what some people say the sport IS broken and does need fixing, even if it may not appear to be the case. The length of the races is always going to be a problem for the diehards because “it has always been like that”. Just like cricket was always five-day matches and white flannels until Kerry Packer came along and shook the tree a little.
Any sport needs to be open to new ideas, particularly one that sells itself on the idea of being fast-moving, cutting edge and innovative. One area where there is clearly a need for change is the sport’s involvement with the Internet. There are lots of websites and blogs churning out news, but the restrictions placed on the use of images means that webcasting is still in Year Zero. Podcasting does a little better. The problem is access to the right people. This cannot be done in the paddocks of the world because these exist only for those who pay the Formula One group massive amounts of money. It is good that they can do that, but the people making the programmes are not necessarily racing fans. They are just TV people putting stuff between the advertising. And, in any case, when it is all hidden behind pay-walls it is not accessible to youngsters.
This is a problem, but a far bigger problem I believe is that the characters in the sport are now so programmed by PR people that they rarely say anything interesting or intelligent. It is all very dull and the characters of the sport do not come through. This really needs to change. Racing drivers need to become heroes again, rather than corporate front men. In order for that to happen they need to feel that are free to say what they like. All too often the anal-retentive teams worry about what their sponsors might think and forget that what the sponsors actually want is to engage with the fans. OK, if you are a Santander driver and you say that it is a lousy bank, it is not very smart, but there is no problem in my mind about having an opinion and voicing it, and thus showing one’s character, rather than constantly hiding. The reality is that the easiest option for drivers is to be dull. If they do that, in the end people don’t want to talk to them because they know it is waste of time. The embodiment of this concept is Kimi Raikkonen, who is anything but dull when there are no media about, but is a shockingly poor interview. In this respect I think Red Bull has the right idea. They don’t seem to care much what the drivers say and so we can see that Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel are real people. The problem runs deep because young drivers are trained early on to say nothing controversial. This is dressed up as “being professional” but there is nothing more boring than professional answers, or no answers at all. As a pressman I feel like I am an artist with a canvas and a brush, but no paint. It is enough to make you slash your wrists!
I know that F1 people hate to be told how to do things, but NASCAR does it much better. They have the hotheads like Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart who lose it and have punch-ups, they throw things at each other and make rude signs. Great! That is what real people do and while there will always be some matrons and vicars who will tut-tut, the rest of the world will love it. The key word here is “engagement”. F1 needs to get closer to its fans. It can be done within reason, but F1 is so focussed on squeezing the last penny out of every passer-by that it driving them away. NASCAR still squeezes the fans, but they part with the money because they think they are getting value, rather than being ripped off. F1 merchandising is a completely wasted concept. The teams all have highfalutin ideas about their brand values (blah-blah-blah) and forget that people just want to buy shirts and jackets that do not require a new mortgage. High-end product is all very well for those who can afford it, but a bit of mass market savvy would be a great idea as well.
The idea of changing start times is fraught with problems. At the moment viewers around the world know when a race will start and so can plan around that. Changing these times might reduce the number of viewers. Having said that, having the European races later in the day would push the TV coverage into prime time, while also creating bigger audiences in the United States, where the current scheduling means that the Grands Prix start at anti-social hours. The downside of later start times in Europe is that this would push the TV coverage into the late evening and night time in Asia, which would therefore impact on live TV viewer numbers.
Ultimately, Formula 1 needs to compromise. It needs to create solid packages of races in each time zone, in order to make the sport viable for TV companies, and that means a shift westward with more races in the Americas. In each time zone it is logical for the races to be run at sensible and regular times. That may mean that European audiences will have to stay up late to watch races in the Americas, but it is the best hope there is for creating the biggest possible global TV audiences.