Good news from the US

ESPN, which broadcasts Formula 1 races in the United States, has reported an average viewership for the Bahrain Grand Prix of 1.353 million, with a peak audience of 1.54 million. Given that around 122 million homes have TVs in the US there is obviously room for growth in the future.

Formula 1 coverage in the United States was patchy for a long time, with the ABC network having a deal to cover the Monaco Grand Prix, but little else beyond that. It was the ABC Monaco deal the gave F1 its biggest US audience back in 2002 when 2.78 million people tuned in to see David Coulthard win the Monaco GP.

The cable channel ESPN had begun covering races in 1984 with a 10-race deal, which expanded in the years that followed to all the races except Monaco. There was a regular ESPN crew at events but the highest audience achieved in that era was 1.74 million for the Brazilian Grand Prix on 1995, the opening round of that’s year championship. ESPN lost the deal in 1997 when the rights were acquired by the then new Speedvision, which had big ambitions but struggled financially and was bought by Fox in 2001 and transformed into Speed Channel. There was a side deal in 2005 with the CBS network agreeing to broadcast four races, with Speed Channel doing the rest.

The Speed Channel deal continued until 2013 when NBC acquired the rights, building up the viewing numbers to an average of 538,000 in 2017. ESPN then outbid NBC and a new era began, although there was no direct involvement as the deal was for ESPN to take the feed produced by Sky Sports, using the British commentary team. The average viewership went from 554,000 in 2018 to 672,000 in 2019 and by last year had hit 927,000. The growth was largely due to the Netflix F1: Drive to Survive series, which kicked off in 2018. The most-watched race last year was the US Grand Prix with an audience of 1.2 million.

37 thoughts on “Good news from the US

  1. Time zone difference was a nightmare.
    Late night races in middle east as 1-2 opening sprint was a very wise decision to hook up new US viewers. Old-style openers like Australia-China with 2 weeks long break between races could balance out momentum build by netflix.
    So will all new season openers will be night races held in middle east locations to suite North American and European markets, or best season opener location will be decided later, once Chinese TV numbers for Australian come up to show how important Guanyu Zhou presence is for Chinese viewership numbers?

  2. You may be aware that the original ESPN deal was made by Roger Werner, a former CEO and, indeed the one who did most of the legwork to create the Network while employed as a McKinsey consultant working for Getty Oil, the founding $$ behind it. He then left ESPN to found Speedvision (and other niche cable channels). NBC was able to acquire F1 rights when Fox shuttered the Speed Channel in favor of their multi sport offering FS1. That original NBC deal almost never happened, but that’s a story for another time.

    Of course, ESPN and ABC are now units of the Disney Company, so Practice, Qualifying and the Race can and are dropped in on one of several ESPN channels (ESPN1, ESPN1, ESPN3, ESPNU, ESPNews) or on ABC itself if the event falls in a favorable time slot. NBC employed a similar strategy. It can be hard to find each event on the schedule as a result, though DVR algorithms have improved and helped.

    DTS has certainly lit a fire here in the US, but I believe ESPN’s coverage employing competitor Sky’s package (a Comcast unit and NBC sister company now) has also helped the US fan base grow because, unlike NBC and Speed before them, it’s broadcast without ad breaks. As you are well aware ill-placed and poorly timed ad breaks (even as PIP) will turn off many a newbie fan trying to grasp a new sport vying for their time and eyeballs.

    1. “That original NBC deal almost never happened, but that’s a story for another time.”

      I read that the head of NBC Sports during the London Olympics took a side trip to Bernie’s flat to iron out the final details and seal the deal.

  3. ESPN did not outbid NBC. NBC had invested quite a bit of money into F1 and had a dedicated broadcast crew in Stamford Ct, which occasionally traveled (Austin, Monte Carlo). NBC was planning to invest more in F1 but wanted a no compete clause, they didn’t want F1TV Pro to be available in the states. ESPN pays nothing and invests nothing. They just take the SKY feed lock, stock and barrel.

    1. Correct. Sean Bratches, who left ESPN as a vice president before going to F1, gave them the contract for nothing when NBC balked because of the no-compete issue. It will be very interesting to see what happens when that contract runs out at the end of this year, now that F1 is much more popular in the U.S.

  4. When I was in America I thought that Will Buxton did a fantastic job with MSNBC. Sky really should find a bigger role for Will. Now, if you could sort that out Joe …

      1. “Above my pay grade” 🤣🤣🤣
        That’s what I answered when someone asked me if the sidepod”gutters” on the F1-75 were an advantage on the Ferrari.

  5. the quality of the commentary improved significantly when coverage switched to ESPN also. I know it’s just Sky sports commentary from the UK, but it’s really good. Especially when they guests on like Nico Rosberg who really knows what goes on at that very top level.

    1. I was amazed at how “dumbed down” the NBC coverage was compared to Sky’s coverage. The Sky team is so much more informative and interesting. I felt that the NBC team were trying way too hard to try and interest occasional viewers. Then there were the ad breaks, fundamentally stupid for a sporting event where anything can happen at any time.

  6. I became a re-engaged F1 fan during the pandemic. There wasn’t much in the way of other sporting events happening in the US, and I think this also helped accelerate US audience growth.

  7. ” Good News ” Mmmmm. The more they push F1 in the US, the more US centric F1 will become. Watch out for Monza, Silverstone and Spa rotating to host a race every three years. The way Domenicali talks he just wants to increase races as if he is on a $$$$$ bonus from Liberty

  8. I watched a race in the US a few years ago on TV and a huge issue was the number of commercial breaks, it made following the race almost impossible. That cannot help attract viewers if still the case.

    F1 TV is a much better option, especially if Ben Edwards is in the talking chair for a while. Joleyn Palmer is a decent side kick too. Other than Will “every 60 seconds is a minute” Buxton the rest of the broadcast team is excellent too.

    1. The three practice sessions and qualifying do have commercial breaks, but nowhere near the frequency as before – thankfully. The race coverage does not have any breaks.

    2. I have to disagree Andrew on the broadcast team. I found them uninteresting and amateur. I hope they will improve as the season progresses, but I miss the Sky team on F1TV.

      1. You can get the sky team on F1 TV. Just switch to the international feed option on the pop out side menu. By default the main feed has switched to what used to be the pit lane channel commentary team.

    3. The viewership numbers via ESPN are useful to a degree, but only to a degree. ESPN is cable/satellite only which a large portion of US viewers is “cutting.” While I have zero data to support it, I would think that the number of US viewers on F1 TV streaming is equal to if not better than ESPN numbers.

      I joined the F1 TV crowd early as I had no other options as I refuse to pay $300 a month for satellite/cable tv for the 5 channels of programming I would actually watch. The satellite/cable conglomerates are dreadful bandits.

      As others stated already, the move to Speedvision/Outdoor Life Network/Speed Channel and then NBCSports/NBC was a large black hole for viewers. The Speedvision was not even available to 30% of the US markets in its early days. The coverage was absolutely dreadful in terms of commercial breaks. This was at its peak worse during the NBCSN/NBC days. I actually DO have the data for that. I got so angry missing out on racing with the maddening commercial breaks, that I charted the number of live laps lost during the 2014 season. It equaled to an average of 20.3% of the race was under commercial ads.

      The timing was maddening as hell. Entire safety car periods would be shown live and then as soon as green flag conditions returned we would be subjected to 4-minute long commercials. NBC completely screwed the pooch in their coverage, while showing entire halves of Premier League games uninterrupted by commercial breaks.

      The early efforts of F1 TV streaming were challenging but even at the worst, they were better than NBC at its best. I like the options we have with F1 TV too. I can watch from any driver’s cockpit, the pit lane, I can switch from the Pro commentary to Sky’s commentary. I have pre-race coverage ala Sky’s, including interviews with key personnel on the paddock. I only wish I could catch Martin Brundle’s paddock walks, as I do miss seeing them. I know they are out there to be had via illegal downloading ways but that is not my cup of tea. Overall, F1 TV is the best coverage for this humble fan.

    4. Totally agree re commercial breaks; I just couldn’t stand to watch the coverage with all the commercial interruptions. I subscribe to F1TV and am very happy with the ability to watch the race at a time of my choosing (although I do have to shut out all coverage so as not to know the result). I’m also REALLY happy not to have Crofty as the in your face shouting announcer (I used to just turn the volume to off at the start). Good on F1TV; I’ll continue to subscribe. I also subscribe to Joe’s online rag….

  9. Drive to Survive would be better without Will Buxton smirking when things go wrong and generally trying to stir the pot.

  10. F1 seem to think we all have US style enormo TVs…even last year it was difficult to read the captions on my by no means small TV…this year it’s impossible!

  11. Joe, Off topic, but I wonder what you know about how Haas was able to terminate the Uralkali contract? Did money change hands, or was some sort of “Force majeur” clause that covered war and its consequences in place? We heard of the Mazepins threatening some kind of legal action, and then no more was heard from or about them.

    Thanks, Mike

  12. That is a detailed and good review of the the history of F1 coverage in the US. I miss the old crew of Hobbs (who was really funny, just as snarky as the Brits on Sky) Matchett (very knowledgeable) and Varsha (a very nice commentary voice), but am now used to the Sky personalities. It used to be frustrating that the former US based commentary crew did not attend races. It felt like their budget was limited and with more support, more races attended, would have made them more popular. ESPN itself is not that great. Their budgets are thin through paying through the roof for the NFL and therefore do not allow for growth of F1 US based personalities. I am used to Sky, but I am not sure if their personalities are truly attractive to the average American viewer.

    1. I loved Varsha, however, found Matchett intolerable (despite his clear knowledge) and enjoyed Hobbs at first but his last two years were equally intolerable as he had clearly (sadly) slipped mentally. He continually made many mistakes per race.

    2. Amen to that! Bob Varsha was the best race announcer ever. He also helped his mates look good every week too. Nothing against Crofty, who does well, But a Varsha-Brundle-Button trio would be a dream team.

  13. I did a quick Google, and if to be believed Indycar has roughly same number of viewers, and NASCAR about double. Much lower than I expected for a country of that size.

    They remain obsessed with basketball, rounders (sorry, baseball), and NFL.

    The UK alone has higher F1 viewing figures, even mostly behind the Sky paywall.

    I’ve started to watch some Indycar, and it’s quite good, but along with most other motorsports it’s become obsessed with dammed tyre management, stretching stints out for tyres and fuel by driving slower…. I’d like the world ridded of this in top level motorsport, and leave it for endurance racing. Easy to fix, make them over fuel at the start and it’s in their benefit to burn it off asap, and give them super soft tyres and mandatory pit stop windows so that they all rush to get onto the new tyres before their competitors. All back to flat out driving please.

  14. I live in the US and have watched almost every race since the early ESPN days back in the 80’s. Although we had some good commentators over the years, the current Sky Sports crew is easily the best, and the fact that the race is shown without commercial interruptions makes this broadcast superior by far to any that we’ve had before. Thank you ESPN and Sky Sports, and thanks to Mother’s Polish for your sponsorship!

  15. Surely one US street race is, in Miami is enough?
    How about a proper road course in Frisco, New York or California?
    This could complement COTA, or replace it if needed.

  16. I think having local teams of commentators and summarises is the best.

    I remember in South Africa when Formula 1 was first live and everything on SABC had to be 50/50. We had Hendrik Verwoeed (not the insane racist father of racial separation) and Roger (state the bleeding obvious) McCleary as host and then Dave “sleeping pin for an insomniac” McGregor who was twee taalig (bilingual). It was dire, Verwoerd had the job despite the fact everything ever wrong with a car was a puncture. I remember a race where we did not get Murray and James and these three did the commentary. Nelson Piquet came into the pits with smoke billowing out the engine and of course it was a puncture. Poor Mario Andretti had his world championship taken away as McCleary would say Jody Scheckter was World Champion in 78 and 79. He also used those lines so obvious like “onto the main straight, they go down there as fast as they can” .

    The Sky team has some dead wood, but at least the experts (Brundle, Herbert, Hill, Chandok,) are knowledgeable and good entertainment. When we got a “driver expert” included it wasn’t Ian Scheckter who at least had some knowledge but Graham Duxbury. He could talk for 5 minutes and say nothing

    So while in the old days of guys like Hobbs etc it was a different sport, we all better off with the quality of the side show and the racing is good too.

    If only they could give a P45 to Lazenby and Buxton. Although he’s too good in the pitkane, I’d give either position to Lenny Kravitz’s cousin and try and get Jo as an expert summariser. A bit like the note book.

  17. The watching experience for the Saudi qualifying was less than optimal here in the US—I think this time it’s the fault of the cable provider (Spectrum). The extra-long session was cut off and not recorded in its entirety by their DVR. Not ESPN’s fault in this case because it could be streamed on their website. This has been a perennial problem, and sometimes it has been down to ESPN when they have decided that the last moments of an world-level event are less important than curling practice. If the F1 org wants to encourage fandom in the US they must do a bit of quality control, or risk alienating viewers.

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