Austin, Texas’ state-of-the-art racetrack, Circuit of the Americas, is tailor-made to attract fans and attention as Formula One racing renews its push to popularize the sport in the lucrative American market. But while every effort is being made to raise the sport’s profile in the U.S., other factors are blocking its path, including competing motorsports, such as NASCAR, and the lack of American drivers or teams.
“Formula One is a huge sport internationally. It’s never been treated right in the U.S.,” says Jon Miller, president, programming, NBC Sports and NBCSN. “We were in the market for good upscale quality programming and this fit the bill.”
This year, F1 is up 49% across NBC compared to last year when it averaged 452,000 viewers, with the Canadian Grand Prix on June 8 the most-watched F1 race in seven years.
NBC acquired the U.S. rights for Formula One in October 2012. F1 previously had been on Fox-owned Speed for 17 years, before Fox rebranded the network into Fox Sports 1. NBC’s new contract keeps F1 on the networks of NBC, and primarily NBCSN, for four years, through the 2016-17 TV season.
The U.S. Grand Prix in Austin aired Nov. 2, competing against NASCAR’s “playoff” round AAA Texas 500 race in Ft. Worth on ESPN, and later opposite the much-hyped New England Patriots-Denver Broncos game on CBS. NASCAR earned a 2.8 household rating and nearly 4.75 million viewers. The NFL game earned CBS its third-highest ratings for a regular-season game in 16 years and an average of 26.2 million viewers. The U.S. Grand Prix delivered a 0.6 rating in households and 788,000 average viewers, down 22% from last year, when it wasn’t up against the same competition. Still, F1 clearly has work to do.
“NBC Sports prides itself on being really good storytellers,” says Miller, “and F1 offers some really good stories.”
The 2014 season has offered F1 fans plenty of drama, topped by the duel between Mercedes’ two championship hopefuls, British former titlist Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. In Austin, Hamilton won his fifth race in a row, and tenth this season, with Rosberg finishing second. Hamilton leads the standings.
Growing F1’s popularity in the U.S. is the fondest wish of many of F1’s top companies, such as carmakers Mercedes and Ferrari and tire manufacturer Pirelli. But drivers such as Hamilton are hardly household names to compete with Danica Patrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. of NASCAR.
“The U.S. Grand Prix is of major importance to F1,” said David Hobbs, F1 analyst for NBC Sports and a former F1 driver. “Many sponsors have American roots, and for the tire and car manufacturers, America is one of their business markets, if not their biggest market. All of the teams very much want to race in America and all of them would like to have a couple of events here.”
Although F1 is the world’s most-watched sport, with some 450 million viewers all over the world and cars going up to 220 mph, it is, much like soccer, not nearly as popular in the U.S. Adding another Grand Prix is one way to boost interest. Several sites are being considered, including Miami, and Las Vegas, where F1 is considering hosting a race along the iconic Strip. New York/New Jersey had been in the running, but logistical challenges seem to have put that site out of contention.
“Vegas or Miami are real possibilities,” says Miller. “I wouldn’t put anything past the city of Las Vegas and I wouldn’t be surprised if F1 could pull it off.”
The lack of American teams or drivers also tends to hurt. Gene Haas, owner of Haas Automation, is working to change that, and plans to field a U.S.-backed team in 2016. American-backed teams have failed in the past, and two teams declared bankruptcy this year.
NBC also is promoting F1’s superstars, who are huge global celebrities. But unlike with NASCAR or even the U.S.’s other top open wheel racing series Indy-Car, “these drivers are not that available to the press,” says Miller. “People here don’t know about Lewis Hamilton.”
In the week leading into Austin, Hamilton and his sleek car visited the Today show on Oct. 29, using NBC’s multiple platforms as a powerful promotional tool.
Says Miller: “We’re doing everything we can to build the sport.”