Formula 1, the European-based auto-racing league, has seen a sudden rise in its popularity among U.S. fans — and it has the most unlikeliest of teammates to thank.
Since 2019, Netflix has streamed three seasons of the Formula 1 docuseries “Drive to Survive.” Both ESPN, which airs Formula 1 races in the U.S., and the league itself are not shying away from crediting the series for the sport’s newfound fan base America.
“It’s just clearly getting in front of, shall we say, non-fans, and many of whom seem to be becoming fans, or might become fans,” Ian Holmes, Formula 1’s director of media rights and executive producer on “Drive to Survive,” told TheWrap. “The impact has been very profound. And this is almost more so as a result of non fans being exposed to the sport.”
Since ESPN acquired Formula 1 rights in 2018, the network has seen year-over-year viewership. The racing league was among the few sports during 2020 to maintain its audience — 2020 numbers were flat compared to the 2019 races that aired on cable (the shortened 2020 season had no races on ABC). Through the first 15 races of 2021, viewership is up 51% overall from 2020, and up 39% from 2019, although the audience averages a smaller 916,000 viewers this year.
Both Formula 1 and ESPN expect this weekend to be draw its biggest audience yet, with the U.S. Grand Prix on Sunday, the first Formula 1 race to be held in the U.S. since the pandemic began.
“There is not a way to quantify if the Netflix series has contributed to the audience increases, but it’s all positive,” said John Suchenski, ESPN’s director of programming & acquisitions who manages the network’s business relationship with Formula 1. “Having additional Formula 1 content out there that reaches a wide and different audience helps increase awareness and interest, and hopefully incentivizes them to tune into the races. A rising tide lifts all boats.”
The series, which is currently filming its fourth season that will premiere next year, gives fans an inside look into the various teams and racers, not an insignificant thing considering the 71-year-old racing league has largely been more closed off compared to other sports.
“They bought into the fact that they weren’t going to be able to manipulate the narrative,” Holmes said regarding the teams’ willingness to participate. “They can influence the narrative, but not manipulate. And that’s been one of the main reasons for this success. It’s pretty honest.”
Despite being the one of the few streaming players to opt out of pursuing high-priced live sports rights, Netflix is slowly carving out a niche on the documentary side of the game (and in the process, carving away at a territory long held by HBO and ESPN). This year alone, Netflix aired “Untold,” an anthology series of individual films that feels heavily inspired by ESPN’s “30 for 30” films, and a second docuseries called “Bad Sport.”
Holmes said “Drive to Survive” actually started as a version of Amazon Prime’s “All or Nothing” docuseries. After Liberty Media agreed to buy the league in 2016, Holmes said the focus shifted from profiling just one of the teams in the league. “We thought it would be better for the sport, better for the teams, if we did something that was that was focused on everyone,” he said.
Netflix co-CEO Reed Hastings raised some eyebrows last month when he told the German outlet Der Spiegel that the streamer might be interested in acquiring rights to Formula 1 races down the road. “A few years back, the Formula 1 rights were sold. At that time we were not among the bidders, but today we would definitely consider that,” Hastings said. “That would have to be up to certain standards. We keep our hands off live sports. With that kind of broadcast, we have no control over the source.”
Holmes didn’t exactly seem upset when TheWrap asked him about any potential rights partnership. “We weren’t unhappy that he said that,” he said, adding that there have been extremely preliminary discussions about it. “They’ve inquired as to sort of how the process works.”