Numlock Sunday: Alex Silverman on the rise of Formula 1
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week, I spoke to Alex Silverman who wrote Formula 1 Fandom in the United States Is Up 33% Since 2020, Thanks in Part to Netflix Series for Morning Consult. Here's what I wrote about it:
The percentage of U.S. respondents who identified as a Formula 1 fan rose from 21 percent in 2020 to 28 percent in 2022, a pace that vastly outstrips the growth in NASCAR (up 3 percentage points), IndyCar and NHRA (each up 3 percentage points), and MotoGP (up 6 percentage points). Formula 1 holds only a single race in the United States, and doesn’t have any American drivers; however, the Netflix documentary series Drive to Survive, which takes viewers behind the scenes of the tournament, has been a huge boon to the sport. All told, of the people who identified as Formula 1 fans, 53 percent said that Drive to Survive was a reason behind their fandom, with 30 percent saying it was a major reason. Anyway, I have no idea what this appeal is, or why my F1 fan friends have insisted I go by Valtteri rather than Walter.
I loved this story because I have not been able to evade F1 conversations and Alex is so damn good at talking about the big picture of sports.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
You have covered a bunch about F1 lately. F1 is one of those fun sports that seems like for a while it was really a European thing, but in really the past year or two, you've seen it actually begin to approach the American mainstream. What's been going on there? How has awareness of this been changing?
Our polling shows that just in the last two years, the share of Americans who identify as fans of Formula 1 has gone up by about a third. It was 21 percent of Americans in 2020, before the onset of the pandemic, that had said that they were fans, and that number's now up to 28 percent. It seems, based on what we found in our polling, that Netflix's Drive to Survive series has just played a really outsized role in getting American fans into this sport. I would count myself among that group.
I didn't really know a whole lot about Formula 1 prior to the pandemic, which was right around when Drive to Survive season two launched. It was right when we were in those early stages of the pandemic when everyone was watching Tiger King and binging Netflix like crazy, before we realized that we were going to be home for as long as we were. That was right around when the second season of Drive to Survive launched, and I think that really helped a lot of people.
I found this really fascinating, because I am a huge fan of whenever pop culture affects the real world in a way. Going back to the survey again, it's been a huge gain for F1. The percentage of Americans who identify as fans of the sport is up 33 percent over the past year. You usually just don't see that.
It is a very unique phenomenon. It comes at a great time for the sport. They're bringing their second Grand Prix to the U.S. this year with the Miami Grand Prix, and then they just announced that they're going to be bringing a third Grand Prix to the U.S. in Las Vegas starting in 2023. There's a ton of momentum around this sport in the U.S. and viewership is up for races. I mean, the surge of popularity for F1 is really unlike anything I've seen in such a short period of time for any sport.
There was this wild stat in here that 57 percent of adults who identified as fans of F1 became fans within the past five years.
And a quarter of fans said they became fans in the past year! It just goes to show how big of an impact this Netflix series has had that first launched in 2018. It's been four seasons now, and we don't get quite the viewership metrics from Netflix that we do from the traditional TV networks, but by all accounts and everything they've released, it's been just a massive hit around the world.
You're seeing a lot of other sports leagues, they're going to try and replicate that success. The production company, Box to Box, that did the Drive to Survive series, is now working with golf to do a documentary series, INDYCAR, as well. You're seeing a lot of other sports now trying to replicate that success, but something about F1 just really, really caught people.
I guess I'll just ask you, what's the appeal for you?
I just love the personalities in the sport. There are 20 drivers on the grid at a time and they travel the world together, and so there are just very deep relationships between the different drivers. The team principals, who are essentially your general managers, have some really intense rivalries with one another, and there's just a lot of interesting politics and business elements involved that are very unique to the sport.
There are different tiers within the F1 grid. It was very much dominated by Mercedes for the whole kind of mid-to-late 2010s, and then there was last year the big rivalry between Mercedes and Red Bull, but then you sort of behind them have all these other teams battling just to kind of get an edge over each other.
There are battles happening all throughout the field, as opposed to just at the top like we see in some American sports, where no one's really competing for third place, but that's exactly what the battle between Ferrari and McLaren was last year, for example.
It's just very unique and there's a lot of interpersonal drama and the show really helps you get to know the different drivers. Then you can sort of apply what you see of drivers in the show to what's happening on the track when you're watching a live race. You have a sense of how a driver might react when they're going into a corner against another driver based on what you seen on the show. It's fascinating to me.
Yeah, I watched the championship race last year and I didn't go into it with any of the expectations of the understanding of what it was, and it was pretty rad, I'm not going to lie. It's a sport that once people seem to try it, they really seem to fall into it very quickly. I have seen a number of friends on Twitter become functionally radicalized into F1 maniacs over the course of at most weeks, and I think that's a really interesting property of the sport.
You know what I think is interesting, too, is you see a lot of talk in American sports about trying to make games shorter, and in Formula 1 just the way it's presented is really compact. The race itself is generally two hours; qualifying is an hour the day before the race. It's not like baseball where you're committing three and a half hours to sit down and watch a game, and I think that that is something that makes this sport really appealing to younger audiences.
We definitely saw in our research, we didn't get into it a ton in the article itself, but the sport is just much more popular among younger audiences. I think that really goes well for the future of the sport.
Yeah, can you expand on that? Because I think it's been really interesting to contrast the Drive to Survive effect with the Hard Knocks effect, which is the NFL doing a somewhat similar thing, obviously a little bit more guarded and potentially a little bit less produced. The idea of doing a reality-based sports show isn't exactly new, but this one is really clicking with younger audiences. What have you found there?
So I mentioned that 28 percent figure earlier: 28 percent of U.S. adults identifying as fans of F1, that number was 35 percent among folks 18 to 34. So, significantly higher. Of those in that younger age group who said they were fans, more than 40 percent said they're avid fans, so you're just seeing a lot of interest among that younger group. It's a really fast sport. Like I said, the events aren't quite as long.
You compared Hard Knocks to Drive to Survive, and I think Drive to Survive has, sometimes to the chagrin of the drivers, but it has really dramatized the sport to a different level. I mean, some of the drivers have complained that they are fabricating rivalries and that sort of thing, but it's definitely worked in terms of getting the attention of young audiences who love the drama.
I've enjoyed your coverage a lot when it comes to tracking kind of the popularity and interest of different sports over time, and how some of them are receding and some of them are gaining. You had this article a little while ago basically looking at different sports among younger viewers, and how eSports was more popular than baseball among this crowd. I would love your thoughts about maybe some of the overall prevailing trends in sport popularity and kind of what you're seeing in your numbers there.
Like you said, we have done a lot of research on the way that Gen Z audiences are consuming sports. It's very different than older sports fans, and even the difference between millennial sports fans and Gen Z sports fans is very pronounced. Whereas millennials sort of grew up sitting down and watching a sporting event, Gen Z audiences are consuming sports by watching highlights on TikTok, that sort of thing.
Like you said, in the eSports, it's really outsized popularity among Gen Z. Just looking back at our big package that we did on Gen Z sports fans in late 2020, at that point it was 35 percent of Gen Z adults who identified as fans of eSports compared to 32 percent who said they were fans of Major League Baseball. That's just really different than among the general adult population, where baseball, it's still one of the most popular sports.
You always want to see, is the age pyramid for a sport going in the right direction or the wrong direction. From that point of view, even though it's a bit more niche, you can see the argument for why the folks running F1 in the U.S. might be a little bit more excited than the folks running MLB.
Yeah, definitely. The way I sort of see the spectator sports landscape is that the NFL is completely in a league of its own. But outside of that, I just think that there's a lot of room for the pecking order to change. There's just that huge gap between the NFL and everything else, but for F1, they've had some of their largest audiences ever in the U.S. recently.
When you look at the numbers for it, they did 1.45 million viewers for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix last weekend, for example. That is much better viewership on cable than, say, a nationally televised NHL game. I think that it's not necessarily an apples to apples comparison, but it just sort of goes to show you that a sport like F1 can kind of come out of nowhere and take the country by storm.
To that end, you guys have been really doing a great job with these trackers and this ongoing polling. What are you looking forward to this year potentially as something that's breaking out more to the mainstream?
I think one thing that we're tracking a lot here at Morning Consult is sort of the return to normal from the pandemic. We've been tracking how comfortable people are attending in-person sporting events again, attendance for indoor sporting events. The NBA and NHL was way down earlier in the year, I mean, mid-to-high single digits, and we've been seeing quite a bit of improvement in terms of the population that says they're comfortable going to sporting events again. That's definitely one thing that we're tracking that's going to be really important for the sports industry.
In terms of other trends that I'm watching, I've really got my eye on the NBA. Their media rights with ESPN and Turner are off, I believe after the 2024 season. That sport has been doing really well in terms of attracting younger audiences, and I think it's going to be really interesting to see how they look to take advantage of their popularity with younger audiences in their next media rights deals.
Both the commissioner of the league, Adam Silver, and some of the more prominent owners in the league like Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks have talked about how they want to get more creative with how they distribute the sport. They think that they're limiting their appeal by being tied to cable so much, even though that has been the cash cow for these sports leagues for such a long time now. I'm definitely keeping an eye on the NBA and how consumption and interest in that sport changes over the next couple years as they look to go into their next media rights cycle.
Where can folks find you and find the work?
Yeah, so I'm on Twitter @alexmsilverman, and all of our polling on sports can be found at morningconsult.com/sports.
Thanks so much for having me, Walt. Love Numlock News and everything you're doing there and appreciate you having me on.
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