Q&A: Ian Holmes and Frank Arthofer discuss a third year of growth for F1’s TV and digital audience

Today Formula 1 has announced that, for the third year in a row, it continued to grow both in terms of TV and digital audience, an impressive achievement considering how competitive the market has become in the last decade and how fragmented and fast-changing the offering is for sports fans. We took this opportunity to ask a few questions to Ian Holmes, Director of Media Rights, and Frank Arthofer, Director of Digital and Licensing.

Question – Ian, 2019 has been another good year for TV audience, the third in a row – what has been driving the increases?

Ian Holmes – “I think that it should be acknowledged that in the ever-fragmented media landscape we live in, achieving a flat-line is a ‘win’ so to have secured another increase is particularly satisfying. In terms of what has been driving the increases I think it is a myriad of different factors on and off the track. I think generally there was more compelling racing in 2019, more storylines, new and exciting drivers challenging for honours. Also, we are always looking at ways of improving the coverage and capturing the action. New graphics with the help of AWS, different camera angles and positions have also been introduced. My personal favourite was the ‘on-halo’ graphics which I thought looked incredible. I also believe our efforts away from the track are bearing fruit. We ran four fantastic Fan Festivals, introduced ever more digital offerings and games, further developed our esports series and enjoyed great success with the Netflix series ‘Drive to Survive’ which really resonated with lapsed, light and new fans. All these elements aligned with our on-going event by event marketing efforts such as those we put on around F1’s 1,000th Grand Prix meaning that we are talking to ever more people through so many different channels.”

Q – In the key markets there was significant increase in the audience but stability in reach: what does it mean?

IH – “It shows that engagement with F1 has increased significantly year on year. We have a similar size group of people watching more content and for longer than they did a year ago. This was of course helped by more compelling races and a more engaged fan base who have increased the amount of content that they are watching compared to 2018. We have found this with all F1 touchpoints. It’s no coincidence that 72% say that the sport has improved in the last two years. Helped by improved digital & social, F1 TV, the launch of esports and the success of Netflix series ‘Drive to Survive’, the average number of F1 touchpoints consumed per F1 fan has also increased year on year as F1 becomes a more multimedia organization – rather than just focusing on TV.“

Q – Talking about multimedia, once more, Formula 1 has been the fastest growing major sports league in terms of number of followers across the major social media platforms. Frank, are you happy with this? What have been the most important driving factors for this continuous growth?

Frank Arthofer – “It’s been a terrific few years of social growth, and we’ve surprised ourselves that the rate of growth continues now into our fourth year of investment and focus in this area. It starts with engaging stories and we have many of them heading into 2020 – a potential three team race for the constructors championship to the future of the driver line-ups at Mercedes and Ferrari. But clearly there is something unique about the content that is resonating with fans. We don’t believe that there’s a silver bullet – rather a collection of initiatives. One thing we like to say is that we take the sport seriously but not ourselves.  Humor is the universal language and we know from the data that content like this is the most engaging stuff we produce.  We also try to make it a two-way conversation with our fans – for example, we’re working more closely with some of them to co-produce content in 2020.”

Q: Some have said the switch to pay TV is costing you fans and viewers: Ian, do you think that has some truth?

IH – “It goes without saying that an FTA broadcaster is going to generate a larger audience than a pay TV channel. That said, it is a bit of an oversimplification. Firstly, there are always commercial elements to be considered but equally as important, is to look at who the viewers are, what the demographics are, and therefore who you’re addressing. Furthermore, pay TV often provides far more in depth coverage and I think it would be fair to say that in the likes of Sky and Canal+ they have and continue to strive to improve the overall standard of F1 coverage, bringing to the fan far more than ever existed in the past – and they do a fantastic job. Then there are those people who are consuming F1 content on the different digital and social channels of our broadcast partners and our own F1 owned and operated platforms and channels. Frank, I am sure will provide more detail here but these F1 fans clearly cannot be excluded.”

Q – Where are you seeing the biggest increases and why is that happening?

IH – “We have enjoyed some notable successes in certain territories this year. The USA continues to grow and ESPN have done a great job for us. Numbers in Poland have been excellent and massively improved as a result of introducing more coverage across more channels and finally the biggest success story of the year would be in the MENA region where we moved to the ever-popular MBC who have provided very comprehensive coverage on their free to air MBC Action channel. Not only did they broadcast all sessions of all events, they also sent their own presenters on-site so as to ensure their loyal audience was properly served. Piracy remains a problem in the region as a whole but we will be working closely with MBC’s anti-piracy coalition to try to address the issue.”

Q – Are you seeing more people watching full races or tuning in for parts of the race weekend?

IH – “The growth in cumulative audience suggests that we have more engagement which means that fans are spending longer watching the races on TV compared to last year. There will always be a component of casual fans who do not stay as long with the coverage as more avid fans. However, we have invested significantly in biometrics research in 2019 to understand the drivers of engagement with the TV feed, and this research is being utilized by the TV production team to help improve the coverage and ensure we focus on the more engaging aspects of the content. The new graphics, different camera angels and positions have all no doubt had a significant impact on improvements that we saw in engagement and have ensured fans have stayed longer with the coverage compared to 2018.”

Q – Frank, the core digital platforms overcame the barrier of 1bn page views, with other important indicators growing strongly. Did you expect it?

FA – “We relaunched our product set, including F1.com, F1 app and F1 TV during 2018, with a few key principles.  Make the experience frictionless, deliver great quality video content, use data from the race to tell ‘unseen’ stories about the sport, and give fans inside access that they can’t get anywhere else.  Save for the technical issues we had at the outset with F1 TV, we believe we’ve built good solid product experiences that let the great stories and content shine through.  We’re just thankful that the investment we’re making in this area is having the impact that it is for fans (100%+ YOY growth in engagement), and we’re emboldened to continue to invest to improve our digital products.”

In two years you’ve totally transformed the digital programme in Formula 1: what’s next?

FA – “We think there’s a huge amount still to do. We’ve got a couple of new podcast projects on the immediate horizon that we’ll be announcing soon.  We’re also working with sponsors to expand our digital advertising and branded content offering – we think branded content is the future of the global advertising marketplace and we can be the leading sports league in the world in creating value for partners in this area.  And, of course, we’re working on original video content – including a couple new features for F1.com and YouTube that will launch closer to the season.

How important is Formula 1’s digital growth to ensure that the sport’s audience will reach the younger generation? 

FA – “Hugely.  In many cases social media is the first place that fans interact with F1.  Whether that’s watching a funny video about the Rookie of the Year (as decided by the rookies!) or picking up a new t-shirt collection between F1 and Bape.  The sport drips with cultural relevance and that is and always will be a key hook for a younger audience.  We just need to hold the mirror up and let new fans experience it firsthand, on platforms and devices where they spend their time. Since 2017, 62% of our new fans have been under the age of 35. We believe it is a great thing for our partners – promoters, sponsors and broadcasters – all of whom have a mutual interest in widening the audience for F1.  Really, across the board, we believe we’re still in the early innings of our maturation.”