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Liberty eyes Super Bowl as F1 inspiration

NEWS STORY
30/12/2016

F1's new owners look to the Super Bowl as they seek to make Grands Prix major events.

At a time most races in 2016 saw a continued downturn in both TV audiences and race attendance, this year's United States Grand Prix appeared to buck the trend, with 269,889 customers passing through the turnstiles over the course of the weekend, the biggest weekend attendance in the event's five year history.

We say 'customers' rather than 'fans' however, because all is not what is seems. For pop star Taylor Swift, playing her only live gig of the year, drew an estimated 83,000 fans to her gig at the track on Saturday night, meaning that attendance on Saturday was higher than on Sunday - a complete reversal of the usual trend.

In recent years, a number of races have held add-on concerts with varying degrees of success, usually due to the pulling power of the acts, but the obvious reward of signing a mega-star such as Swift has not gone unnoticed.

"We really had two crowds Saturday," COTA chairman Bobby Epstein told the Statesman. "Some people left after qualifying and a lot more came in for the evening. We had a massive Saturday, well over 100,000, Sunday was around 100,000 or a little more."

"We're still collecting data, but we had more international visitors," added Katja Heim, COTA's chief operating officer. "The added entertainment and music helped. There was a vibrant feel. The festival-style format, surely we will do that again."

According to the Statesman, Austin's Chamber of Commerce estimates the economic impact of this year's event at $597m, which over the course of the five years the event has been running means around $3bn, this at a time TV broadcaster NBC reported ratings down 18% on last year.

No surprise therefore, that also drawing inspiration from COTA's success is Liberty Media which is aiming to complete its purchase of the sport in the coming months.

Indeed, according to the Financial Times, Liberty is seeking to turn each race into a week-long event, seeking inspiration from the build-up to the Super Bowl, the annual championship game of the National Football League that is frequently the most-watched American television broadcast of the year, attracting an average audience of 110 million viewers, many of whom don't usually watch the sport.

Culminating the season, the Super bowl is second only to the UEFA Champions League final as the most watched annual sporting event worldwide, which means it has mega sponsors queuing to get on board.

A "senior executive involved with Formula One" tells the Financial Times that Liberty is seeking to turn each race into motor racing's equivalent of the Super Bowl, "including selling race naming rights and staging ancillary events".

Having already revealed that it is seeking to expand the calendar, including hosting more races in America, Liberty, according to the Financial Times' source, "intends to turn each Grand Prix into a week of events to engage spectators and attract new sponsors".

"We want to create destination events, not just a race, that people feel they have to be at," said the source.

Ignoring the fact that the Super Bowl, like the UEFA final, is a one-off annual event, and therefore much easier to promote and sustain such interest, one wonders who would pay for these 'events', certainly not hard up promoters who are already feeling the pinch.

Furthermore, both the Super Bowl and the UEFA final usually feature more competition than we have witnessed in F1 in recent years, and no matter what other attractions one might incorporate into the build-up the main event has to be worth watching and not merely another Mercedes (as an example) tour de force.

Having already talked of budget caps, a move which will have sent shockwaves through the top end of the paddock, Liberty is seeking to take the sport forward in terms of marketing and new digital platforms.

"There's no marketing, no research, no data, no digital platforms," said the FT's source. "This sport has unique global content and hasn't done enough to take advantage of that. We need to build the rivalries and enable people to understand the technology that goes into the sport.

"There's probably no sport more associated with technology and yet we don't have a technology sponsor," the source added.

Not for the first time, the ideas seem to be more about 'how can we make money' than anything else. With little of its own money to splash out, Liberty is having to borrow and borrow heavily in order to buy the sport, but the fact is that no matter how they intend spicing up the show it is the core product that must improve, and no amount of gimmicks, new races, pop stars or TV specials will convince the sport's core fan base otherwise.

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