F1’s TV audience decline stopped in 2016

2016 F1 season

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Have Formula One’s television viewing figures finally stopped falling?

Figures released by Liberty Media upon completion of its takeover of the sport yesterday show that, for the first time in six years, Formula One’s television viewing figures did not fall last season. Audiences remained at around 400 million in 2016, similar to the year before.

Formula One has faced a struggle to hold on to viewers over the past eight years. The number of people watching F1 has fallen by one-third since 2008:

The sport has increasingly turned to pay television at the expense of free-to-air broadcasters in recent years. In Britain F1 will remain on Channel 4 for two more years before becoming exclusive to pay channel Sky in 2019.

New owners Liberty Media has signalled it intends to continue moving F1 broadcasts from free-to-air to pay television services.

However Liberty has also signalled a desire to make greater use of digital media to promote F1. CEO and president Greg Maffei said last year F1 “really have no organised digital effort” and that less than 1% of the sport’s revenue comes from digital media.

Following the departure of Bernie Ecclestone yesterday Liberty has appointed Sean Bratches as managing director for commercial operations.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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33 comments on “F1’s TV audience decline stopped in 2016”

  1. I think the combination of Verstappen’s racing and the exciting will-he, won’t-he, back and forth, title fight was to thank for this. Last year was a truly gripping season of racing on the whole, full of controversy from start to finish thanks to the whacky qualifying and radio ban rules.

    I hypothesise that the rate of decline will continue this trend for the long term, despite the aberrations, if the currently planned distribution model is stuck to.

    1. I think the decline will continue just because cars are not a cult anymore. Not an object of fascination, if you want. They are not such an important part of our lives and culture as they used to be, people think more about cool gadgets and all that, especially youngsters and kids. Well, I’m only 23 myself and I don’t really like cars in general, I just love racing itself for some weird reason. But for many people it’s “just cars driving in circles and sometimes overtaking each other” and it’s impossible to explain that it’s something deeper than that.

      1. Walter van den Houten
        24th January 2017, 11:24

        And for many people football is 22 people chasing a ball. The Olympics are people going from A to B using means C, or throwing objects around as far as they can. It is not impossible to explain that it is something deeper. There are teams trying to outsmart each other with technologies, strategies (although mostly budgets… But hey… I guess that’s similar in the Champions league), then there are changing weather/track conditions that could make things interesting. It is definitely not ‘just cars driving in circles’.

      2. @albedo Agreed, but that last comment can be used for almost every sports:
        – football: just 22 players on a pitch trying to shoot the ball into a goal
        – tennis: just 2 players running across a court hitting back a ball that they already hit that way, over and over again
        – swimming: just 8 athletes trying to get to the other side as fast as they can (running alongside is faster!)

        Anyway, about cars I do notice that there are countries in which people still love their specialty cars, regardless of what type of car. In my opinion those are Japan, UK, US, Hong Kong and maybe UAE. But most countries like The Netherlands, Germany and France people don’t care that much anymore and just choose whatever gets the job done for the money you can spend. I mean, I would love to own a Mazda MX-5 (even an older one) next to my family sedan, but just the cost of keeping it (road taxes, insurance, etc.) is insane.

          1. Not being a fan, all I know is it takes leather balls to play rugby.


      3. petebaldwin (@)
        24th January 2017, 11:57

        @albedo – Yeah I agree. There is only so long you can say things like “we don’t care about kids watching the sport because they can’t afford a Rolex” before you are left with no kids watching the sport.

        Add to that the facts that the cars don’t sound exciting, it doesn’t look exciting to watch on TV (camera angles making the cars slow or on-boards making it look really easy), there is no internet presence, merchandise/toys are crazy expensive, it’s crazy expensive to watch (legally), it’s crazy expensive to attend a race and it’s completely dominated by one team due to the rules in place.

        The whole sport is set up to make Bernie richer so there are huge, wide-scale changes that are required now if things are to move forward. F1 needs to stop existing solely for multi-millionaire yacht owners and start considering the real fans. Fingers crossed….

      4. A lot of the people around me see cars themselves as an albatross, something they have to have in order to work or get around but would rather not own because they cost about 1/4 of a salary to run. Sometimes I sense envy of those who can get away without owning any car at all, and the fact that I, one of the three F1 fans at work, is among the non-car-owning group is considered merely amusing rather than bizarre or ironic, the way it was 10 years ago. Much as equestrian competition had to move away from relying on the horses themselves to provide the interest a century ago, motor racing/sport now needs to emphasise the “racing/sport” bit to attract and retain audiences.

        At this point, there is no way I could plausibly go to a Grand Prix, as it would cost me less money to go on a tour of Europe incorporating a world-class motor race in another discipline than to attend the race for one day. (I know because I did so last year, and even missing a plane and having to book another one merely made it “nearly as expensive” rather than “quite a lot less expensive”). I won’t see as many F1 races this year as last (because last year my parents got a temporary free Sky Sports package as a broadband loyalty bonus). Doing the entire weekend, as I would want to do, is plain out of my income bracket. Not to mention that at this point, I have my doubts as to what sort of race I would get to see.

        Merchandise is expensive, but I’m not sure what Liberty can do about that – even wealthy teams have no issues with making their gear expensive, despite being told repeatedly for over a decade that they are missing an entire income-generating demographic due to the prices.

        Being committed to the sport is expensive. Expensive enough to scare newcomers off.

    2. One thing’s for sure: it’s definitely not because of the Dutch fans only. The Netherlands has a population of just 17 million, so even if we were all watching, it wouldn’t be more than a pixel’s worth in this line.

      1. The decline was 25 million a year, so the Netherlands probably helped quite a bit, but there must have been some increase in other places too, to counter a decline in the UK and other locations.

    3. Valid Point Tristan. hopefully Stroll can do something similer even if a little furher back the field and the same for Sainz Jr. renult and force idndia are the two i will be keep one eye on this year
      i personally thing that there needs to be more facination created round the cars for Youngun’s, the aero’sand creration of the car. i know thats what caught me back my days of youth, cant just expect people to become a Fanatic by watching a couple of races. and theres a lot more to the creation of a car than just having the biggest and best engine.

  2. Maybe because they got lots of first 11 races temporary audiences from Indonesia.

    1. good point, that is one huge market that F1 plugged into for those 11 races. Would be interesting to see the race per race numbers to check how much that affected the numbers @ruliemaulana

  3. All valid points!

  4. Liberty Media have the chance to revert the trend, but if they continue on the same path I can see viewer figures still declining.
    In 2019, I’m not sure for the first time if I will get to see an F1 race that year. With the model going to fully pay per view in the UK to SKY, it’s a not difficult financial decision. I’ve had SKY in the past, but it was not value for money so I cancelled. I cannot see me currently paying the amounts I did to watch F1 back with SKY.
    All I wanted was to pay only for F1, but that is not possible with the current subscription choices. I’m also lazy and finding time to purchase a NOW TV pass for a weekend seemed like a lot of fuss and I then I would have to watch the race. That doesn’t work when you have family and your weekends can quickly change.
    Now, depending on what deal SKY has, I am hoping that a more F1 exclusive channel is made available now Liberty Media have taken over. Others in the past have asked for the same, like you have with MLB and other sports via Apple TV or other streaming services.
    However, I’m not overly convinced that will happen as Chase Carey is also the Vice Chairman of FOX and they may just push more pay per view through SKY globally.

    1. Liberty intend to move to pay-to-view TV so it’s obvious that the casual watcher, young people who in the past saw it in their parents’ living room, will not be exposed to F1. The die hards will eventually literally die and take viewing figures down all the more. Add to that the young possible drivers, even fewer hands on the wheels in the future. It’s a downward spiral.

      Football has moved to Sky only. Tickets and player fees have soared, stands are empty and the sport is a massive wallet of $$$ behind the iron click for the few. F1 to follow. As long as the few to pay the earth to view, it will continue thus.

    2. @chalky Liberty Media have already said they want to continue the move towards pay television:


      1. But in another article from yesterday they have also acknowledged that many sponsors love the further reaches that free-to-air provides vs. the much smaller market on Pay, which can be less attractive to potential sponsors. Also, if they want to expand exposure and viewership in the US, with for example, more races, they will not imho do that by forcing Americans to pay big bucks when they can watch NASCAR and Indycar on free-to-air. Limiting viewership of F1 in the US is not the way to grow it. I envision the hybrid setup they talk about, like what we have in Canada. We get the Sky coverage but on our regular main sports channel TSN which is easy to get on even the most basic of cable/satellite packages.

      2. knoxploration
        24th January 2017, 16:32

        The day I have to pay a separate fee (or buy a channel I don’t already have) to get F1 is the day I stop watching entirely.

  5. I think this is one of those “correlation does not imply causation” scenarios.

  6. Jonathan O'Brien
    24th January 2017, 12:05

    dead cat bounce

    1. It’s not bounced yet (only not continued to fall), it might not even be a dead cat bounce…

  7. They must have run out of countries to switch to pay-TV in.

  8. Yes, thanks to one man only: Max Verstappen! He is the best racer and the most talked about F1-driver in 2016. He stirred up things and that got the attention of the people who lost interest in the sport. If you watch the figure above, the decline stopped when Max entered F1 in 2015. I remember that at one of the FIA press-conferences a journalist from Argentine stated to Max that since he was in F1 more Argentinians watch F1 again! What a compliment!

    I really don’t know what to expect from the new owners of F1. Strange that from now on Americans run the show. But I really don’t like the sentence “It Intends to continue moving F1 broadcast from free-to-air to pay televison services”. The F1-fans should have the LIBERTY to view F1 by free-to-air television as it was in the old days. In the 1980’s I always watched F1 on Belgian tv, in the 90’s (when cable-television was introduced) I watched it on the BBC with the great Murray Walker as the best F1-commentator ever! Now I can watch it on the cable-provider I’m subcribed to (Ziggo). I can watch the qualification and the race, because they are broadcasted on one of their sportchannels that’s part of the normal subscription. If I want to see free practice too I have to pay more. Pay television is not good for F1, it’s only for squeezing yet more money out of the pockets of F1 fans. In 2016 around 1.1 million people in the Netherlands watched every race. That would be much higher if it was on an free-to-air-broadcaster! And by the way, the reply of @Chalky, makes me even more worried at this point!

    But let’s give them a chance, after 40 years of ruling by Mr. Bernie Ecclestone, who by the way did a great job! But I hope the new owners are gonna listen to the fans. If I think what I would change, it would be the whole F1-weekend format:

    Friday-morning: 90 minutes of free practice
    Friday-afternoon: 90 miutes of free practice
    Saturday-morning: pre-qualifying (the same format as qualifying as we know it today) for deciding the grid of the qualifying-sprintrace!
    Saturday-afternoon: qualifying-sprintrace of 45 minutes. The result is the grid for the Grand Prix on sunday. The winner of the qualifying-sprint-race is the pole-sitter. No championship points rewarded, only 1 bonus-point for the pole!
    Sunday-afternoon: The Grand Prix as we know it today. Only the grid is decided by the outcome of the qualifying-sprintrace. Extra bonus-points (1 point each) for fastest lap and most overtakes during the race.

    Wouldn’t that make the show better?

    1. F1 should not do sprint races, Especially to determine the grid.

      I’d honestly keep the format largely as it is as I think it’s fine. I would maybe drop the 2 Friday sessions back down to 1 hour each as they were until 2007 & maybe bring back 3rd cars for Friday drivers but other than that I wouldn’t mess with qualifying or race formats.

    2. knoxploration
      24th January 2017, 16:48

      You’re joking if you think Verstappen had anything to do with this. Far more likely is that the decline stopped because a) it wasn’t another Hamilton walkover, but was clear from the start that Rosberg would really challenge him, and b) most of the completely casual fans have already left, leaving a core of fans who are willing to sit through the yawnworthy drivel we watch now in the vain hopes of the real F1 they remember one day returning.

      Oh, and dear god no I do not want to see sprint races (yawn!), nor bonus points for most overtakes (what even constitutes an overtake — how long does the move have to stick to be considered an actual overtake — and how do you prevent a couple of backmarker teams conspiring to simply “pass” each other over and over to raise both of their point tallies, for example? Nor would points for fastest lap be meaningful — every car that was outside the points or with a sufficient gap behind them on the last couple of laps would simply come in for fresh rubber in a meaningless display of “fastest laps” which were utterly meaningless to the actual racing.

  9. Where I live F1 is a joke! It has been behind the paywall for well over a decade. I guess it is pretty hard to decline beyond rock bottom. It has such a poor following here that the top radio station takes the race results off the sports news by lunchtime. It hardly ever gets a mention on the sports talk back programs. I don’t know what plans Liberty Media have, but making F1 more accessible will be essential if they want to increase popularity.

    1. Duncan Snowden
      24th January 2017, 17:21

      The coverage in the wider media doesn’t sound all that different to the UK, actually. Yes, we get some live coverage, but the general sports news outlets tend to ignore F1 – all motorsport, in fact; Le Mans might as well not exist – unless there’s a British winner. Even then, it’s often tacked on reluctantly at the end.

      That’s the main problem with pay TV for F1: the audience may be large, but it’s not “deep”. With respect to the title of this site, there really aren’t many people fanatical enough to follow it regardless of the obstacles. Even though almost (but not quite) all football is on Sky, the other media cover it – endlessly – because its popularity is strong. They know that fans want to know how their team is doing even if they can’t always see them play. Despite TV audiences being lower than they might be on FTA, ticket and merchandise sales hold up. Soccer is as much about tribal identity as the game on the field.

      That’s just not the case with F1. If it disappears from free-to-air, it’ll disappear period for most people. It needs that shop window. And with only 20 (or, yes, even 25) events per season, there simply isn’t enough of it for all but the most dedicated fan to buy a subscription for it alone.

      To his credit, I think Bernie understood all this (hence the “extended highlights” deal with first the BBC then C4, which has turned out much better than I expected). I just hope Liberty’s advisors do too.

  10. The one thing I think could help F! is to stop using the same person,Herman Tilke for designing the tracks, most of his are so boring, they should use different people to give variety.

  11. A global audience of 20 million a race is pathetic. The only way to stop the decline is a return to free to view with the national broadcasters.

  12. Indonesian viewers maybe give some numbers. They are quite fanatic to their athlete

  13. For a long period Carrera slotcars were more interesting to watch than F1. Who is interested in a superior car who leads from the start to finish without any challenge? So in 2015/2016 Verstappen gave many drivers free racing lessons, stirred up old sleepy officials and brought back the fans. Taking it to the edge, no guts, no glory.

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