With its return to racing in the U.S. now just a month away, Formula One is no closer to being a mainstream sport in the world’s biggest and most lucrative market.
While the factors that keep the world’s most popular racing series in the margins in the U.S. are plenty, its lack of television coverage rates high on the list of problems.
Unfortunately, a four-year deal with NBC to broadcast its races, mostly on its cable-only sports network, won’t do much to up its profile as it holds its first race in five years with the United States Grand Prix in Austin, Tex., on Nov. 18.
Although F1’s ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone and its new U.S. TV partner both trumpeted the agreement as a great leap forward, only four of 20 races will get on to network television in 2013, no change from the situation the series had with Speed and Fox.
The four to be shown on NBC are June’s Grand Prix of Canada and then the three final stops on the 2013 calendar in Abu Dhabi, Austin, Texas, and Brazil in November.
While the exposure on NBC might be great for Montreal, the announced schedule indicates that the series’ marquee event, the glitzy and glamorous Monaco Grand Prix, will not be seen on network TV. Also lost in the shuffle is June 2013’s maiden Grand Prix of America in New Jersey across the Hudson River from New York City. That race gets relegated to the cable sports channel due to NBC’s coverage of the U.S. Open golf tournament.
How important is it to be on network TV? Well, ask IndyCar which is also broadcast on NBC Sports Network, with a few of its events getting onto ABC as a part of its deal to show the Indianapolis 500. Simply put, its ratings are nothing short of dismal.
Yes, IndyCar is not F1; E.J Viso is not Fernando Alonso; and, Detroit is not Monza.
Certainly IndyCar doesn’t have the same profile nor the cachet of the grand prix circus, but the fact that the major open wheel series in North America struggles to get an average of 300,000 people to watch races on NBC Sports Network must have F1’s decision makers just a bit nervous. On ABC, IndyCar fares better, with about 7 million tuning in to catch the Indy 500 and an average of 1.3 million taking in each the other five races. Not exactly numbers that make anyone punch the air with joy, but much better than the cable telecasts.
It’s also not a big stretch to think the fact that Speed let F1 go after 17 years speaks volumes about the network’s opinion of its potential on U.S. TV. Surely if Speed thought there was a chance that F1 might have a breakthrough soon, it would have upped the ante when NBC came calling for the broadcast rights.
The good news is that NBC thought F1 was worth an investment. Perhaps it’s thinking that a U.S. prospect like Alexander Rossi or Conor Daly might make the show in the next four years and help boost its popularity. Or maybe F1 will finally gain traction in the U.S. through the two races it will have there starting next season.
The bad news is that NBC Sports Network’s coverage of IndyCar has been spotty at best and its package hasn’t been stellar. Getting up to Speed’s quality might be a tall order for F1’s new TV partner, not to mention matching the racing network’s corporate memory.
Speed’s booth crew of Bob Varsha, David Hobbs, and Steve Matchett, along with pit reporter Will Buxton offered a well-rounded play-by-play and expert commentary.
It’s unlikely that the team will move to NBC Sports to continue their excellent work. The biggest loss for U.S. fans here just might be Buxton who is young, witty, insightful, likeable and well-connected in the paddock. He is exactly the kind of talent that can pull new fans into the sport.
F1 also has another problem when it comes to the U.S. market. Ecclestone has been moving back the starts of events in several venues to cater to the European crowd, especially the sport’s rabid fans in the U.K. The time changes ensure that grand prix starts in Australia and Asia don’t happen in the wee hours of the morning in Europe.
The by-product of that move is that the earliest of the first three races of the season – the Australian Grand Prix opener – airs at an ungodly time of 2 a.m. on Sunday in the Eastern Time zone, which also happens to be the U.S.’s biggest market. It starts at 11 p.m. PT on the West Coast, but on a Saturday night when only the most devoted F1 fans will be sitting in front of their TVs. The next two races, Malaysia and China, start at 4 a.m. ET and 3 a.m. ET respectively.
In all, six races of the 20 races – 30 per cent – start between the hours of 2 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. ET. They get a break on many of the other races which start at 8 a.m. on Sunday morning . On the other hand, the West Cost fans get an even rawer deal, with 14 of 20 races – 70 per cent – starting between midnight and 5 a.m. Not exactly the kind of timing that’s going to get the casual fan interested.
If Ecclestone actually moved some of the race starts back in Europe by a few hours to accommodate U.S fans, he could get F1 on the Pacific Coast TVs at a reasonable 7 or 8 a.m. and on the East Coast at 10 or 11 a.m. That would have F1 races ending right before IndyCar and NASCAR events on many Sundays in the spring and summer, and then preceding NFL football games later in the year.
But U.S fans shouldn’t expect the sport to start catering to them anytime soon. Ecclestone and F1 have shown in the past that they simply don’t understand the market and they don’t care to try. And that’s the real reason why grand prix racing likely won’t ever be more than the fringe sport it is south of the border.
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