The story going into Formula One′s rejuvenated Las Vegas Grand Prix on Saturday night was that it was going to land somewhere between disaster and dud.
That impression was created because F1′s top driver, Max Verstappen, kept repeating it in the lead-up.
The race was “99-per-cent show and 1-per-cent sporting event,” he said. The drivers were being made to look “like clowns,” he said.
“I understand fans need maybe something to do around a track, but it is more important to make them understand what we do as a sport,” he said.
With Verstappen cheerleading from the orchestra pit, every hiccup during rehearsals was presented as a portent of doom.
F1 was shaking down restaurants that overlooked the track and wouldn’t pay huge fees. Putting the grandstands together caused trafficmageddon for weeks. The first night’s practice turned chaotic when a maintenance-hole cover came loose on the track. Costs were said to be running as high as US$700-million.
What do all these things have in common? They were reported.
Five years ago, Formula One lost its U.S. broadcast partner. It signed on with ESPN instead. The cost of those rights – nothing. ESPN took on the racing series for free.
Around that time, if a spaceship had landed in the middle of an F1 race, it would not have made the news on this side of the Atlantic.
Now, all of a sudden, there is an expectation that Americans not only know who Max Verstappen is, but care about what he has to say. F1 hit its magic number long before the race started.
What changed in the interim? Netflix. F1′s soapy doc series, Drive to Survive, turned its drivers into heartthrobs.
Race-car drivers have always been different sorts of cats. They understand instinctively that they are always performing. If you can’t perform, you can’t charm sponsors. If you can’t charm sponsors, you won’t be a race-car driver for long.
Watch an episode of Drive to Survive and then contrast it with a similar sort of thing on hockey players. It’s like watching someone before and after they’ve had an operation to remove their charisma.
F1 now has the youngest fan base of any major league (average age: 32). No one is better situated to leverage the sports-content boom. They also make no pretense to having sporting scruples.
If the sport doesn’t work out in the United States, it will go to the United Arab Emirates. The United Arab Emirates was mean to someone once? Go kick rocks. The advantage to running a league that has no home stadium is that it has no constituency, and so no one to keep on side.
Las Vegas represents the other side of this up-by-your-boot-straps success story.
Ten years ago, the city was radioactive to sports concerns. No one wanted to catch gambling cooties.
Now it has an NFL team, a Stanley Cup champion NHL club and just this past week found out it will be getting the Oakland A’s. Currently, the plan is to wedge a baseball stadium into a corner lot on the Strip that was once occupied by the Tropicana.
The whole thing is being put together in such a hurry that the first set of plans for the new ballpark did not include a roof. You try playing centre field in Las Vegas on an August afternoon without benefit of shade. We’ll tell your family you were thinking of them right before the end.
F1 and Vegas represent the two great trends in 21st-century sports – content creation and the influx of legalized gambling money.
Why is the NFL the biggest league in the United States? Because it is the most conducive to betting. For the same reason, hockey will never be global. Too difficult to lay a bet on.
Every league makes its own content now, but most do it poorly. That’s largely down to malicious compliance by the players. These poor saps really think they are being paid just to put balls in nets. For the few who cultivate a personality that is something more than gym-tan-laundry, there is a whole other level of stardom available. Formula One′s top drivers are currently accessing it.
If you have either gambling or content creation down, you’re in great shape. But to acquire both? That is the grail quest of the sports business.
On Saturday night, they ran the race that was set up to fail.
First off – the look. So perfect it occasionally seemed animated. No event that I can think of has so blurred the line between video games and real life.
You compare a shot of Verstappen’s Red Bull car drifting by the Sphere on its way to victory with the average mid-season baseball game and it’s hard to believe we consider both of those things to be part of the same business.
Formula One races are often dreary processions. Saturday’s race in Vegas was full of incident and controversy. Verstappen won despite an early penalty and an attempted rubout.
Once the race content was completed, time to work on the TV show. Lewis Hamilton took a shot across Verstappen’s bow – “For all those who said it was all about the show, Vegas proved them wrong.” That’s a whole episode right there.
These spats between F1 drivers are so frequent and so ginned up from nothing that they must be contrived. But they are acted out with such commitment that you find yourself drawn in anyway.
Situated in a period of relative calm inside the global sports calendar, the Las Vegas Grand Prix is already on the same level as a major championship. Just like that, sports has a new Super Bowl. The only difference being everyone in the world is interested in this one.
It has all the things other sports would buy if they could – glamour, a muscular sense of place and occasion, recognizable pitchmen and a laser focus on monetizing attention. It is sports business distilled to content jet fuel inside the headquarters of the gambling industry. It’s a money tree that shakes itself.
Just a year or two ago, this was the dimly understood future of sports. On Saturday, it became the present.