On Tuesday, Formula One announced to the media that at a time of uncertainty following the global pandemic of COVID-19, Formula One was able to maintain their viewing figures whilst also growing digitally. At a time when many believed that a 2020 F1 season would not be possible, Formula One Management and Liberty Media managed to deliver a revised 17-race calendar in the most unprecedented of circumstances. It goes without saying that health comes before sport and there are of course many countries still combatting COVID-19. However, what this recent announcement shows is that for many, Formula One was their outlet, their support blanket and their sport to turn to when times were so tough.
In the first instance, having had such indecision in Melbourne with the Australian GP being called off at the last minute, many viewed this as an indication that a season of racing would not be possible. Nevertheless, Formula One was actually the first international sport to safely resume last summer. The collaboration between venues and corporations and the ground-breaking ‘bubble’ the sport placed itself within, was well received by fans. Meanwhile, old and new circuits took the place of countries unable to deliver racing such as Singapore and Monaco paving the way for a return to Portugal and several Italian venues.
Formula 1’s press release this week explained that at a time when many sports have struggled with large viewership declines in 2020, F1’s viewership trends compared well to other sports that experienced similar temporary shutdowns, and particularly those with an international footprint. Moreover, Formula 1 has also grown on social media:
“According to Shareablee, we [F1] are the second fastest growing major sports league on the planet in terms of follower growth, we have 35m total followers and have seen by far the fastest growth in engagement compared to other major sports with a 99% increase in 2020. To achieve these results in a challenging year is a very strong achievement.”
The social media impressions were no doubt helped by the dawn of the Twitch streams from current racers of the F1 grid and virtual GP practice sessions. These streaming sessions led to much hilarity and creation of memes even before F1 returned to the track in 2020.
George Russell, Alex Albon and Charles Leclerc were just some of the racers of the current grid to join with streaming veteran Lando Norris to entertain the F1 community. In doing so, they picked up many new fans along the way. Whether racing lorries, tractors or hearing exclamations from Alex Albon of ‘George!’ this was a much needed time of comfort and an opportunity to escape the worries of the real world.
As much as the digital platforms were thriving, so too were the television audience figures and this was despite the fact that the revised 2020 season had four fewer races than 2019:
“Formula 1 has maintained a strong audience position with our average audience per Grand Prix in 2020 at 87.4m. While this is marginally down at -4.5% on 2019, the average per Grand Prix was 87m in 2016, 2017 and 2018, 80m in 2015 and 83m in 2014 and therefore our 2020 performance was very much in line with the average for the past seven years despite the challenging circumstances. The average audience figure for the 2020 season was largely driven by the fact our season took place in Europe and the Gulf which meant a number of regions did not host their own Grand Prix, race start times were not always suited to certain markets and the usual audience uplift we see from particular races did not occur.”
This statement released by F1 shows that although the organisation did not manage to have everything their own way the fan base still made a concerted effort to turn up in their number in front of their screens - due to being unable to turn up in person.
Although the cumulative TV audience for 2020 was 1.5bn compared to 2019’s amount of 1.9bn, there can be no underestimating the fact that this was largely due to 17 races being on the calendar compared to the previous year’s allocation of 21. This claim is supported by the fact that the highest audience figure for a race in 2020 was 103.7m for the Hungarian Grand Prix, and this was a viewing total some 7% higher than the same race in 2019.
Stefano Domenicali, President and CEO, Formula 1, said:
“Last year was an unprecedented time for everyone and Formula 1 had to adapt to the challenges presented by the pandemic…We did it safely and brought excitement and new races to our fans around the world. The audience figures for 2020 show the strength and resilience of our sport, with average audience figures in 2020 at 87.4m and a total season cumulative audience of 1.5bn. We had strong growth figures in China, the UK, Netherlands, Germany, and the USA, combined with the huge boost in our digital figures.”
“We saw only a marginal reduction in TV audiences, caused by multiple reasons but clearly driven but a shortened and limited geographical calendar compared to 2019, but something every major sport has experienced in 2020. We are proud of what we delivered in 2020 and know we have an incredibly strong fan base and audience platform to grow in the coming years. We are delighted our fans feel a strong satisfaction with the sport, our season, and the way we responded to the global pandemic. We are looking forward to the start of the 2021 season after the winter break and we know our fans are as excited as we are to get racing.”
In conclusion, for Formula 1's television audience to have held up so well in 2020 despite the early season shutdown and revised schedule caused by COVID-19 is impressive indeed. Even though the 2021 F1 season has already had to make some alterations and there is still talk of further changes ahead – it is clear that the fans will still be there. This is crucial for the future of Formula One and Liberty Media as this allows the corporation to see that when fans are able to return to tracks as previously – they will do so globally in their hundreds of thousands. Meanwhile, there are many other global sporting events wondering how long such a return to business will take – just ask any would be Olympian.
Formula One drivers are used to overcoming adversity and now so to it seems is the sport itself.
The 2020 F1 season brought many memorable moments and none more so than Pierre Gasly's Italian GP victory: