Stuck in the dark ages

AbiteboulThat the question came from a 22-year-old female journalist was surprising – after all, how many 22-year-olds get access to an F1 media pass to sit in a male-dominated press room that surely boasts the oldest average age of any major sport? – but the source of the answer to it was revealing.

It was the usual drudgery of the mandatory team principal’s press conference at Sepang on Friday afternoon, where the same questions are asked in different ways by the same journalists from one race to the next to team principals who stitch together one banal sentence after another to avoid answering them. And then Yassmin Abdel-Magied got straight to the point.

What must F1 do to appeal to a younger and broader audience, she asked? Another follow-up question from another journalist asked if the broadcasting rights restrictions on F1 were preventing the sport from expanding its youth audience.

The blank stares and uncomfortable shuffling in chairs was broken by Caterham’s Cyril Abiteboul, who at 36 is the youngest team principal in the sport, someone relatively new to the role who has lived outside the bubble that F1 people typically immerse themselves in for decades. And his answer couldn’t have made more sense.

“I think we need to find the right balance between the accessibility, exclusivity and value,” he started.

“I think that there is a belief right now that more exclusivity creates value. Maybe this was true; maybe it’s less true with new media where it’s more the distribution, and our people need to react with content that is creating value. If you look at Facebook, there is nothing exclusive in Facebook and I think that the value of the IPO of Facebook is quite historic. You may argue that there is a bubble of internet, but I think Formula One would be happy to have such a bubble.

“I think those are the sort of things that we maybe have to look at, that maybe a lack of exclusivity maybe does not mean a lack of value.”

While half of the assembled press probably went back to their desks to ask someone half their age what Facebook is, I couldn’t help but think of how poorly F1 does in pushing its pictures across different platforms compared to other sports. With working interests in a number of different sports and without the need to constantly reinforce my credentials by telling everyone exactly how many years I’ve been working on F1 and why what I was doing in 1973 matters now [1], I can think of several first-hand examples of engaging with several sports on different platforms that leaves F1 in the dark ages.

After last year’s Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, I found myself thinking of my next assignment at Phillip Island in Australia for MotoGP the following weekend. The two-wheel calendar had the bikes in Malaysia the same weekend that F1 was in Japan, and I was keen to watch. So it was straight to the sport’s official website, and after paying a small fee for a one-race video pass, I was watching Marc Marquez and Jorge Lorenzo go at it in a thrilling head-to-head battle as my train sped across the Japanese countryside back to my Nagoya base and the journey to Australia. Brilliant pictures, perfect commentary, replays whenever I wanted them and all sorts besides. And it was hardly an isolated incident.

The year before, I stayed up in the wee hours at my hotel in Indianapolis to watch my beloved West Coast Eagles play a relatively ho-hum Australian Rules football game against Port Adelaide through the sport’s official website. I may have been at the home of motorsport in the US on assignment to interview Casey Stoner, but the option was there to keep tabs on something happening back home, and I took it.

Years earlier, I vividly remember listening to an ESPN podcast where then-NBA commissioner David Stern was interviewed about the almost instantaneous uploading of video highlights to NBA.com, the website of basketball’s biggest and best league. His response was fascinating. The league found that when a highlight happened in a game, viewers were recording them on their phones and uploading them to YouTube as fast as the public wanted to see them or tweet about them, but the quality of what was being shown was inevitably poor. Stern’s idea was for the league to take control of the situation by posting its own videos as soon as possible, with greater say in how its highlights and all of the commercial considerations of the sport were being presented. The NBA’s YouTube channel now has almost six million subscribers, and the sport’s League Pass offering – where any game can be watched at any time on any device for a quite reasonable fee – has revolutionised the way fans interact with that sport. Something big happens? Chances are you’ll be seeing it within five minutes in pristine quality, multiple replays, great commentary, and ready to share with like-minded enthusiasts.

What does F1 do? Fans put a video on YouTube, and it gets taken down within hours. Want to see a highlights package of the latest Grand Prix? Wait several days [2] for an all-too-familiar cookie-cutter approach to the presentation of a race to eventually find its way onto the sport’s official site, music usually drowning out the action, the moment completely lost as the sport’s fans have moved on. It’s not good enough for any audience, especially a younger and technology-savvy one. Yes, the presentation of the highlights always looks great, but why does it take so long? It smacks of a sport that’s losing relevance with its audience. That notion doesn’t seem up for debate – what other sport would change the results of its opening race of the most highly-anticipated season in years five hours after it finished as was the case with Daniel Ricciardo’s belated exclusion from the Australian Grand Prix a fortnight ago? – but what’s of greater importance is what those inside the sport are willing to do about it. As the press room gets older and more detached from the future generation of F1 consumers [3] and what they want, and as so many of those on the inside in the sport live in their cocooned existences, turn left on airplanes and count their money as the circus shuffles from place to place, a young, tech-literate, hungry-for-more audience is left underwhelmed, which shouldn’t be the case given how much the sport has to offer.

Marussia’s Graeme Lowdon was also in the Sepang team principal’s presser, and while he’s some 13 years older than Abiteboul, he too made more sense than most.

“What we don’t want is an audience for Formula One that is big but aging,” he said.

“We want to capture young people. We operate in a sport that’s incredibly rich with data, and youngsters today, they interact. They enjoy interacting in lots of different ways. And so we have so many assets at our disposal as a sport. Not just in terms of video pictures, but in terms of data and information and comments and commentary.

“I think if we get the recipe right, there’s an enormous opportunity to grow the fan base exponentially. And that can only be good for the sport in the long run. So … it’s a huge opportunity, and hopefully an opportunity that the sport will take.”

I’m too grey to be considered a “youngster” these days, but I hope he’s right. Other sports have shown the way and have evolved to ever-changing markets and the wishes of the fans. Time will tell if F1 wants to – or feels it needs to – do the same.

—– —— — —

[1] No, I wasn’t hanging out with Jackie Stewart – I’d only just been born. But even if my memories of 1973 were vivid, I wouldn’t feel the need to continually recount them. Nobody cares.

[2] Or well over a week, as was the case for the dramatic 2012 season-finale in Brazil. How is that even possible?

[3] I have enormous respect for so many of my colleagues in the F1 press room that I come across on my travels, and some of them continue to set the standard in news-breaking, feature writing and observational content. Across any sport. And then there are some that are playing out time as they move further and further away from their last relevant moment. And they know who they are.

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