Liberty Media Faces Some Bumps for Formula One in U.S.

Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal:

The motor sport doesn’t have a large U.S. following but is live-sport content that broadcasters currently crave

The multibillion-dollar sale of Formula One to Liberty Media Corp. represents a new push into the U.S. market for the glamorous motor sport—but John Malone’s media empire has its work cut out for it.

Formula One has grown rapidly since the 1970s under its longtime chief executive, the colorful former car salesman Bernie Ecclestone, who will continue to run the sport from London under the new ownership. Bankrolled by broadcasting deals, race fees, ticket sales and a roster of corporate sponsors from luxury watchmakers to fuel suppliers, the nine-month-long series now stages 21 races across five continents, up from 19 last year.

Still, the 1970s may be the last time many Americans paid close attention to the sport: The most recent Formula One drivers’ champion from the U.S., Mario Andretti, won his title in 1978. Formula One holds a race at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, and features one U.S. team, Haas F1 Team, but the sport’s popularity runs far behind Nascar stock-car racing and most team sports.

In 2015, Nascar’s premier race, the Daytona 500, averaged 13.4 million viewers, according to Nielsen. That compares with just 6.4 million viewers for the most popular open-wheel race, the Indianapolis 500. That year’s Major League Baseball World Series averaged 14.7 million viewers, the National Basketball Association finals averaged 20 million and the National Football League’s Super Bowl averaged 114 million.

Formula One’s world-wide audience, though stronger, has suffered in recent years as well. In the six years through 2014, global Formula One viewership slipped to 425 million from 600 million, according to Christian Sylt, writer of the trade publication Formula Money. The sport now attracts more than 400 million unique television viewers globally, Liberty Media said.

Long dominated by races in Europe, Formula One added circuit locations like Abu Dhabi and Singapore in recent years to tap interest for the sport in emerging economies. Still, analysts said Formula One’s marketing efforts have been inadequate and the sport has lost appeal among younger fans in the globally competitive sports market. The rising cost to teams, the use of lower-powered cars and the predictability of car and driver winners have also hurt.

The key for Liberty Media is pushing the sport into new media, including social networks, and targeting new audiences, analysts said. Cars and drivers might share data with smartphone-wielding fans on social-media platforms, for example.

“F1 is completely behind on social media,” saidJames Allen, a British radio and television commentator on the sport.

Liberty Media could also tap the appeal of Formula One’s big brands, including car makers such as Ferrari NV and Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz, as well as such driving stars asLewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel.

In a statement, Liberty Media, which is controlled by Mr. Malone, a billionaire cable television pioneer, said it has “extensive experience in media, entertainment, live events and digital.”

The Englewood, Colo., company said it would increase promotion and marketing, and enhance digital content distribution, without elaborating or providing figures.

Liberty Media’s acquisition underscores the value of live sports content to broadcasters, which are scrambling to win eyeballs and steal subscribers from challengers like Netflix Inc.and Inc. in an increasingly crowded media market.

“F1 is a key player in growing market for live premium sports rights, driven by increasing demand from broadcasters, advertisers and sponsors for access to mass live audiences,” Liberty Media said.