Sunday, 14 September 2014

Formula One Fans

As usual, it's been a while since I've posted. Hey, I'm a postgrad student (well, now I am anyway), not a journalist. Anyway, tonight I feel compelled to get back to writing about F1 (and motorsport in general). In particular, I want to focus on the lunacy surrounding Formula One Management's strategies of late, and look to the future of the sport. I suspect I may be sued at some point for posting this, but what's life without a little risk?

Tonight, while wasting time on a boring Sunday evening, I was browsing the amusing WTF1 website, looking at various motorsport videos - Nascar, Narain Karthikeyen crashing into something in another formula, that sort of thing - when I came across what I thought would be an amusing video of Russian commentators going mental over Dani Kvyat's save at Monza, when the familiar YouTube error of 'This video contains content from Formula One Management, who has blocked it on copyright grounds' popped up. I've seen this so many times - and it's becoming infuriating.

If you've been following F1 related news in recent months, you may have noticed that many people are starting to worry that the sport is losing fans, one reason being F1, and FOM's reluctance to engage with social media. Many team managers have also expressed concerns that F1 is losing a large audience by not engaging with anything other than TV. Niki Lauda in particular stated that younger people (a demographic I suppose I would be part of, being 22 years old) don't want to spend a Sunday afternoon in front of the living room TV, but are more likely to consume their media on the move, or from sites like Twitter, YouTube or Facebook. It's a reasonable proposition - while I am one of those people who will give up at weekend to watch motorsport on TV (assuming I can't get outside to a circuit and watch it instead), I can see where Niki and all the others are coming from, and can understand that teenagers and kids (and even older people on the move, for example) want new ways of seeing motorsport.

Engagement with social media has worked extremely well for other forms of motorsport. The British Touring Car Championship has its own Twitter feed, full of qualifying coverage and race commentary. In addition, BTCC is shown on free-to-air TV all season (including all the support races all day - my Mum loves it when ITV4 is on for six hours). MotoGP has similar, with a Twitter page and YouTube feed. While this is no longer on free-to-air TV, there's a whole host of ways to follow the sport from its official website, albeit with a subscription fee. Contrast this with F1 - no official, central social media pages (although teams and some drivers do have their own pages), fan-made videos removed because of FOM's copyright, and only half a season available to those who don't wish to pay for a whole Sky Sports TV package. Why? That's easy to answer - money. There's no way of monetising social media at present, and Bernie Ecclestone has stated that until there is, there's no interaction with social media. Huh. What happened to doing things for the love of the sport?

The recent stirrings over the lack of fan engagement have reached a point where Tata Communications have launched the F1 Connectivity Innovation Prize, a series of challenges based around communicating more with fans, and engaging people more with the sport. A $50,000 prize is available for someone who comes up with a good idea. Well, here's an idea for you, Formula One Management (you don't even need to give me the prize money), how about dropping the profiteering for a second, and allowing people to follow the sport away from subscription-based TV?

It seems that F1 in particular is more concerned about what the sponsors think, and if ideas don't make money, they don't happen, even if they could do wonders for viewing figures and engagement in general. There are a huge amount of things that could be done to help F1 through this strange patch of its life - we could get away from mad rules (standing safety car restarts next year, anyone?), and back to proper racing. This, however, is another issue. What could be done now though is remembering that motorsport is built on the support from fans. If we don't engage people - dare I say, 'the youth of today' - through something so simple as a Facebook or Twitter page, they're not likely to pay for a Sky Sports subscription later. Sure, Bernie won't make his millions through chucking a tweet out now and again, but in a multimillion industry, does this matter? What we need to remember is that motorsport - of all forms - started not because people wanted to make buckets of cash, but because people had an inherent love for what they were doing. People were passionate about the sport: fans, drivers and officials alike. There was admiration for what people could achieve in a car or on a bike. Instead of focusing on bank balances, perhaps FOM would do well to remember this fact, and start to give something back to the fans, without whom the sport wouldn't exist in the first place.