Fans, sponsors and F1 not on TV – Can national and club motor racing take advantage?

In the couple of months since we announced that Motor Racing UK Magazine was going to launch this year we’ve had quite a few conversations and messages about the current, and future, state of the sport in this country. The main subjects that have come to the fore are the ‘big picture’ ones that you would expect:

Are there too many championships?

Can entry fees be reduced?

What can we do to improve facilities at some of the circuits?

The two most popular subjects are also ones you’d expect. Personally I thought they’d be further down the order, but they’re far and away the most discussed with us, and they are linked to one another:

How can I raise more sponsorship?

How can we get more people into, watching the sport?

For the sake of raising a racing budget life would be easier if companies could be guaranteed a little more exposure. There are some hard working folk out there who manage to raise a decent amount to get the job done, but with the exception of one or two of the bigger championships, life would be so much easier if sponsorship proposals indicated that a larger raceday crowd would be exposed to their brand, after all, the majority of racing in the UK does not find its way onto TV, or even onto the internet.

You could say it’s a chicken and egg thing, but it isn’t. Racers will always find a way to race, even without funds, or without anybody watching, there would still be a way. If we had no chickens, and no eggs, then chicken korma would become nothing more than soup.

Sponsorship will always be an easier sell for drivers if there are more eyeballs at a race meeting. The days of club races at Thruxton or Oulton bringing in thousands of spectators are long gone. Those home videos from the sixties and seventies featuring huge crowds watching clubman events are history I’m afraid, but if those tracks could get an extra hundred fans for each meeting, then I’m sure there would be a couple of extra opportunities for drivers and teams to scrounge a bit more cash to cover some costs.

There are racers who don’t need any eyeballs on their cars at all, some have the means to fund their adventures themselves. There are also those with solid backing from friends and family who may run a few decals in thanks for their support, but I’m sure that they’d all prefer to run in front of larger crowds too – It creates atmosphere.

I recently spoke to a fellow racing journalist based in California about IndyCar returning to the hallowed Laguna Seca circuit, having given Sonoma the elbow as the season ending showpiece for the championship. He said that despite IndyCar fans spending the last few years clamouring to get Laguna back on the calendar it “won’t make one iota of difference,” when it comes to crowd size.

The championship closer has been notorious for its poorly attended races. “Laguna is a two hour drive from San Francisco, Sonoma is 45 minutes, moving it further away from that urban sprawl isn’t going to boost that” he said. “Laguna is an hour twenty south of San Jose, Sonoma is an hour twenty north. To people who don’t know IndyCar, a venue change the same distance out won’t change things there either.” He went on to directly blame the race promoters themselves for the small crowds. He pointed out that IndyCar has pushed as much as it can with the budget it has to build up awareness, but the track that it is leaving never went that extra mile to pull in local fans. The atmosphere suffers for it as a result.

The Indy 500 is the big one for IndyCar, but the last race of the year is the second most sponsor friendly race. Mid-September on the west coast of the USA is the ideal place to shmooze those with their hands around the marketing purse strings, but with barren stands they wonder if the investment is worth it. It’s pretty much the same, but on a much smaller scale, in our own national scene.

We can’t just sit back and say circuits aren’t doing enough to bring in more spectators. We have to make some moves ourselves. For years most of us have shared opinions on how to boost crowds at club events. None of us have found a way to change it – I don’t have the answer here – but one thing we’ve all learned is that just dragging people along to races and hoping to ignite their interest does not work. You need to find the right people, not everybody appreciates the avant garde plumbing at some circuits, hence why some tracks have foliage that seems to grow at a rate above that of the surrounding countryside….

We’re not talking about bringing people to hospitality suites here either. Although hospitality is a boon at tracks like Brands and Silverstone, the chances of making a repeat customer through that business is slim. I think it is safe to say that a lot of that crowd will move on to hospitality at Wembley or Twickenham over a wet Sunday at Anglesey.

For racing at this level we need to find people who have at least some pre-disposition to being attracted to watching the sport live at the track. In that area, for the next five years, there is one section of sports fandom that is open to that possibility. They might have enough chutzpah to ignore the rudimentary water closet arrangements and be willing to accept that on occasion you’re going to get cold and wet.

Live TV coverage of Formula One – with the exception of the British Grand Prix – is heading exclusively behind a paywall on Sky Sports until 2024. According to the F1 Broadcasting Blog an average of 669,000 viewers watched live races on Sky in 2018, versus an average of 2.1 million who watched the ten races that were shown live on Channel 4.

Of those 2.1 million terrestrial TV fans some will opt to pay Sky to continue to watch, some will find something unrelated to motorsports (should I be churlish and include Formula E as a non-motorsport event?!) to fill their Sunday with, and some will look for other racing to watch.

The obvious starting point there is the BTCC on ITV4. Logic would suggest that the championship will see a rise in viewing figures as some of those F1 fans find some other free-to-view track action to fill their weekend. Add to that live streams of British GT, club racing and international motor racing, then we will likely see a rise in interaction with F1 fans away from a Grand Prix.

The broadcast medium won’t have the epiphany moment that it did when Italian football aired on Channel 4 a quarter-of-a-century ago, just as the Premier League went behind the same Sky paywall, but it could have a significant effect on both broadcast figures and race attendances. According to the BTCC an average of 360,000 people watched each race live on TV in 2016 (BTCC) and it is expected to grow much further as racing fans rejected by F1 look for there fix elsewhere.

Consider this: If one percent of those 2.1 million viewers (who don’t already follow other racing) can be converted into attending national motorsports, then it would add 21,000 extra punters to the trackside. That is the equivalent to the average gate for Premier League football club Watford. With a similar spending power to fans of The Hornets, that could inject a lot of cash into circuits, and into the crosshairs of potential sponsors that drivers and teams are trying to get onboard.

Even if the perfect storm of F1 disappearing from the tellybox, and national racing becoming an attractive pastime for the disenfranchised Lewis Hamilton fan does come to pass in the next year or two, it will need cultivating by those who already invest themselves in racing. That is to say, me and you.

Most club racers bring someone with them when they’re at the track for a weekend of competition. Sometimes friends and family get into the paddock as part of the setup, sometimes they have to purchase a ticket for the privilege, sometimes they’re the only spectators there.

I went to one meeting last season – I won’t mention which track or which championships were racing – and the spectator car park had 14 cars there. Yes, I counted them (there was also a local farmer on his mountain bike who’d hopped over a fence, but we’ll discount him.) As I watched the paying public arrive it worked out that on average each car contained two adults paying entry at £15 per ticket. That is 28 tickets on top of the usual fees that had been paid to the circuit. That works out at an extra £420 for the track – which is less than the national average weekly wage.

That is where we come in. There is no incentive for the circuits to push and promote these clubbies in a serious fashion. I think we can see that as being reasonable in the case of this race meeting in particular. Would marketing have brought in an extra 10 spectators and raised another £150? In the overall scheme of things is that enough payback? Nobody is going to refuse extra cash, but even on a warm summer day with some pretty impressive machinery on display we’re finding it hard to attract a new audience.

Joe Public, who drools over a Ferrari driving down his local high street at 15mph. isn’t going to go to see live racing on the back of a few shared social media posts. We can forget about him. So what else can we do? Apart from hoping that Liberty Media and Sky Sports shafting F1 fans will create a new breed of national race fans, what can we as individuals do? A hell of a lot I think, and one simple thing should help to chip away at that.

Buy some tickets ourselves, and give them away to people that we think will enjoy the freedom of a club weekend. I know, budgets are tight (it bloody well is at this magazine) but think of it as an investment.

Sometimes I see racers who don’t shout about their involvement in the sport, and I’m not suggesting that they change that. But if you’re racing at what is your local track, buy some tickets, invite some people you know along, give them a look around the car, get them to take a load of selfies, let them get the message out to their friends about how much fun it is. They might return of their own volition, and they might just inspire others to come along.

If you know one of those F1 fans who are in denial at their relationship being broken up against their will, grab them and drag them into the light. A bit of exposure to a paddock where you can get up close with the cars and the drivers is all it takes sometimes, especially with younger fans. In my own experience one of my sons dropped F1 like a cartoon anvil once he had the chance to sit in a Lotus 20 at an HSCC meeting and blip the throttle with the engine running. He now ranks that driver alongside Takuma Sato (long story) as the greatest of all time!

The majority of sports are constantly on a quest to discover new revenue streams. They strive to monetise everything at every opportunity to increase income, but racing at the grassroots level cannot use that as the bottom line. Engagement is key, and that engagement, if successful, will reap benefits for fans, especially if you keep them happy and allow them to be involved.

The connection between enthusiasts and racers is one of the major factors behind the creation of Motor Racing UK Magazine. It revolves around this community, and having that community support itself in a symbiotic way is a goal that I think we all want to see come to pass. Sure, it would be nice if we were to become a giant in publishing, but that is not our goal, we aim to make connections and do our part in helping the sport to thrive.

Late last year during an episode of the RSL/Radio Le Mans podcast, Silverstone boss Stuart Pringle said that organisations such as the 750 Motor Club (and all of the others of course) shouldn’t be, in effect, subsidising the British Grand Prix. It is an indication that this racing country, which is the centre of world motor racing, is not as healthy as it should be. Yes it is important that Formula One retains its pre eminent position as the focal point of the British motor racing calendar, but as in sections of wider society (and I’m sure both sides of the political divide will agree,) we’re seeing those with extraordinarily large fortunes trample over those who are working away very hard to achieve their dreams. The drain on opportunities for national racing, for the benefit of Liberty Media and other invested parties in F1, can only be reversed if we fight our corner. Part of that is showing the percentage of the disaffected that there is an alternative out there.

Don’t take me as some kind of anti-F1 fanatic, I’m far from it. I love F1 dearly, I’ve been fortunate enough to work in the sport, I’ve written about it, and since a child I have been a fan, but racing in this country is not all about three supremely talented drivers. It is not just about the excellence of F1 manufacturing. It is about all of the people who make a living or take pleasure from it.

Essentially, even with differences and rivalries, we’re all in this together. Divers, fans, teams, clubs, officials, circuits and even the media, if we all make a bit of an effort we can build the foundation for a stronger future in the sport.

I’m not claiming that this is the answer to bringing in more fans, or building better foundations for sponsorship, but if this transient period of ludicrous TV shenanigans in the world of F1 doesn’t see an increase in interest in national and club motor racing, then we’re never going to change things.

All the best,

Mick

 

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