As Las Vegas Grand Prix looms, a look at how F1 turbocharged growth in the US
‘They’re trying to create that Super Bowl effect,’ experts say of F1, which has seen an enormous spike in popularity in the US following the success of Netflix’s Drive to Survive.
This weekend, F1 descends on the gambling capital of the world / Julian Paefgen
Hundreds of thousands of spectators will descend on Sin City this weekend to attend the most glamorous and most anticipated motorsports race of the year in the US: Formula One (F1)’s new Las Vegas Grand Prix race.
F1, in the last few years, has seen an explosion of interest in the US. Spurred primarily by Netflix’s ultra-popular docuseries on the sport, Formula 1: Drive to Survive, the sport has become unquestionably ingrained in the American zeitgeist.
But the docuseries was only the first stepping stone. It enticed fans not only with adrenaline-packed scenes of the sport, but also with the glamorous lifestyle that surrounds it – and the many interpersonal dramas fueling fierce competition. What the brand has done in the interim is take these elements – glitz, drama, excitement – and dial them up to 100 to attract more fandom in the US.
And, for the most part, it‘s working.
F1’s magic dust
The continuous rise of F1 in the US is largely because it’s woven entertainment and luxury into the fabric of the brand and its identity.
F1, and its owner Liberty Media, are “looking at the brand as an entertainment property first, but with some serious, high-performance sport to back it,” says Steve Martin, chief executive officer at M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment. “And that’s a very different mindset from most sporting properties.”
Enticed by the hype of Drive to Survive, networks and streaming giants including Netflix, ESPN and NBCUniversal went head-to-head last year to secure the media rights to the sport (ESPN ultimately won out). Advertisers flooded in to get a piece of the pie.
And as the frenzy grew, F1 leaned in. It announced a slate of new races in the US, including this weekend’s much-anticipated Las Vegas Grand Prix. Next season, the sport will hold 24 races globally – the most in its history (a number that some racers, like Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, believe is “too much,” per reports from the New York Times). The sport brought on its first full-time American racer in over a decade, Logan Sargeant, who signed with Williams for the 2023 season.
Soon enough, fashion and celebrity became part of the picture. Tom Cruise starred in a promotional video for the sport aired on Channel 4 in the UK – and worked with Red Bull on a stunt that saw the American actor behind the wheel of an F1 car. One of the sport’s biggest names, British racer Lewis Hamilton – a celebrity in his own right – was rumored to be dating Colombian pop star Shakira earlier this year. Last month, Puma appointed rapper and designer A$AP Rocky as creative director of the sportswear brand’s partnership with F1.
Luxury names, including Rolex and Ferrari, are among the sport’s most significant brand partners, further adding to its glitzy allure. In recent months, top fashion labels, including Chanel and Louis Vuitton, have capitalized on the hype with F1-inspired designs. “The fashion world has now realized the potential that the sport has to reach global audiences,” Lewis Hamilton told the Business of Fashion in July.
Meanwhile, the entertainment element is also growing. This week, Keanu Reeves’ F1 documentary Brawn: The Impossible Formula 1 Story debuted on Hulu. Plus, Brad Pitt is set to star in an upcoming F1 Apple Original Films feature directed by Top Gun: Maverick filmmaker Joseph Kosinski.
“With more entertainment-based F1 media projects coming, in addition to Formula 1: Drive to Survive, F1 is reaping the reward of massive publicity and fan acquisition to the sport without having to produce the content,” says Dan Conti, global head of sports, live and gaming at Wavemaker, part of the WPP sports practice. “They have connected with young fans quickly through the natural crossover and appeal of luxury, sports and Hollywood, with sights set on becoming a core part of the sport’s landscape in America.”
What happens in Vegas...
This weekend’s Las Vegas Grand Prix, Conti says, “will no doubt fuel further growth and momentum.” In fact, the choice to hold the race in the flashy city is likely to add to the brand’s image as one tied to luxury. “The F1 brand has always been about … the glamor of the grid and its superstar drivers, the speed, the action. Stage all this with the backdrop and bright lights of the Vegas Strip – the world’s party town – and you’ve got the sporting spectacle of the year,” says Sarah Kendall, managing director at marketing agency Fuse Sport & Entertainment.
And the festivities are already underway. The event’s opening ceremony Wednesday night featured performances from A-list artists including J Balvin, Journey, Steve Aoki, will.i.am, Tiesto, John Legend and others – plus theatrical acts from Cirque du Soleil. The upscale Bellagio Fountain Club will hold grandstands for fans to watch the race this weekend atop the hotel’s iconic fountains, while celebrity chefs including Mario Carbone, Masahuru Morimoto and David Chang will whip up gourmet dishes for race-goers. Branded activations, pop-ups and lounges from the likes of Hilton, Heineken and T-Mobile will offer exclusive experiences for attendees.
While Vegas’ quality as a racing circuit will be judged after this weekend’s events, Kendall says, it almost certainly won’t disappoint from a branding perspective. “We’ve all come to expect a high bar when the F1 brand shows up – and without the restrictions of other host cities, F1 in Vegas will undoubtedly set new benchmarks in terms of entertainment integration – with music performances, driver showcase moments and sponsor activity and hospitality.”
In fact, Kendall expects that the weekend will set a new standard for future events, “reshaping and redefining what a typical ‘F1 weekend’ looks like.” The event is expected to generate $1.5bn total, with visitors spending $966m, according to Forbes.
“They’re trying to create that Super Bowl effect,” says Martin of M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment.
Suggested newsletters for you
Signs of a slowdown?
Despite the buzz, some experts are skeptical that F1 will be able to maintain its dramatic growth in the US market. It’s already shown signs of slowing, in fact. TV ratings have been dropping – compared with a record high of 2.6 million viewers for the inaugural Miami Grand Prix in 2022, the race garnered only 1.96 million viewers this year, a dip of 24%. Meanwhile, US teams – and the country’s F1 golden child Logan Sargeant – have performed dismally this season. Sergeant is currently ranked 21st out of 22 drivers globally, while Haas, the only American entrant in the 10-team field, is also at the bottom of the standings.
Plus, new reports indicate that F1 and Liberty Media overestimated how well its sales for the Las Vegas Grand Prix would do. The Grand Prix’s chief executive Renee Wilms said on an earnings call earlier this month that F1 would “be sold out by the time of the event.” But even today, tickets for the $500m race weekend remain available on the company’s site, with some ticket prices cut by as much as 60%.
“The issue is: can they maintain their growth? A lot of the data that I'm seeing is showing that [fandom in the US is] tailing off,” says brand consultant Tim Crow, who specializes in sports and entertainment.
He suggests that the runaway success of Drive to Survive may prove to be a double-edged sword. While it raised the sport’s profile, he says that for many ‘petrol heads’ in particular, the reality may not live up to the hype. And the hype it has created may in time wear off. “Netflix has been responsible for the lion’s share of the gains that F1 has made,” he says. “But it’s very, very difficult to sustain something like that in America.”
In a sports-obsessed market like the US, Crow argues, long-standing American sports leagues are likely to remain dominant. “It’s a very difficult market to create sustained growth when you’ve got such formidable competition there by the NFL – and not to mention the other motorsports properties.”
Another risk, according to Martin of M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment, is that the glamor and buzz around F1 threatens its “purity” as a sport. “They’ve got to make sure the product itself and the racing is world-class, and that it’s got [a sense of] jeopardy,” he says. “What you don’t want is for it to become too gimmicky.”
There’s also the issue of a high barrier to entry when it comes to actual participation in the sport. Crow sees a counterexample in the US’ growing adoption of soccer. “The World Cup was a huge moment back in 1994. You've got the inspiration happening at the top [levels] where people could see” the talent on TV, he says. “But, beyond the World Cup, what was happening at the grassroots – the phenomenon of soccer getting into high schools and into college – was a big factor in [soccer’s rise in the US] and why it is continuing to persist. That wasn’t marketing – that was real people doing real things, and building a sport into their lifestyles.” F1, on the other hand, will never be able to unlock fan participation in such a way.
The challenge ahead: keeping fans engaged
Despite his skepticism, Crow acknowledges that F1 could carve out a unique place for itself in the US market. “F1 is very different to the rest of motorsports in the States. It brings with it a lot of … differentiated [elements] – you know, the glamor, the tech, the celebrity and everything else.”
Many other industry leaders are bullish on the sport’s growth outlook in the US, thanks in large part to its robust marketing investments. “F1 has an incredibly well-balanced and strategic media strategy with ESPN as the anchor for live races, in addition to multiple streaming platforms developing and distributing F1 content and series,” says Wavemaker’s Conti. “F1 is maximizing their social channels to successfully engage with and bring in new and younger fans through a defined social media approach and presence.”
He goes so far as to say that “the growth of F1 in the US is a masterclass in creating original content and compelling programming centered around a sport with the athletes, the drama, and the lifestyle to build demand and viewership.”
Nonetheless, the road ahead for F1 in the US won’t be free of obstacles. “Can you retain these fans long-term? That’s the name of the game. That’s the challenge,” says Crow. “It’s going to be interesting in terms of how that plays out over the next couple of years, because it’s not just about acquiring fans for a year – it’s, can you keep them for life?”
For more, sign up for The Drum’s daily newsletter here.