Why Formula 1 win puts Channel 4 in pole position

When yesterday’s news broke about Channel 4 taking over as the UK’s free-to-air Formula 1 (F1) broadcaster my initial reaction was one of surprise.

Only last week the majority of reports suggested ITV would win after the BBC pulled out of its three-year contract.

To Channel 4’s credit they were early movers and quickly identified the potential value F1 could deliver for them, despite the reported commitment of £35m-per-year to air 10 races, all set against the backdrop ad free races. A bold move that surely even Lewis Hamilton would have thought-twice about making.

However, the statement from Channel 4’s chief creative officer Jay Hunt encapsulates to me why this deal makes sense for both parties: “We’ve the same appetite for innovation and we’ll be demonstrating that to fans by becoming the first free-to-air commercial broadcaster to show the races ad free.”

That desire to reinvigorate F1, to take risks and repackage the sport to fans is exactly what Mr Eccelstone would have been looking for. And, in this department Channel 4 has form.

The broadcaster has a superb track record for innovative coverage of major sporting events, which includes its inspiring ‘Super Human’ BAFTA-winning coverage of the 2012 Paralympic Games and RTS-award-winning coverage of horse racing. When it comes to innovation and creativity they are up there with the best.

Channel 4 has had a diverse portfolio of sports since its creation in the 1980s – from the ground breaking Italian football coverage, to NBA basketball and NFL, WRC and cricket – and they now have the opportunity to showcase how they can improve the viewing experience for F1 fans across their different platforms, to provide an even stronger emotional connection and insight of the sport.

The channel will show live practice and qualifying sessions of the 10 races within the deal while it will also air highlights of the remaining races (and their qualifying sessions). Ultimately, this is a better outcome for UK F1 fans than the deal that was in place with the BBC.

And, there will of course be opportunities for TV advertising, if not in the races, then around. However, for F1’s sponsors specifically, there will be some drop off due to the channel’s smaller audience compared to that of the BBC. But this is also where the opportunity lies. Channel 4 must focus on how it will look to showcase its ‘new approach’ to attract advertising spend in and around the programme.

From a sports marketing/sponsorship perspective F1 represents a unique platform for Channel 4 to capitalise across their different platform from paid, earned and owned channels to create new formats and environments in which fans – new and old – can engage with the sport in new and interesting ways.

F1 has never been more exciting to watch – in terms of race formats – and a strong selection of drivers, particularly with Lewis Hamilton, now a three time British World Champion the sport has opportunity to make further inroads to tap into and leverage a younger more millennial audience. Lewis Hamilton is now one of the most followed and liked sports personalities in the world, across social and traditional media, and has almost single-handily shaped the perception of the sport right now, much like Tiger Woods or Rodger Federer have done in their respective sports.

Channel 4 has recognised the huge British audience appeal of F1, and reiterates once again that nothing drives eyeballs better than live sport. Nothing drives engagement more consistently and more deeply than passionate sports fans. Live sport is undoubtedly the crown jewel for live TV and when you have the feasibility to shape this viewing experience as a broadcaster it is one which should not be ‘reluctantly’ missed.

James Anderson is an account director at SPORTS at SMG, you can follow him on Twitter at @Jimmy_smg

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