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An eye-opening F1 experience in Austin

An eye-opening F1 experience in Austin

By Abraham D. Madkour, Executive Editor

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Idon’t follow Formula One racing closely, but I came away impressed from my first experience at the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, last week.

I arrived to an airport bustling with fans and immediately went to a dinner at the small-plate specialty restaurant Emmer & Rye along Rainey Street where it was pointed out to me that 30-year-old Sebastian Vettel, one of the most recognizable drivers who races for Scuderia Ferrari, was sitting next to us. Watching him greet a steady stream of well-wishers at his table and seeing his quiet, yet affable manner started the weekend off on a positive note around the sport.

I took in two days at the track and a few things stood out: One, the Circuit of the Americas facility that sits 11 miles southeast of Austin is a vast, sprawling 3.4-mile track that offered good sight lines and multiple seating options at a range of price points, serving up great views of downtown Austin. Two, there is an overwhelming sense of open-minded optimism and experimentation in the post-Bernie Ecclestone era.

On Saturday, I caught an interview with Sean Bratches, F1’s managing director of commercial operations, as he was introduced by the interviewer as “the new American involved in the sport,” and the likable, easy-going Bratches acknowledged that he isn’t a petrolhead but has gained great appreciation for the sport in his nine months on the job. But he added that he loved the game around the business of sports and stayed on point in touting growth areas for the series — more races in the U.S. around urban hubs (especially East Coast); expanding the event experience to suit the global, premium feel endemic to the sport (fashion shows and concerts); and ramping up the digital offerings targeting viewers around the globe (he floated talks with Netflix and development of an OTT service that would be geared to young viewers). Bratches’ years of experience at ESPN have him well-suited to take advantage of programming and distribution opportunities in a multiplatform world.

Talking to some team executives, they give the new leadership of Chase Carey and Bratches high marks for listening and testing new elements. “They are not afraid to try new things, and that’s what the sport really needs,” one team principal told me. While in Austin, F1’s managing director of motorsports, Ross Brawn, said the series is even looking at changing its weekend race schedule and could curtail Friday practice.

The premium experiences are among the finest in sports, which should boost their commercial sponsorship sales efforts. Having only six global partners proves that there is money being left on the table, with inventory to develop and sell. The racing has a global audience, the drivers have broad, crossover appeal and it’s easy to get hooked on the sound and speed on the track.

The sport’s long-term future, of course, rests on making it economically viable for the teams, and it woefully lacks awareness in the U.S. There was some local media coverage in Austin, but very little by national media. How ESPN could give it more exposure when it picks up U.S. rights from NBC Sports, which has done a nice job during its five-year tenure, is a story to watch.

I left Austin with a greater appreciation for F1’s history, appeal and current leadership, and with the sense that everything is on the table for review. For Carey, Bratches and Brawn, there’s a canvas to create a more compelling, appealing and successful product, and after the 40-year run under Ecclestone, that’s all the sport and its fans seem to be asking for.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com

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