What Formula 1 Can Learn from the NFL About Fan Engagement

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistNovember 1, 2014

Lewis Hamilton greets fans at the Circuit of the Americas on Thursday.
Lewis Hamilton greets fans at the Circuit of the Americas on Thursday.Circuit of the Americas

AUSTIN, Texas — Success in the United States is like the Holy Grail for Formula One—not only because of the value but also because finding either entails a seemingly never-ending quest.

If you are looking for one league that has the American market figured out, though, it is the National Football League. According to Forbes' Mike Ozanian, the NFL is not only the most successful professional sports league in the U.S., but it's also the most valuable league in the world.

Circuit of the Americas CEO Jason Dial.
Circuit of the Americas CEO Jason Dial.Circuit of the Americas

The Circuit of the Americas (COTA), host of the only American F1 race (for the near future, anyway), has taken a page from the NFL's playbook and last year promoted Jason Dial—a former chief marketing officer for the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers—to the position of CEO.

I spoke with Dial on Friday at the track, and it struck me that many of his ideas are just what F1 fans are clamouring for and what the sport needs to engage a new generation of fans—both in America and around the world.

F1 is already an incredibly successful sport itself, but there are improvements to be made. F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone is in Austin this weekend. Hopefully he is listening.

"The fans in America love access," Dial says. "They want to understand the backstory of the athletes, as well as feeling like they have access to them. In the NFL, we call it 'taking off the helmet.' We wanted the community to have a relationship with the athletes and feel like they have a vested interest in their success."

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That is a bit more difficult in F1, where the drivers fly in for a weekend, rather than living in the community year-round, but Dial is doing what he can to bring F1 to the people. There have been events all weekend designed to bring the drivers closer to their fans.

Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo signs autographs for fans in downtown Austin on Wednesday.
Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo signs autographs for fans in downtown Austin on Wednesday.Matthew Walthert

Dial says he wants to offer, "more of a festival-type of atmosphere," and that is how this race weekend seems, with concerts and driver events all weekend at the track, as well as a variety of initiatives to engage fans in downtown Austin.

"If we're not compelling enough in what we offer, people will not show up. If we are, they will," Dial continues. He acknowledges that F1 is in a fight with other sports for fans' attention and their money, and he is willing to fight for it.

That is in contrast to the attitude of the powers-that-be in F1 in recent years, which has seemed more like: Here's the sport; take it or leave it.

Fans want to be close to the sport they love, but F1 has—in some quarters—been reluctant to embrace them.

Take social media such as Twitter and Facebook, for example, which have revolutionised the way athletes can interact with their fans and vice versa. Earlier this season, Ecclestone told Autosport's Jonathan Noble, "I think the change that is currently taking place is very shortlived, as these social-media people are starting to think it is not as good as they thought."

That kind of tone-deaf statement coming from the head of the sport has the potential to turn off fans.

F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone
F1 CEO Bernie EcclestoneLuca Bruno/Associated Press

After failed events in Indianapolis and a number of other American cities, though, the race in Austin can already be qualified as a success in just its third year. According to COTA, last year's U.S. Grand Prix was the fourth-highest attended race of the season. 

Still, Dial is not sitting back enjoying that success. "We are really focused on building our awareness and engagement globally," he says. "We have an incredible contingent of folks that come from Europe, who love to come into Austin and Texas and enjoy seven to 10 days—they take their holidays."

Even with a new race in Mexico City next year and ongoing talk of a second race at another American venue, the COTA CEO is not worried. "What we focus on is the experience," Dial says—something the NFL does very well, with each game seeming like a major event for the city hosting it.

"If you look at Mexico City or Las Vegas or New York, each one of those cities, if they were to come online, are going to offer different experiences," Dial continues.

"We have Austin as our backdrop, which is such a unique and fun city, and I think folks around the world are realising that Austin is a destination. Everybody says its cool, its young, it has this incredible vibe...it's the live music capital of the world. We are focused on the experience not just of the race, but throughout the whole weekend."

Thousands of fans showed up for the Thursday pit walk at the Circuit of the Americas.
Thousands of fans showed up for the Thursday pit walk at the Circuit of the Americas.Circuit of the Americas

But Dial is not just thinking about those fans who can make it to Austin for the weekend. He also wants to expand the television audience—another tough sell, considering many races start early on Sunday mornings in the U.S.

However, it is something F1 must consider if it truly wants to capture a healthy share of the American market.

"When you can increase the broadcast audience, you're going to increase the awareness and engagement of F1, and I think everybody wins there," Dial says. "Expanding the footprint in the U.S. is important, so that you get to see the races during normal sports-viewing hours. You can get folks to come into the sport and see how incredible it is if it's in that 1 to 4 p.m. slot."

That is another lesson from the NFL, which has made it easy for its fans to watch games in prime time on Monday, Thursday and Sunday nights, in addition to the regular slate of games on Sunday afternoons.

"The fans love a competitive season, they love access to the drivers, they love access to the tracks and, of course, the broadcast is fantastic!" Dial exclaims. "They do an amazing job; you just want it to be on at normal viewing hours."

In other words, it's bringing F1 to the fans, rather than hoping the fans seek out the sport. The NFL has already proven the model. F1 just needs to adapt it and reap the rewards.

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.

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