Will Taylor Swift Fans Stick Around for a Formula 1 Race in Austin?

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistMarch 11, 2016

Kimi Raikkonen at the 2015 US Grand Prix.
Kimi Raikkonen at the 2015 US Grand Prix.Clive Mason/Getty Images

The U.S. Grand Prix will go ahead as planned in October 2016, the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) confirmed this week, allaying doubts raised by the race's provisional status on this year's calendar.

This is great news for Formula One, which cannot afford more problems in America after the 2005 fiasco at Indianapolis and the unfulfilled promise of a New Jersey race, across the Hudson River from New York City.

The really big news, though—at least according to the circuit's press release and many of the stories that have been written since the announcement—is that Taylor Swift will perform a concert at the track after qualifying on the Saturday.

"It will be a one-off show. Her only show in 2016," COTA chairman Bobby Epstein said, per Forbes' Christian Sylt. "We think we can bring in 100,000 new people and put on the biggest show."

According to Sylt, the Swift concert should allow COTA to break not only its own attendance record (265,449 over three days at the 2012 U.S. Grand Prix), but the all-time F1 record of 353,700 at the 2007 Spanish Grand Prix.

The real question, at least for those concerned about the future of F1 in the U.S., is: How many of those fans will actually watch anything other than the concert?

Circuit of The Americas @COTA

Game on. https://t.co/nqaIXc7G2u

When Swift came to Dallas in October 2015, just three hours up the interstate from Austin and COTA, resale tickets were going for an average of $354, according to the Dallas Observer's Paige Skinner. For anyone who paid those prices, $150 for three-day general admission at COTA, including the concert, will look like a bargain—whether they bother to watch any on-track action or not.

The circuit may indeed sell 100,000 extra tickets, but don't confuse that with 100,000 extra people watching F1.

In November 2015, Eric Dexheimer of the Austin American-Statesman reported that COTA's state funding was being cut by more than 20 per cent. The circuit relies on that funding—calculated by the economic benefit the grand prix generates for Texas—to pay its race-hosting fee.

Uncertainty over payment of the hosting fee led to the race's provisional listing on the FIA calendar.

Epstein told Reuters' Alan Baldwin that the circuit did not demonstrate the necessary economic impact, particularly after a freak storm caused last year's attendance to drop.

Jimmy @maasdinero

F1 set to return to @circuitamericas this fall. COTA's Bobby Epstein makes it official. https://t.co/SmgFavq6NI

With the Swift concert, that impact will obviously increase. And perhaps a few of Swift's fans will be converted by the sight and sound (OK, not the sound) of F1 cars racing around the circuit.

What this really looks like, though, is not a "revolutionary" marketing strategy, as Sylt called it, but a ploy to boost the economic impact of the grand prix and secure its future in Austin.

To be clear, this is not a criticism of COTA. Epstein is doing what he needs to do to ensure the viability of the race. If F1 truly wants an American presence—and all evidence indicates it does—those running the sport should be thankful for Epstein and his team at COTA.

It is a sad indictment of the current state of the sport, however, if a grand prix in a beautiful new facility in a fabulous city in the wealthiest country in the world is not sustainable without bringing in 100,000 extra fans for a concert.

The facilities and the track at COTA are truly world class, and Austin is renowned for its live music scene. The city and the race organisers also put on a fun, engaging fan festival in downtown Austin. But none of that, apparently, is enough. Maybe Taylor Swift is the answer.

But what happens next year, when Swift and her screaming fans are a distant memory?

Speaking about the future of the race, Epstein told Reuters, "I think it’s going to be here for a long time."

If one poorly timed storm and a change of government can throw the whole race into doubt once, though, it can surely happen again. For the sake of American F1 fans and the future of the sport in the country, let's hope Epstein is right.

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