Sky Sports has announced that they will become the exclusive home of live Formula One from the 2019 season.
The news, which comes after the GPDA criticised the move to pay TV, means that only the British Grand Prix will be broadcast live on free-to-air television in the UK from 2019-2024. Sky will offer FTA highlights of every qualifying session and race in this period.
As part of the deal, two additional Grands Prix will be broadcast live on the new standalone Sky Sports Mix channel.
In a bonus to their current shared contract, Sky Sports will become the first broadcaster ever to show the sport in 4K Ultra High-Definition from next season.
The new deal also means that Channel 4 will not be able to extend their broadcasting deal beyond the 2018 season – unless they acquire rights to a potential additional highlights package.
Not only is this move controversial, it is also disastrous. For too long, Bernie Ecclestone has done nothing but insult the fans of Formula One – in particular the younger audiences – by claiming that they offer nothing to him as they cannot afford to buy expensive items such as Rolex watches.
Comments like this – and the move to pay TV in 2012 – are disastrous for the future of the sport.
I began watching Formula One in 2008 and I witnessed first hand the spectacular climax to the Brazilian Grand Prix that year – something that has had me hooked to the sport ever since.
By only showing highlights, there is a very real possibility that viewers will miss out on such scenes – especially if the result is already spoiled to them through other news outlets.
It’s not exactly like the viewing figures are increasing either.
According to the F1 Broadcasting Blog, Sky’s average UK viewing figures have declined by 30% every year since they picked up the rights in 2012. The BBC’s viewing figures began to decline too, except for Lewis Hamilton’s title-deciding race in 2014 which picked up seven million viewers.
Channel 4’s highlights packages of the Australian Grand Prix saw even fewer viewers tune in than those on BBC, although we are only one race into the season.
I personally believe that the reason for the decline in FTA viewing figures is the move behind a pay-TV wall. The casual viewers simply won’t pay for Sky Sports unless they are football, golf or cricket fans as well. £40 plus isn’t worth it for a sport you rarely watch.
The other problem – and I mean no disrespect to Channel 4 – is that they are simply not as big as the BBC. More people will watch BBC on a Sunday lunchtime than C4 as they will be expecting to see a programme such as the news. Even if, say, 10,000 people switched on BBC in such a scenario, that is still a potential 10,000 extra viewers that otherwise wouldn’t be found.
Although C4 are attempting to cater to a more casual fanbase, it is less likely that many casual viewers will come across the channel “by mistake” so to speak.
To cut to the chase, the reason that this is such a disaster is easy.
By having to pay to watch live TV, you are eliminating some of your audience. There is a very real potential that they will then stop watching altogether, lowering viewing figures.
Lowering viewing figures leads to less sponsors wanting to sign up, thus lowering the money available to the teams. Less money means that they either cannot be as competitive or simply cannot compete, leading to their withdrawal and a much worse sport. A worse sport leads to less people watching and we go around in circles.
This has been proven in Germany and Australia where Formula One coverage has moved behind a pay-TV wall done nothing good for the sport. The German Grand Prix has been suffering with dropping attendances for years – despite the success of Sebastian Vettel and Mercedes – whilst the crowd at Melbourne was smaller than usual this year too.
Eventually, there is a possibility the sport will collapse altogether.
The problem could potentially be avoided if it was possible for the average fan to afford a ticket, but it usually is not.
The average three-day grandstand ticket is around the £300 mark per person. For a family of three, that is £900 in access alone. There are then transport and accommodation costs to factor in, as well as the inflated prices of food at the event (I paid £10 for a Baguette at Silverstone last year)!
You are looking at spending roughly £1500 to visit a Grand Prix for a family of three – almost double the price of a family holiday in the UK.
I admit that the British GP organisers are doing their best to help the fans (under 10s go free to this year’s Grand Prix and general admission is just £215 for the three days), which is a great example of why they achieved a record 144,000 people in 2015. For the average family, though, Formula One events are still out of reach.
Perhaps I’m fearing the worst, perhaps I’m not. Time will tell how this the Sky deal plays out, but I cannot see any good coming from it. I really hope that our wonderful sport sees the errors of its ways sooner rather than later.