I just finished watching the most recent season of Drive to Survive on Netflix this weekend. The success of the series and its impact in helping grow F-1 has been nothing short of incredible, which is what I’ll be discussing this week.
Background and Impact
Drive to Survive is a documentary series on Netflix about F-1 which just finished its 4th season, with each season chronicling one F-1 racing season.
The series, which first aired on Netflix in 2019, has sparked a huge increase in the popularity of F-1, especially in the United States.
I think it’s got to be the single most important impact for Formula 1 in North America. - CEO of McLaren Racing
Interestingly, something which is quite rare for Netflix was that the subsequent seasons did even better than the first, as new seasons continued to bring in more viewers.
“Series 3 did more than Series 1. The completion rate and the speed at which the completion rate takes place went up as well” - Ian Holmes, Direct of Media Rights at Formula 1
Overall, the impact of the series on F-1 was tremendous:
Helped increase viewership of F-1 races in the US: Per ESPN, average viewership is up 70% over the last 3 years at 928,000 so far in 2021 from about 547,000 in 2018
Helped drive ticket sales in the US: Since the first season came out, the Austin Grand Prix sold 15% more tickets. In addition, a second US race (in Miami) has been added to the circuit.
Helped bring in younger viewers: Formula one has been attracting much younger audiences, with the 16 to 35 age bracket drove 77% of Formula One’s audience growth in 2020. Per Nielsen, a large part of that is thanks to the Netflix series.
Helped bring in more sponsors from the US: Increasing US interest has had the downstream effect of more US sponsorship dollars flowing into the sport, with companies such as Google, Coca-Cola, Oracle and others upping their sponsorship.
A new kind of Content Marketing
What initially could be viewed as a way for F-1 to just generate another form of revenue for itself via licensing fees actually became one of the best examples of content marketing in recent times.
And F-1 and its owners, Liberty Media, were very much aware of the potential impact this series could have, turning down a bigger financial offer from Amazon to go with Netflix as the partner, given Netflix’s higher reach and engagement and potential for broader distribution.
Netflix has over 200M subscribers, all of whom subscribe to watch content, while Amazon Prime has fewer subscribers, many of whom may only subscribe for free delivery.
In some ways that decision highlights what F-1’s ultimate goal was: telling the story to more people in order to bring them into the sport.
And in this golden age of content and streaming, what better way to do that than through Netflix?
Not only was it the very best form of Marketing and distribution that F-1 could have hoped for, but also the crazy part of it is that they didn’t need to pay a single cent; instead, they got paid in the form of a licensing fee for this! Netflix paid them the licensing fee and covered all the production and distribution costs, obviously in return for having some creative license.
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So what really appealed to people about the Series? A few clear lessons stand out from Drive to Survive’s success, that may be applicable to others going this route of content marketing:
The humanizing of the individuals: One of the reasons for the show’s success was it was able to humanize the people and show the audience things like their upbringing, dreams and failures, and even how they spend their time not racing. Often, in sport, it’s easy to forget that the athletes are human beings that have emotions just like everyone else, and the show did a great job about that. Additionally, F-1 has the reputation of being notoriously technical and lacking connection with the drivers (given they’re in helmets most of the time) which the show was able to address.
The covering of different perspectives: When watching sport, people often focus on their own team and / or the championship. The series was able to tell stories of those fighting for the middle spots or to avoid the bottom and root for different kinds of people and teams. It also paired behind-the-scenes content well with the race content, highlighting a 360-degree perspective around incidents.
Pulling on specific narratives: The show doesn’t aim to necessarily chronicle the full season – instead it focuses on specific narratives (dramatizing them at times, it must be said): tensions between teammates, rivalries between teams and people, the merry-go-round of landing seats the following year. These make for compelling story arcs which keep viewers interested.
When you pair these with the fact that the show was built on good base content (F-1 like many sports is unpredictable and highly dramatic) and had great distribution (Netflix), it’s not difficult to see why it was so successful.
A commonly used saying in sports after all is “You couldn’t even script this”. What better base content to go-off on for a dramatic television series?
More to Come?
Given the large appetite for this kind of content as well as the huge audiences that many of the streaming and other platforms have been able to develop, as well as their huge budgets, I won’t be surprised if we’ll see a lot more sports and potentially even other brands looking to partner with streaming services to open up their doors to the cameras in the hopes of attracting audiences to their brand / sport.
We’ve already seen a number of examples of other similar shows in Sports, either at the individual level (Last Dance - Michael Jordan), team level (All or Nothing in Soccer), or sport level (MotoGP Unlimited) with many others announced including in Golf and Tennis.
A few interesting things to keep an eye on around this phenomenon:
1/ Who pays Whom?
Currently, the teams / leagues are benefiting greatly and receiving both money and marketing. Perhaps in the future the team / league will stop receiving a licensing fee or share in the costs of the production? Or maybe it goes even a step further with some smaller sports actively seeking to fund series like this if they can get it distribution on a Netflix or similar.
2/ Disney+ and ESPN synergies
As Ben Thompson called out, Drive to Survive is a great example of what Disney can perhaps achieve given its ownership of both Disney+ and ESPN.
What is clear, though, is that Disney should learn the lesson of Drive to Survive; indeed, the potential interplay between streaming dramas and live sports is one of the most compelling reasons as to why it makes sense for Disney to not spin out ESPN
3/ Brands and Sponsored Series
Many brands have been telling their stories through ads on social media, TV, as well as paying for sponsorships on platforms like Buzzfeed.
But perhaps the success of these documentaries as well as the impact of shows like Queen’s Gambit in boosting interest in chess leads brands to potentially consider working with the likes of Netflix on sponsored series that grow the interest in their product / area or just tell their story.
Obviously, this isn’t just up to the brands themselves, and it’s not clear whether Netflix has an appetite for this, although it could be an interesting way for them to generate additional revenue in the future via sponsorships.
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