Pursuing a winning formula

BY MIKE MADODA

SUNDAY afternoons used to be dominated by football. Whether local or the international variety, it held sway with very little or nothing in the way of competition.

The Harare Derby at Rufaro, the Battle of Zimbabwe at Barbourfields, the Zvishavane Derby at Maglas — we could not wait to be a part of the story and to witness the action.

And even when the quality of our league began to drop and some started questioning the entertainment value, we turned to the English Premier League and La Liga in growing numbers with the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool, Real Madrid and Barcelona filling the void more than adequately.

Lately, however, it seems the green grass has been replaced by asphalt as Formula-1 has taken root, even in Zimbabwe, as arguably the Sunday afternoon entertainment of choice.

Race day sees social media, especially Twitter, invariably dominated by chatter around the fortunes of people’s favourite teams — preeminent amongst those; Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari.

A report from global analytics company Nielsen Sports has found that up to one billion people will claim interest in Formula-1 by mid-2022. According to Nielsen, interest in the sport grew by 73 million last year — equal to 20% — in 10 of the motorsport series’ key markets, which were Brazil, China, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, South Korea, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States. The research also concluded that 77% of the growth was driven by the 16-35 age-group, which at the present moment accounts for 46% of Formula-1’s interest pool.

An aggressive and innovative marketing strategy has been the vital cog in driving this growth. Formula-1 has mastered the art of storytelling, with Netflix’s Drive to Survive being a prime example, pun intended. The docuseries has played a key role in growing popularity among younger audiences, not only educating new audiences of the sport, but engaging with them in a light-hearted and entertaining way that has helped many to understand what is a technically complex sport.

Another key factor was last year’s Virtual Grand Prixes, which were held when action was suspended due to Covid-19. With the world at a standstill in the middle of the pandemic, Formula-1 increased its digital footprint and social media audience, beating leagues like the Bundesliga, NBA, NFL, UFC and La Liga by a staggering margin.

This growth spurt was led by the sport’s younger and more tech-savvy drivers such as Lando Norris, Charles Leclerc and George Russell, who utilised popular streaming platforms to connect with fans the world over.

According to Nielsen, Formula-1’s younger audience grew the most in March 2020, when interest in the series rose from one-in-four to one-in-three. The sport has been able to capitalise on that growth, with Nielsen reporting that an average 2,7 million 16-35-year-olds have become interested in Formula-1 in each subsequent month. While other sports suffered a decline in viewership amidst the uncertainty of the pandemic, Formula-1 witnessed significant growth across its social media platforms.

Despite the revised 2020 race calendar, it maintained an average television audience of 87,4 million viewers per Grand Prix, only 4,5% less than the previous season. On social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, TikTok and Twitch, Formula-1 had an impressive spike of 35% in its follower growth.

They say opportunity meets preparation, and as fate would have it, the 2021 Formula-1 season has conspired to feed into this growth and consolidate these gains — especially in emerging markets like Africa.

It is a season that just keeps on delivering, and this past weekend’s French Grand Prix was no different, with Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton locked in a titanic tussle for honours that had fans on the edge of their seats.

It was a race that epitomised the sport at its best as we saw the human side and the strategy side of the sport in all its splendour. And if Formula-1 can continue to deliver entertainment of this nature, it is well poised to convert casual followers of the sport to long-term fans and generate unprecedented interest levels.

Formula-1 is reaping the rewards of a strategy that saw it expand its content offering through additional peripheral and story-telling programming, which appeals to its current target market.

Over the last eighteen months, the racing series has grown its fan base in a period of inactivity, a season in which the competition held its fewest races, using strategies and digital platforms which come at relatively low cost — even by Zimbabwean standards.

While most of our sports have allowed the pandemic to dictate terms, visionary organisations have advanced undeterred. The slide we have seen in fan interest and engagement over the last decade is likely to continue if Zimbabwean sport does not wake from its Covid19-induced slumber and realise that it can no longer be business as usual.

The competition for eye-balls is no longer just local, but global, as the Harare Derby, now not only competes with the Platinum Derby, but also the North London Derby. And not just that, but the myriad of sports events television has to offer.

The challenge that is facing local sports teams and organisations in this globalised world, is to innovate or die. Just five years ago, the majority of fans that are now ardent followers of Formula-1 would not have given the sport a second thought on any given Sunday.

But the aforementioned strategies mean that, unlike in previous decades where the sport was followed exclusively by automotive intellectuals and petrol heads, Formula-1 has now grown beyond its core audience and has created a connection with modern millennials the world over.

Seven times world champion Lewis Hamilton, who has an Instagram following of 22,7 million and is the sport’s only Black driver, last year said that it was important for the sport to race in Africa. The continent has not featured on the Formula-1 calendar since the last South African Grand Prix at Kyalami in 1993.

Though there may not be anything in the pipeline for the near-future, and the record-breaking Briton may never race on the Motherland, he can take solace in the fact that the sport’s innovative marketing strategy means that his name has reached near ubiquity on the continent. So, while the Mercedes one-stop strategy at the French Grand Prix may have failed, Formula-1 as a brand has definitely found the winning formula.

  •  Follow Mike Madoda on Twitter: @mikemadoda