KNUTSON: The Key To Attracting Loyal Fans

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Dan Knutson

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — So, grid girls are out and grid kids are in. There has been a fair bit of hullabaloo about Liberty Media’s latest change to the Formula One show.

F-1 has used female models (and sometimes male models) for decades to hold signs with the drivers’ names on the grids, wave the drivers’ national flag, appear on the podium and so on. But Sean Bratches, Formula One’s managing director of commercial operations, says, “This custom does not resonate with our brand values and clearly is at odds with modern day societal norms.”

Now, kids involved in karting and other forms of junior racing will replace the models on the grid. Bratches hopes the opportunity for the youngsters to stand beside their heroes will be an unforgettable experience for them and their families and an inspiration to keep driving, training and learning so they can dream of one day being there themselves.

I also hope this will help generate more interest in F-1 from younger folks. But looking at the larger picture, who is holding a sign with a driver’s name on the grid doesn’t amount to a hill of beans toward shaping and securing the future of the sport and business.

F-1’s fan base is aging in most countries — Japan is one of the exceptions — as is the age of people buying their first cars, trucks or SUVs. And the manufacturers are involved in F-1 for one reason: to sell their vehicles. Who will buy them in the future and will they care about F-1?

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“We need to bring in some new younger fans,” said four-time world champion Alain Prost, who now is an adviser to the Renault Formula One team. “It is one of the biggest challenges because we are facing two problems. F-1 has become a different show in terms of risk and danger, so we don’t attract the same thing like we used to. On the other side, the relation of the young people to cars in general has also changed completely. In the big cities in France, you don’t have any young guys getting their license at 18. No way. They don’t buy cars at a young age. In France, buying a new car, the average age is 45 or 50. A used car is 25, 27. So we have to think about that. The whole thing has to change. It is very difficult to know exactly what to do.”

Liberty is making changes and contemplating doing even more on the social media front and how people can watch and experience F-1 without having to sit in front of the TV for two hours at inconvenient times. That is a positive step toward attracting younger audiences. But getting kids out to the race track is very difficult because tickets are so expensive.

Some tracks such as Australia’s Melbourne, do make an effort to make tickets for minors and families more affordable. But the basic problem remains: The circuits have to pay very high fees to secure the rights to the races and Formula One takes most of the money from things such as hospitality and on-track advertising. The organizers’ main income is from ticket sales, and the only way they can recoup some of that fee is by charging a lot for those tickets.

When there used to be a lot of F-1 testing, it provided a way for people to see the cars and drivers without having to pay a lot of money. These days testing is very limited — just eight days before the first race and then a few more days during the season.

“I was completely against stopping private testing because at the end of the day we invest the same money in simulators or whatever,” Prost said. “Many, many times, it is unbelievable the number of people who came to me and said: ‘I have seen you in Paul Ricard or Estoril in the winter for the test. I came with my father; or when I saw you I got the passion, I was looking at the cars and listening to the engines.’ These kinds of things we don’t have anymore.”

The times of multiple days of testing on track are no more. Liberty and Formula One as a whole are going to have to think of ways to attract younger fans who will stay loyal for years to come.

And figuring that out, not who is holding a sign on the grid, is the real issue.