While 2020 was a cataclysmic year for many sports—and will mean that Formula 1 and its teams will have to survive on about the half the revenues when the financial results come out in a few weeks from now—Grand Prix racing nearly held the line in terms of TV viewers.
Worldwide TV viewership for Formula 1 racing dropped about 8% year over year in 2020, while U.S. viewership dipped about 10%.
The importance of butts in the seats remains vital for the sport, with around 38% of F1’s revenues coming from race fees. These were seriously impacted in 2020, but the viewing figures and fan engagement with the sport has been robust and that means that the TV revenues, sponsorship and advertising should not be greatly impacted in the immediate future.
Unknown is how any economic impact from the COVID-19 pandemic will affect sponsorship and advertising spends in the future.
However, the TV viewing numbers are a generally positive story with 433 million unique viewers in the course of 2020. Although this was down 8% compared to 2019, it must be noted that there were only 17 races, rather than 21 (a reduction of 23%) and there were losses of viewers as well because most of the races were in Europe which meant that the start times did not work in some other markets.
Several countries, including the United States, Canada and Mexico, lost races, which also likely impacted fan interest.
Despite this, the Chinese viewer numbers were up by the 43%, the Netherlands saw an increase of 28% and even the U.K., where the audience suffered a disastrous drop when the races were broadcast behind a pay-wall, the numbers rose by 10%. There is clearly room for more growth in all the European pay-TV markets, which have all fallen dramatically in recent years.
The cumulative audience for the year has been calculated to be 1.5 billion, down from 1.9 billion.
The race that saw the most viewers was the F1 Hungarian Grand Prix, the third race of the season in mid-July, which had 103.7 million spectators. This was up 7% compared to the same race last year. There were strong results as well from the new races in Portugal (100.5 million) and the short Bahrain track (98.1 million).
The average audience over the 17-race season was 87.4 million, down 4.5% on the average in 2019 but similar to the figure in 2016, 2017 and 2018 and better than the averages in 2015 (80 million) and 2014 (83 million). In the circumstances these are very positive numbers.
“Last year was an unprecedented time for everyone and Formula 1 had to adapt to the challenges presented by the pandemic,” said Stefano Domenicali, F1’s new CEO. “We delivered 17 races, something many thought impossible earlier in the year. We did it safely and brought excitement and new races to our fans around the world. The audience figures for 2020 show the strength and resilience of our sport, with average audience figures in 2020 at 87.4 million and a total season cumulative audience of 1.5 billion.
“We had strong growth figures in China, the U.K., Netherlands, Germany, and the USA, combined with the huge boost in our digital figures. We saw only a marginal reduction in TV audiences, caused by multiple reasons but clearly driven but a shortened and limited geographical calendar compared to 2019, but something every major sport has experienced in 2020.”
The full 2020 season F1 season averaged 607,000 U.S. viewers on the ESPN network.
According to an ESPN spokesperson, the full 2020 season F1 season averaged 607,000 U.S. viewers, flat from the 2019 ESPN/ESPN2 average (614,000) and 24% more viewers than the 2018 ESPN/ESPN2 average (489,000).
Taking into account that two races were broadcast on ABC-TV in 2019, the overall average from 2020 to 2019 in the U.S. fell from 672,000 to that 607,000 average viewers—down -10%.
The story on social media was more impressive. According to Shareablee, a market analyst of online platform audience intelligence and benchmarking, F1 was the second fastest growing major sports league worldwide (Serie A league soccer in Italy was No. 1), with a growth in engagement of 99%, year over year. Though any examination of year-over-year numbers should take into account canceled events in 2020 (Major League Baseball, for instance, saw its regular season shrink from 162 to 60 games for each team).
There is still plenty of potential for growth across the social media platforms for Formula 1, although total video views across F1.com, the F1 app and social media were up 46% to 4.9 billion, while the number of unique users hit 70.5 million, up 26%.
“We are proud of what we delivered in 2020 and know we have an incredibly strong fan base and audience platform to grow in the coming years,” Domenicali said.
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