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Why more women are watching F1 in America than ever before

The 2022 Formula 1 season became the first in US television history to average 1 million+ viewers per race, as reported by ESPN. But, what's more, the number of female viewers who watched F1 races on US television was higher than ever before. To learn more about this new rise of F1 fandom in America, we interviewed Lily Herman, writer of Engine Failure, a weekly F1 culture newsletter, and the co-host and co-producer of the Choosing Sides: F1 podcast.

Credit: ESPN

If the general consensus is to be believed, it seems like this popularity can be chalked up solely to Netflix’s Drive to Survive. However, while the show has undoubtedly played a pivotal role in introducing the sport to millions of audiences, Herman believes a few key things happened before DTS debuted in 2019 which lay the groundwork for F1 in America.

“Liberty Media [an American mass media company] bought F1 in the mid-2010s and one of the things they did very quickly was to make the sport more accessible,” she tells Females in Motorsport. “Almost immediately we saw that teams were not just on social media but became very active on social media and started putting a lot of resources into engaging their respective audiences using various channels and content, like clever TikToks and Instagram posts.”

F1’s recent hire of former Universal and Studiocanal executive, Isabelle Stewart, as Head of Original Content is a distinct example of this approach. In her role, Stewart will be in charge of expanding F1’s content production and forming new relationships and partnerships with creators, which can be seen as a natural extension of the increase in video content by F1 in the past few years. Both individual teams and F1 itself are producing a higher volume of original content like McLaren Racing’s popular YouTube Unboxed series which gives viewers an exclusive behind-the-scenes look into the team, or F1’s Grill The Grid video series featuring the season’s drivers.

“They’re really starting to open enough that if someone stumbled upon F1 through DTS, a friend, or any other means, there’s content for them to consume,” says Herman. “F1 has helped itself a lot.”

So, what is it like to be an American F1 fan? Or as some people say, a “new” fan?

“First and foremost, the idea of the “new” fan is used by certain people to describe anyone who is typically part of an underrepresented group of fans,” says Herman.

As female fans, women are too often told they are not real fans and many who have been watching the sport for decades are labeled DTS fans purely based on their gender. Women are no strangers to the casual sexism that comes along with being a motorsport enthusiast.

“For longtime fans, there is probably some intrigue but also frustration with this new fandom. First of all, it’s no longer an exclusive club anymore, and for some, there’s a lot of new confusion around what fandom even is anymore,” she adds.

Lily Herman writes her own F1 newsletter Credit: Kaitlyn Russell

Before Liberty Media took over, there were very limited ways of tracking the sport - you watch the races, memorise the stats, and that’s about it. But now, there are a lot more accessible, novel ways of enjoying the sport.

“There’s still room to love the technical and engineering aspects of F1 but you could also just be into driver fashion or be intrigued by the lifestyle element or follow the driver’s partners - you can love the sport in many new ways and that can be jarring for fans who have been used to following the sport a certain way,” she says. “But subsequently, it has brought in a very diverse fanbase like women and people of colour who are able to see the sport in these many new ways. Unfortunately for a lot of people, their fandom is predicated on the competition with other fans as opposed to just enjoying the sport itself.”

Whether longtime fans like this new influx of fandom or not, F1 definitely does. Why? The answer is simple: money.

“Women, typically young women, are known capitalistically and economically to be huge drivers of product and experience spending,” she says.

As the Internet has witnessed many times before, the latest example being the Taylor Swift Ticketmaster debacle, younger female fans are more willing to wait in line for hours and splurge on tickets and experiences. F1 has reported its partnership with Fanatics, a Florida-based sports merchandise retailer, has increased sales by almost 200% since 2017. Many drivers are now starting to dip their toes into the merch economy, including fan-favorites Lewis Hamilton and Daniel Ricciardo, with their own collections. With new fans comes new money and no organisation can ever be upset about that, especially not one of the most expensive sports in the world.

Another important thing new fans bring to the table is a fresh perspective. Often Gen Z and Millennial, it is in the social DNA of these new fans to care about what their role models think and say outside of just their stats. They want to know if they care about the environment, if they’re accepting of all sexualities and identities, and if they’re doing their bit to bring about diversity to the sport.

“My litmus test to know when someone got into the sport is to ask what they think of Sebastian Vettel. Some older fans might immediately say that Seb was very obnoxious in the early 2010s but newer fans will always remember him as the activist dad building the bee hotels,” says Herman.

The popularity of F1 in the US is not one-sided. F1 is actively responding by pumping more money into experiences and investing in multiple races in the country. In 2023, we will see three out of 23 races in the US - which includes two new races in two years. Miami debuted this past season, and Las Vegas is making its debut in 2023 and is already more expensive than attending the infamous Monaco circuit.

This fandom is also spilling into America’s very special celebrity culture. We not only see A-list celebrities like Kristen Bell and Dax Shepherd support driver friends like Daniel Ricciardo, but also the slow and steady celebrification of drivers themselves. Earlier this year it was reported that Apple Studios would be producing an all-new F1 film starring Brad Pitt and co-produced by seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton.

“It is a symbiotic relationship,” says Herman. “American celebrities help legitimise the sport but also the idea that these drivers are celebrities that should be taken seriously in the way we think about someone like Tom Brady or Lebron James.”

As a sport that is relatively new in the American space, the challenge of covering F1 for many sports media publications is very real but also exciting. Herman’s newsletter, for example, covers topics like fashion, social content, and brand partnerships that don’t actually exist anywhere else and she is therefore able to break new ground. Other more mainstream publications are however still learning their way around the sport.

“American legacy media is still in the elementary phases of covering F1. Every publication has a version of their ‘Did you know F1 is a popular sport?’ story. Another issue is that many publications may not have the resources to build out an F1-specific crew to cover the beat the same way they may have a basketball or football specialist on staff,” she adds.

Five seasons into the debut of DTS, it might be too soon to say if this F1 fandom is here to stay or simply a fleeting fascination, but nevertheless, this is a very exciting moment in history. As American fans, it is a rare privilege to be able to participate firsthand in the eruption of a Euro-centric sport in a country that has been predominantly focused on the Big Four.

“What has surprised me the most is how many Americans are into F1 that were never into any other sport, to begin with,” says Herman. “F1 is the first sport that many people are sinking their teeth into.”

And we love to see it.


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