Analysis: Should Formula 1 be plotting a Twitter future?

It was the week that Twitter turned broadcaster, as the news broke that the micro-blogging platform had secured the rights to stream 10 NFL games following a social media bidding war with rivals including Facebook.

Analysis: Should Formula 1 be plotting a Twitter future?
Johnny Herbert, Sky Sports F1 Presenter with Bernie Ecclestone, on the drivers parade.
F1 Communications Hub
TV Camera man
Federica Masolin, Sky F1 Italia Presenter with Luca Filippi, Sky Sports F1 TV Presenter on the grid
Sky Sports F1 umbrella
(L to R): Ted Kravitz, Sky Sports Pitlane Reporter with Martin Brundle, Sky Sports Commentator; Johnny Herbert, Sky Sports F1 Presenter; Damon Hill, Sky Sports Presenter; and Simon Lazenby, Sky Sports F1 TV Presenter
Norbert Haug does a bit of social media
Mercedes AMG F1 pit stop Twitter handle in the pits
Lotus F1 E22 with branding celebrating one million Facebook likes
F1 Communications building
Jenson Button, McLaren with Will Buxton, NBC Sports Network TV Presenter on the grid
Podium: Fernando Alonso, Ferrari takes control of a FOM camera
The F1 Communications Hub
The ESPN Network crew make adjustments to their equipment before the start

It was the sort of news F1 fans can only hope for - a sport actively embracing social media, reaching out to its fans, and making a tidy profit in the process.

The cost of the Twitter deal has yet to be revealed, but CBS and NBC both recently paid $225 million each for five-game deals with the NFL.

Cruelly, the NFL’s online push came only days after it was announced that free-to-air F1 access was all but ending in one of the sport’s key markets, with the news that Sky had bought up the exclusive UK rights from 2019. The contrast between the two sports’ approaches is stark.

One key area in which F1 differs from the NFL is the way the broadcasting is managed within the two sports. In the United States, it is not unusual for different broadcasters to share coverage of a sport, with ESPN and NBC Sports (say) each airing half a season.

But when broadcasters buy into F1, they buy the season. Short-lived FTA sharing deals aside, the Formula One Group is not in the habit of splitting its deals between multiple broadcasters in the same region.

As an organisation, the NFL has long been active on social media, and is one of popular sport’s innovators when it comes to serving their fans across a range of platforms.

In addition to broadcasting games, the NFL deal will see special Periscope content filmed behind the scenes by teams and players, and embeddable highlights packages for fans to share.

In F1, on the other hand, drivers and teams have recently been reminded that Snapchatting and Periscoping inside the paddock violates the sport’s broadcasting deals.

Like F1, the NFL is currently seeking to expand its global fanbase. Unlike F1, however, the American sport can see wisdom in aligning with social media platforms.

Not only do the likes of Twitter already have a global user base (and, by implication, a potential new fan base), but social networks can also offer tentative expanders the ability to target expansion into areas where the data we willingly scatter across the internet demonstrates greater interest and potential profitability.

Twitter’s specific appeal can be found in the way the site has already changed the active viewing experience. Twitter’s use of hashtags has turned viewing into a shareable experience, one in which spectators become actors through involvement in online commentary.

Be it the World Cup or the season finale of the latest HBO must-watch, Twitter has become an essential part of the TV experience for the younger viewer. The logical next step was to turn broadcaster.

“Twitter was one that rose to the top when you think about the global scale, breadth and reach and their strength in mobile,” Hans Schroeder, NFL senior vice-president, told the Financial Times.

“As the world continues to change, we're going to continue to evolve how we distribute our content with it. Increasingly our fans are on second screens or on their phones during games.

"There is also a population of younger fans who are looking to alternative screens to get their primary video experience.”

Twitter is not the only social network moving into broadcasting. Since its launch at the end of 2015, Facebook’s Live platform has been building relationships with broadcasters including Fox Sports, ESPN, the BBC, and Sky.

“Facebook Live has brought another dimension to the way we engage with our audience,” said Sky Sports’ digital director, Dave Gibbs.

“It’s allowed us to connect with sports fans it in a variety of ways, from behind-the-scenes reporting on Transfer Deadline Day to previewing the weekend’s footballing action on our Soccer AM page.

"2016 is going to be another big year of sport for us, so we’re looking forward to seeing how we can continue to use Facebook Live to support this and bring new and exciting content to our audience."

The BBC have also had social media success with their Live efforts surrounding football, but the current broadcasting deals in F1 have prevented either broadcaster from using Live to any effect in the paddock.

In much the same way that F1 is currently waiting for the next round of Concorde Agreement negotiations to start before fixing the regulatory process, so too must the sport wait for individual broadcasting deals to expire before much can be done to improve the sport’s online accessibility.

But if the NFL can demonstrate that there’s money to be made on the wilds of the internet, perhaps the sport’s stakeholders will see the wisdom in modifying the approach to broadcasting contracts in future, embracing media both old and new in the pursuit of a dedicated fanbase.

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