Inside the deal: F1’s Ian Holmes on what Sky’s rights extension means for the series

The BlackBook talks to Formula One’s director of media rights about the global motorsport series’ broadcast partnership extension with pay-TV broadcaster Sky and what impact the deal will have moving forward.

In the lead-up to the Singapore Grand Prix, it was revealed that European pay-TV giant Sky had finalised an extension of its broadcast partnership with Formula One.

The deal means Sky will continue to have exclusive coverage of the global motorsport series in the UK and Ireland until 2029, while the contract runs until 2027 in Germany and Italy, where the broadcaster has also secured greater exclusivity.

Sky’s existing deal in the UK & Ireland was due to expire in 2024, so a five-year extension gives the broadcaster an unprecedented and unchallenged run as the home of Formula One. The deal also breaks from convention in Europe, where media rights contracts are typically negotiated on three-year terms and properties such as English soccer’s Premier League are split between multiple broadcasters domestically.

Formula One, though, has had a dedicated channel on Sky in the UK since the broadcaster started showing the motorsport series in 2012.

“I think that decision to create [a Formula One] channel was instrumental,” Ian Holmes, director of media rights at Formula One, tells the BlackBook. “Over the course of a race weekend, they’ve got so much more capacity to cover the sport in all its glory.

“A lot of the other F1 broadcasters around the world are taking note, it’s provided something of a blueprint as to what you can do with Formula One rights.”

This blueprint comes from what is arguably one of the most successful sports broadcast deals in Europe. By the time the new contract expires, Formula One will have called Sky its home for 17 years – the network’s coverage will have been exclusive for ten of those.

In that time, 4.3 million new viewers have watched Sky Sports F1, with 1.7 million of those being women. Plus, four of the five most-watched races in the channel’s history have taken place this season.

Average viewership has increased 60 per cent since Sky gained UK exclusivity in 2019, with figures hitting 1.7 million for the 2022 season. While Holmes credits the coverage provided by Sky, he also highlights the impact of Netflix’s Drive to Survive docuseries.

Netflix docuseries Drive to Survive has had an indelible impact on the popularity of Formula One and was recently renewed for a fifth and sixth season

“Drive to Survive has definitely brought some new fans to the sport, [but] some of it is down to Sky’s own hard work and excellent production,” explains Holmes.

The success of Netflix’s Formula One docuseries purportedly encouraged the streaming giant to consider a bid for the series’ media rights in the United States, although reports suggest that ESPN is set to retain its coverage in that market.

However, it’s not just Netflix that deserves recognition for the boom in Formula One’s popularity.

“Some of it’s down to the massive efforts that we put in as a business over the last few years in terms of marketing the sport, the content that we put out on social media that was never really there before,” Holmes adds.

Formula One’s push on social media started to occur after Liberty Media acquired the global motorsport series from Bernie Ecclestone. It was that initial move, which was part of a broader overhaul of the sport’s marketing strategy, that first began to lift the popularity of Formula One, before Drive to Survive secured its place in the public consciousness.

It’s important that we have enough of that content for people to interact with. Certain demographics [like Gen Z and X], that’s where they’re spending a lot of time. We’ve increased the amount of content that is available on social and that will continue.

– Ian Holmes, Director of Media Rights, Formula One

With Sky retaining exclusivity in the UK and securing more in Germany and Italy, social media content becomes the primary medium for a wider audience to engage with the series for free. The home race in each of Sky’s markets will be available to their respective domestic audiences on free-to-air (FTA) television, but that is the only live action that won’t be behind a paywall.

Holmes confirmed that even if Channel 4 is not the one to broadcast the coverage, the British Grand Prix will continue to be available on FTA television in the UK for the duration of Sky’s contract. Outside of that marquee occasion, however, the focus is on keeping fans engaged through short-form content that Formula One makes available on a free-to-view basis.

“It’s important that we have enough of that content for people to interact with,” Holmes states. “Certain demographics [like Gen Z and X], that’s where they’re spending a lot of time. We’ve increased the amount of content that is available on social and that will continue.”

Formula One’s efforts in this area are also being supported by Sky, which is pushing out free content in the form of its ‘Any Driven Monday’ show, a 60-minute programme which airs after race weekends on the broadcaster’s YouTube channel. For Holmes, it’s important to put this kind of programming in front of the paywall to drive fans to the live action.

There are also questions over what Sky’s new deal means for Formula One’s own over-the-top (OTT) streaming platform. The broadcaster’s exclusivity has meant that F1 TV Pro is not available to audiences in the UK, something that will now also apply in Germany and Italy under the terms of the latest extension.

F1 TV Pro provides coverage from all 20 live onboard cameras, as well as unedited team radios throughout sessions on race weekend, giving viewers a much more immersive experience. While avid fans will be disappointed to not have access to this comprehensive coverage, Holmes points out that “they get access to the best coverage of anyone in the world” through the Sky deal. Where the broadcaster holds exclusive rights to Formula One, F1 TV Pro will continue to be unavailable as it would dilute the existing commercial deal.

However, Holmes says “a flexible, hybrid approach [could] become more likely” in some markets, which does not completely rule out a future where Sky’s contract with Formula One could co-exist alongside F1 TV Pro. The breadth and depth of the platform could even be incorporated into or influence Sky’s offering.

“It forms an important component in our offering,” Holmes says of F1 TV Pro. “Its numbers have grown consistently year on year, the territories it's available in has grown also. So it's an important part of our business.”

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