IIn modern sport, content is king. Whatever the discipline, the actual sporting action was increasingly sidelined. Instead, it’s the drama, the narrative, the bite-sized highlights, the player transfers – what was once ambient noise has become the main event. Social media and money have created an ecosystem where likes and clicks are more important than results.
Football was at the forefront of this trend. In a recent column, one astute observer highlighted “the strange existence of the digital soccer fan who doesn’t care about soccer”. A British journalist retweeted the article, criticizing the “phenomenon of actual football which is just an audition for the real business of transfers”. Over the past few weeks, Manchester United’s social media accounts have been a case in point: content about the return of Cristiano Ronaldo has flooded the club’s accounts so frequently that actual matches have been overshadowed.
But football isn’t the only sport that goes this way. American sports executives in the NFL, NBA, and MLB worry about how to attract and retain the next generation of fans. The author of the study described the sport’s “TikTok verification”, where fans want “smaller pieces, shorter segments, highlights”. You can find an insightful case study of the possibilities and pitfalls of elite sport in the age of content in F1.
When Drive to Survive was released on Netflix in 2019, a 10-part documentary about the mixed fortunes of several teams in the previous F1 season was received with relative recognition. At least it was successful enough to convince the big teams Ferrari and Mercedes to join for season two after initially denying Netflix access. But with seasons two and three dropping early and in the middle of the pandemic, the series has gone viral – it joins Tiger King and The Queen’s Gambit as lockdown binge favorites.
Drive to Survive is exhilarating – a mixture of personal background stories, feuds between and within the team and 300 km / h races. The Australian Daniel Ricciardo has a leading role, with his Australian humor and big grin, he wins the audience’s affection as he battles teammate Max Verstappen at Red Bull in the first season before jumping for Renault.
The most recent season is particularly exciting, showing the effects of the pandemic on motorsport (complete with the debacle of the canceled Australian Grand Prix last March). The penultimate episode, “Man on Fire”, offers an emotional reliving of Romain Grosjean’s fatal accident at the Bahrain Grand Prix last November. The scene in which Grosjean pulls himself out of a burning inferno and climbs over a racing wall is remarkable.
But the lack of content like Drive to Survive, produced in partnership with F1, is the lack of a critical lens. This is not a new problem – in Australia, the rise of news gathering units within the AFL and NRL has led to allegations of bias – but it feels particularly acute in the F1 context. The sport faces two major threats to its viability, but none are even mentioned once in the three series of Drive to Survive.
The first and perhaps most existential challenge is climate change. In 2018, F1 estimated its annual carbon dioxide emissions at around a quarter of a million tons, the equivalent of the annual electricity consumption of nearly 200,000 households. Racing itself only produces a fraction of it, with Formula 1 cars using hybrid engines. Instead, it is the world tour of sport – and the associated heavy cargo – that leaves such a strong carbon footprint. While F1 says it will be net zero by 2030, that pursuit remains a pipe dream – and baffled in the glossy documentaries.
The second common criticism of the modern F1 is its complicity in sports washing. The 2021 season will take drivers from Bahrain to Saudi Arabia on the opening day for the penultimate race later this year with pit stops in Azerbaijan and Russia. All are classified as “not free” by Freedom House in its global rankings. Azerbaijan was charged last year with war crimes in conflict with neighboring Armenia; The Saudi regime cut up the critic Jamal Khashoggi with a bone saw in its Turkish consulate in 2018.
All four nations have spent a lot of money on the sport to polish their worldwide reputation – and Formula 1 is happy to accept the money. At one point in the show, Ricciardo is interviewed about his love for downtown Baku, Azerbaijan. He fails to mention his human rights record.
Despite the pink coverage in what is actually an advertorial for F1, Drive to Survive has been an unqualified success. Netflix is notoriously shy about viewership, but the show was a commercial hit – as of March this year, it was the seventh most-watched show on the platform. Netflix recently hinted that it might consider buying the broadcast rights to the race itself. Meanwhile, the PGA Golf Tour is hoping for its own version. If the price of unprecedented fly-on-the-wall access is avoiding sensitive topics and not asking tough questions, viewers and Netflix seem to consider this a fair bargain.
While some die-hard F1 supporters have criticized the show for distorting incidents and using fake racing sounds, it has captivated the wider audience. Most importantly, from an F1 perspective, it turned viewers into fans – especially in non-traditional markets. In the United States, race attendance has increased by 50%. A Vox columnist recently stated that the show changed her life and made her an F1 addict.
It worked for me too. Although I am aware of the ugly downsides of the sport, Drive to Survive drove me into the fan base. When I woke up earlier this month to the news that Ricciardo had won his first race in three years, I was jubilant. After analyzing the race and reading competing analyzes of the recent incident between F1 heavyweights Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, I was already waiting for the Netflix narrative in the upcoming fourth season.
This weekend I will see a live broadcast of a Grand Prix for the first time – in Sochi, Russia. I won’t be the only one who switched from the Netflix entrée to the F1 main course. That is probably the hope for sport in 2021: That content, highlights, clicks and likes are not a substitute for the real thing, but a goal.