Liberty Media's race to turn F1 into the 'new Super Bowl' is on

Liberty Media's F1 marketing challenge is to get the next generation into the walled garden. By the managing director of Cake.

If you want to know what Formula 1 was like in the 1990s, go to Silverstone this weekend. 150,000 will head to the circuit – in-car stereos humming to the sound of The Lighthouse Family and D:Ream’s Things Can Only Get Better, on the by-pass ironically nodded through by Blair’s government. Many share Jeremy Clarkson's love of fast cars and hatred of the Green Party. Crucially, most of them will be closer in age to Clarkson than Lewis Hamilton.

It’s popular. It’s massive. But it has much in common with other sports. It is adept at making squillions of dollars out of middle aged men and TV companies. Whilst their wallets and waistlines continue to swell, their hair is getting greyer – and the kids don't seem to be joining them.

The secret to Ecclestone’s financial success was that he created a walled garden between the F1 circus and the rest of the world. It was built in the era of free-to-air television, when sponsors bought space on the cars and around the track, in the hope and expectation that the global media exposure would be enough to justify the rights fee.

In latter years, it has acted as a staple tourism board marketing tool for resource-rich, culturally devoid regimes. Out go Magny-Cours, Hockenheim and Silverstone. Off we go to Bahrain and Sochi instead.

F1’s first fan engagement event will be the first of many as Liberty seeks to engage with young city dwellers, who were not on the radar of the previous regime.

And that’s not as easy as it sounds.

"We have great stars, Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen," said Chase Carey, Liberty’s CEO earlier this year. "But we have zero people in marketing and we don’t have a connection on digital media.

"We have to do a better job of enabling fans to connect to our stars. In the last four or five years the sport really has not grown to its potential."

This is why there were Ferraris and McLarens doing wheel spins in Trafalgar Square this week. F1’s first fan engagement event will be the first of many as Liberty seeks to engage with young city dwellers, who were not on the radar of the previous regime.

Cities are important to sport because they bring cultural relevance, something that F1 is in danger of losing as it chases hosting fees from despots and dictatorships.

Cities are cultural hotspots where young people turn up with smartphones and Snapchat and say "look at me, I'm here and this is cool". It's why the likes of Nike and Adidas are obsessed with cities and why F1 should carry on down this path.

To be fair to Ecclestone, he was always clear on where he stood on social media and those much discussed millennials.

He told Campaign in 2014: "Young kids will see the Rolex brand, but are they going to go and buy one? They can’t afford it. Or our other sponsor, UBS – these kids don’t care about banking. They haven’t got enough money to put in the bloody banks anyway."

That’s the marketing legacy of F1, now being dismantled by the famous race series new owners. Liberty wants each race to be "a Super Bowl", and it wants its star drivers to leave the walled garden and reach out to young people on social media.

It’s a good strategy. But there are some hard miles ahead.

Jim Dowling is the managing director of Cake, Havas’ sport and entertainment agency.

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