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Sky Sports will remain F1's broadcaster until 2029 (Feature Image Credit:

F1 and Sky: A marriage with costs

F1 has extended deals to keep F1 behind a paywall until 2029. How will this impact the sport?

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As Sky becomes the sole broadcaster for F1 in most of Europe, F1’s days of free-to-air races are well and truly over. This will have repercussions for the sport, both positive and negative. 

Sky Sports campaigned its new product hard ahead of its launch (Image Credit:

The announcement in 2011 that Sky Sports would become the only way to watch F1 from 2012 caused controversy. F1’s former supremo Bernie Ecclestone engineered the deal. Sky would show all races live, while the BBC would only show 10.

The BBC only acquired the rights two years earlier, its coverage universally loved by fans and the paddock. However, the soaring costs of broadcasting F1 combined with the financial crisis of 2008 left the BBC in a vulnerable position, and it needed to adapt.

Channel 4 unexpectedly entered the fray and also made a bid, as did Sky Sports. Unsurprisingly Ecclestone opted for the more lucrative Sky Sports option, putting F1 behind a paywall.

Equally unsurprising was the depth of Sky’s pockets, which no doubt informed the decision. Fans reacted badly to the news. As fans complained on social media,  Sky knew it would have a hard time converting F1’s fanbase to its product.

In its announcement, Sky said, “we will give a commitment to F1 never seen before on UK television”. The reveal that Sky intended to launch a dedicated F1 channel was met with a degree of scepticism. Why? This had been attempted before.

2002: F1 Digital Plus
F1 TV Digital Plus was a commercial failure (Image Credit: Digital Spy)

Ecclestone had experimented with Pay TV, creating F1 Digital Plus. Initially only available in Germany, it became available to most of Europe in 1997. Featuring additional feeds and camera options, the service was all about choice. This came at a very heavy price, with Ecclestone investing millions into the service.

F1 Digital Plus did not arrive in the UK until 2002, featured on Sky Sports.  Featuring Damon Hill and John Watson as its experts, it failed to gather interest from fans. It was simply too big.

Subscribers would watch eight separate feeds, including a master channel. Different cameras, the pit lane, highlights, onboard feeds and a data feed could all be accessed. Sound familiar? Sky uses all these features today. But back in 2002, this was revolutionary.

It cost a viewer £12 per race to watch F1 Digital Plus on Sky. At £208 a year, fans did not take up the offer.  They instead chose to watch adverts on ITV. The venture was a total commercial failure.

The Guardian reported at the time that the most popular race was the Malaysian Grand Prix, attracting just 25,000 subscribers. Other race totals were as low as 9,000. Pulled at the end of the year, Ecclestone’s first venture into Pay TV was somewhat unsuccessful.

Ten years later, Pay TV returns
The original Sky Sports F1 team of 2012 (Image Credit: Sky Sports)

Ten years on, Sky successfully became F1’s main broadcaster and made a big fanfare of its acquisition of the rights. Fans were not so convinced.

Memories of F1 Digital Plus, negative consumer perception of Sky, combined with the lack of subject knowledge from the broadcaster concerned viewers. Sky Sports presenters regularly needed to look down at their notes when talking about tracks or drivers. A former pundit from ITV (that shall remain nameless) stated Juan Pablo Montoya won five world titles while on air when he meant Juan Manuel Fangio.

The broadcaster continued to show glossy adverts for its upcoming channel, including a glitzy launch event. But concerns still remained, particularly at a time of financial crisis. Sky realised it needed headline acts to front its coverage. It notably poached Martin Brundle from the BBC, along with Ted Kravitz.

The coverage needed time to bed in, with presenters requiring time to bounce off each other, resulting in the coverage not taking off until the second half of the season. Georgie Thompson was a hit with the viewers, but her involvement at the track was limited to the “Sky Pad”. She would move to front “The F1 Show” before leaving Sky in 2013.

The features of F1 Digital Plus were also ported over as “Sky Race Control”. However, fans could still use these on the BBC. The dedicated channel was also being criticised for its lack of programming away from weekends. Customers had to pay significant costs to access Sky Sports F1. Yet the channel did not start programming on weekdays until 6 pm.

The quality of early programming was also questionable, with “Weekend in Stills”, a programme of photos to music. Though nothing could beat the cringingly awful promo of “Fenners” of Soccer AM walking around the paddock asking what a tyre was.

The show never aired again, with all traces of its existence removed.  Viewers were also forced to tolerate Simon Lazenby’s weekly sales pitch of “stunning HD” or “surround sound” multiple times at random in a build-up to a race. F1 awarded “Best TV Broadcast Award for Outstanding Coverage” to Sky for 2012 and 2013. Sky’s coverage wasn’t terrible but was not award-winning.

Sky finds its feet
After starting as an under-used gimmick, the Sky Pad is now compulsory viewing for fans (Image Credit: Sky Sports)

After its shaky first couple of years, Sky Sports started to come into its own. It realised F1 fans, for the most part, are unique amongst sports fans and are highly knowledgeable. Sky struck the perfect balance of explaining rules to newcomers, while at the same time ensuring regular viewers did not feel left out.

While the sales pitches for other channels within Sky continued, “stunning HD” and “surround sound” disappeared without a trace in 2014. Sky had stopped showcasing itself as the product, instead using the talent of its team to showcase F1. This led to its coverage becoming market-leading.

The dominance from Mercedes forced Sky to think outside the box, with programming that reflected the dominance but also showed F1’s rich history.  As the team expanded, so did the number of cars they could drive.

Martin Brundle drove the 2014 Mercedes car in a feature that few broadcasters could replicate. He also drove the all-conquering MP4/4 in 2019.

Damon Hill drove his title-winning FW18. Karun Chandhok has driven classic Williams cars. Even David Croft has managed to get involved, learning how to drive a Lotus F1 car in 2018.

Chandhok shared a driving experience with Mick Schumacher in 2022, both driving Mick’s dad’s Jordan 191. These features are informative, but also showcase the leaps made in F1 technology as well as provide nostalgia.

The Sky Pad has evolved from one pundit analysing while another asks questions, to Anthony Davidson picking apart key moments using his vast racing experience. Interviews are now centred on the driver.

Its coverage of Abu Dhabi 2021 justifiably won a BAFTA, as Sky’s coverage was unsurpassed in terms of quality and knowledge. While Sky Sports News continues to give headlines from F1, it almost always cuts to Craig Slater or Rachel Brookes for the detail.

Viewers can now forgive the £572 a year it costs to have Sky Sports, and the lack of programming pre-6pm during the week.

The adverts during practice, qualifying and other shows continue to be frustrating, particularly when customers are now paying the equivalent of a race weekend seat to watch its coverage. But Sky Sports has one more additional cost, which has been dramatic for F1.

Viewing figures
A full grandstand at the 2022 Spanish Grand Prix (Image Credit: @Formula1 on Twitter)

Sky Sports’ impact on F1’s viewing figures is profound. In the negative sense. This is a taboo topic amongst Liberty Media, a willing sacrifice made as F1 gains more revenue from the broadcaster. To give an idea of the gulf, we can compare the figures from the last year of free-to-air coverage from 2008 to the figures released in September 2022.

Motor1 quoted in early 2009 that 29 million fans per race watched F1 live on TV in the UK. That number is mind blowing. The world was a very different place in 2008, with the iPhone only just starting its journey to transform human existence, and social media in its very early stages. But this is still a huge number.

When we compare this to the latest figures recorded for 2021, we see the scale of the decline. In its statement last week announcing Sky’s extension, F1 said that the average viewership in the UK was just 1.7 million:

“Average viewership for the 2022 season is 1.7m, up 60% since the UK exclusive deal began in 2019, including 4.3m new viewers to Sky Sports F1.

“Of all 4.3m new viewers since 2019, 1.7m were women.

“Of five of the most watched races ever in Sky Sports F1 history, four have taken place this year.”

From 29 million to just 1.7 million is a circa 95% drop in viewership from 2008. That is staggering. However, F1 has started to acknowledge this in recent seasons, and the sport now reaches out to fans in new ways.

The huge success of Drive to Survive on Netflix (at a reasonable price), combined with extensive free coverage of pre/post-race, as well as shows and the F1 TV archive, mean F1 has never been more popular. The younger generation is flocking to the sport in droves, as drivers become relatable rather than walking PR machines.

Back to the future?

F1 is now in a phase of unparalleled growth.  Races are being added every year for the first time since the early 2000s, and demand for the sport has never been higher.

Pay TV broadcasters are now the future, as it is now embedded into us to pay for a higher quality product. As coverage and the style of it has evolved as much as society around us, we know Pay TV is now the future regardless of our feelings about it. The offering of F1 Digital Plus looks amateur compared to Sky’s product today.

The growth of F1 will one day peak again, and the sport will need to think carefully about how to bridge the gap between fans and viewers. This is an important comparison that F1 needs to differentiate, starting immediately.

Casual viewers will not pay circa £600 for a race ticket when they can spend the same on a Sky Sports subscription. Fans will do both if their budget allows, but as costs of watching F1 continue to rise, eventually even passionate fans will struggle to justify doing this.

Costs will not come down, so F1 needs a compelling offering away from the circuit for the rising costs to be justified. F1 will always sell out, but fans in the grandstand are where the real numbers and passion is. Force them into an even more costly Sky Sports subscription than before, and watch the grandstands empty.

F1 can avoid this.  Sky is now part of the solution, not the problem, as its coverage is simply unmatched. It has taken many years to get there, but the “commitment never seen before on UK television” claim has been met. Just get rid of the adverts and you’ve nailed it, Sky.

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