With the constant worrying over the long decline of NASCAR ratings on American television over the last several years, it’s refreshing to have some positive news when it comes to auto racing coverage. That positive news comes from the world of Formula 1 and their ratings on ESPN.
F1 on ESPN got off to a rough start last year in their debut at the Australian Grand Prix. ESPN used the Sky Sports simulcast from the UK with seemingly random commercial breaks that cut into coverage, sometimes even with the announcers in mid-sentence. After outcry from fans, ESPN went to commercial-free race broadcasts and has even added additional shoulder programming around the races on their digital platforms to boost coverage.
The extra investment from ESPN seems to have paid off in a big way this year. The network is reporting record ratings for the first two races of the 2019 season in Australia and Bahrain. For the most recent race in Bahrain, it stands as the second highest cable audience for a grand prix race in history (next to last year’s Monaco Grand Prix) with 711,000 viewers.
ESPN2’s live telecast of the Formula 1 Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday, March 31, attracted the largest U.S. television audience on record for the event, the second Formula 1 event of the season in as many races to do so.
An average of 711,000 viewers watched the telecast on ESPN2, up three percent over the average audience of 692,000 that watched the race last year on ESPN2 and up 72 percent from the 413,000 that watched CNBC’s telecast in 2017. The race began at 11:05 a.m. ET.
The Bahrain telecast drew the second-largest U.S. cable television audience for a Formula 1 race on record, surpassed only by the mark of 820,000 to see the Monaco Grand Prix on ESPN last year. The Bahrain telecast also saw an increase of 16 percent in the Adults 18-34 demographic.
The number for the Bahrain event comes on the heels of ESPN earning an audience of 659,000 for the season-opening Rolex Australian Grand Prix two weeks ago, an event that began at 1 a.m. ET. That audience was also the largest U.S. television audience for the event on record and was up 277 percent over the audience of 175,000 that watched the race on ESPN2 in 2018 and up 177 percent over the 238,000 that watched it on NBCSN in 2017.
Of course, compared to NASCAR audiences in the millions, these numbers are relatively small audiences. (At least they far surpass the AAF, though!) However, much of the narratives surrounding ratings numbers deal with trends and it’s not like ESPN is expecting F1 to pull in millions.
Given F1 is more of a niche sport, it initially may have seemed to be an odd fit on ESPN coming over from NBCSN where it might appear to be more in line with that network’s portfolio of smaller sports with dedicated fanbases.
And yet, F1 seems to be finding its groove on ESPN after a rocky beginning. With races all around the world, the network can place races from Asia or Europe in the late evening or early morning hours where it might have gaps in live sports. And with the Sky Sports simulcast, it’s not like ESPN is spending oodles of cash on production, so from that regard it’s a win-win for the network.
ESPN will certainly be pleased with the way things are trending upward in ratings, and F1 certainly has to be pleased with making further inroads stateside with a growing audience discovering the racing series.