ESPN’s hopes for Formula One races to be more competitive this season faced a harsh reality on Sunday. Red Bull has won all six races so far this season, with that trend continuing over the weekend. Max Verstappen won Saturday’s Monaco Grand Prix leading every single lap, as Red Bull continues to run away with the drivers’ and constructors’ championships.
But, as The Worldwide Leader expands its coverage of the sport, ESPN realizes that the lack of parity and drama could hurt it, even if the ratings don’t show it—yet. In 2021, most F1 races hit record marks for viewership in the U.S. The 2022 season saw a 30% increase (per race) across ESPN platforms.
ESPN signed a three-year media-rights renewal with F1 last year. The network promised that it would elevate its coverage and so far, it has kept its promise. The Monaco Grand Prix has previously been aired live on ESPN and ESPN2, but never before on ABC. That changed on Sunday. There was also a 90-minute pre-race show that started airing at 7:25 a.m. ET.
So the coverage has been elevated for the most part. However, what hasn’t changed is that Red Bull continues to comfortably blow past its competition. Verstappen won Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix by 27 seconds from Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso. And with that, Red Bull leads the constructors’ championship by 129 points over Aston Martin. Verstappen leads the drivers’ championship by 39 points over teammate Sergio Perez.
In speaking with the Sports Business Journal prior to Sunday’s race, ESPN Director/Programming & Acquisitions John Suchenski addressed those concerns. And he was forthright with his answer when asked by SBJ whether ESPN would like to see F1 races this season be a bit more competitive.
“The best-laid plans are the best-laid plans, but at the end of the day, we don’t control competition — that goes for all sports. Look at the NBA Finals and the Lakers not getting through there,” Suchenski said. “We can’t control that, so we just have to take the results and try to tell the stories that do exist. Would we want this year to be more competitive? Absolutely, we would say that parity is typically good because it creates drama… But again, I’d be lying if I didn’t say we [would] want to see some drama play out over the next couple of weeks as the season continues to progress.”
Unfortunately for ESPN, there wasn’t much drama—or parity for that matter—for the network to hang its hat on over the holiday weekend. The back-to-back defending champion won the race and did so very easily and that will likely be the case for most races this season.
While ESPN would like that not to be the case and for the only drama not to be whether Perez can realistically challenge Verstappen for a title, what are they to do? Mercedes boss Toto Wolff has already said that changes to rein in Red Bull would ruin Formula One.
So, while ESPN’s hopes for more parity and drama are evaporating, there’s not much the network can do to keep Red Bull from dominating the sport. It remains to be seen if that ultimately causes viewers in the United States to check out.
[Sports Business Journal; photo from John David Mercer/USA TODAY Sports]