Could A Focus On Drivers Be What F1 And NASCAR Need To Stay Relevant?

Managing Editor, Sports + DIME

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MILAN, Italy – Hospitality at a Formula 1 race is unlike any other sporting event. As engines roar — almost inconveniently — in the background at the Paddock Club, a band casually plays “Material Girl” by Madonna. A scan of surroundings reveals a gelateria cart with half a dozen flavors, waiters carrying plates of fresh lobster, a makeshift salon where stylists are chatting up those putting last minute touches on their race look, endlessly refilled glasses of San Pellegrino and champagne, and a gentleman strolling by with three highballs cradled in his hands (complete with Johnnie Walker branding, naturally).

In many ways, the experience itself comes before the racing at Italy’s “temple of speed.” Each F1 race is a destination event across the globe, from Melbourne to Monte Carlo, and fans attending immerse themselves in the traditions of the city for a weekend for a trip they won’t soon forget, piling up IG captions and souvenirs. The weekend takes on the personality of the city — in Milan’s case, fashion, art, and tradition lead the way.

This is why Heineken bet big on their sponsorship of the sport, becoming a global partner in 2016, securing title sponsorship at Mexico City, Shanghai, Montreal, and Milan, and using this opportunity to debut non-alcoholic beer. It’s hard to find details on how much the partnership is for — the prevailing guess is “a lot” — but it fits with Heineken’s emphasis on cities and culture, something F1 is emphasizing more and more after the transition from former chief executive Bernie Ecclestone to Liberty Media.

Ecclestone famously said in 2014 that he didn’t have any interest in marketing to millennials, especially when it came to social media.

Per The Telegraph:

“I’m not interested in tweeting, Facebook and whatever this nonsense is,” said Ecclestone. “I tried to find out but in any case I’m too old-fashioned. I couldn’t see any value in it. And, I don’t know what the so-called ‘young generation’ of today really wants. What is it?”

Asked directly if he saw no value in attracting a young audience, Ecclestone said: “If you have a brand that you want to put in front of a few hundred million people, I can do that easily for you on television.

“Now, you’re telling me I need to find a channel to get this 15-year-old to watch Formula 1 because somebody wants to put out a new brand in front of them? They are not going to be interested in the slightest bit.

“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.”

It doesn’t take much hindsight to see where Ecclestone was misguided here, specifically because those 15 year olds will someday be banking and buying watches, and if they aren’t watching F1, they’ll be following something else.

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