In modern sport, content is king. Whatever the discipline, the actual sporting action has become increasingly sidelined. Instead, it is the drama, the narrative, the bite-sized highlights, the player transfers – what was once surrounding noise has become the main event. Social media and money have created an ecosystem where likes and clicks are more important than results.
Football has been at the forefront of this trend. In a recent column, a perceptive observer highlighted “the odd existence of the digital football supporter who doesn’t care about football.” Retweeting the piece, a British journalist critiqued the “phenomenon of actual football being just an audition for the real business of transfers”. In recent weeks, Manchester United’s social media accounts have been an apt example: content about the return of Cristiano Ronaldo has flooded the club’s accounts, with such frequency that actual matches were overshadowed.
But football is not the only sport to walk this path. American sporting executives in the NFL, NBA and MLB executives are fretting over how to attract and retain the next generation of supporters, with recent research showing that younger fans prefer to watch highlights over full matches. The study’s author described the “TikTok-ification” of sport, with fans “wanting smaller bits, shorter segments, highlights.” An insightful case study on the possibilities and pitfalls of elite sport in the content era can be found in F1.
When Drive to Survive, a 10-part docuseries chronicling the mixed fortunes of several teams across the preceding F1 season, was released on Netflix in 2019 it was met with relative acclaim. At least it was sufficiently successful to persuade big-hitting teams Ferrari and Mercedes to join for season two, after they had initially denied Netflix access. But with seasons two and three dropping early and mid-pandemic, the series has become a viral hit – joining the likes of Tiger King and The Queen’s Gambit as lockdown binge favourites.
Drive to Survive is exhilarating – a mix of personal backstories, inter- and intra-team feuds and 300km per hour racing. Australia’s Daniel Ricciardo has a starring role, with his Australian humour and broad grin winning viewers’ affections as he battles teammate Max Verstappen at Red Bull in season one, before jumping ship for Renault.
The most recent season is particularly gripping, charting the impact of the pandemic on motorsports (complete with the debacle of the cancelled Australian Grand Prix last March). The penultimate episode, “Man on Fire”, provides an emotional reliving of Romain Grosjean’s death-defying accident at the Bahrain Grand Prix last November. The scene where Grosjean pulls himself out of a burning inferno and clambers over a race wall is remarkable, agonising television.
But the shortcoming in content like Drive to Survive, produced in partnership with F1, is the lack of a critical lens. This is not a novel concern – in Australia, the rise of news-gathering units within the AFL and the NRL have led to accusations of bias – but it feels particularly acute in the F1 context. The sport faces two major threats to its viability, yet neither gets even a single mention across Drive to Survive’s three series.
The first and perhaps most existential challenge is climate change. In 2018, the F1 estimated that its annual carbon dioxide emissions were about a quarter of a million tonnes, the same as the yearly electricity consumption of almost 200,000 households. The actual racing produces just a fraction of this, with F1 cars using hybrid engines. Instead, it is the sport’s globe-trotting – and accompanying weighty freight – that leaves such a heavy carbon footprint. While F1 says it will be net zero by 2030, that aspiration remains a pipe dream – and perplexingly absent from the glossy docuseries.
The second frequent criticism of modern F1 is its complicity in sportswashing. The 2021 season takes drivers from Bahrain on the opening day to Saudi Arabia in the penultimate race later this year, with pit-stops along the way in Azerbaijan and Russia. All are ranked ‘not-free’ by Freedom House in its global rankings. Azerbaijan was accused last year of committing war crimes in a conflict with neighbouring Armenia; the Saudi regime has critic Jamal Khashoggi dismembered with a bone saw at its Turkish consulate in 2018.
All four nations have spent big on sport to burnish their global reputations – and F1 is more than happy to take the cash. At one point in the show, Ricciardo is interviewed about his love of the city-centre course in Baku, Azerbaijan. He neglects to mention its human rights record.
Despite the rose-tinted coverage in what is effectively an advertorial for F1, Drive to Survive has been an unqualified success. Netflix is notoriously cagey about viewing numbers, but the show has been a commercial hit – in March this year, it was the seventh most-watched show on the platform. Netflix has even hinted recently that it might consider acquiring broadcast rights to the racing itself. The PGA Golf Tour, meanwhile, is hoping for its own version. If avoiding sensitive subjects and not asking hard questions is the price to pay for unprecedented fly on the wall access, it seems viewers and Netflix consider that a fair bargain.
While some diehard F1 followers have criticised the show for distorting incidents and using fake race noise, it has captivated the wider audience. Most importantly, from an F1 perspective, it has converted viewers into fans – especially in non-traditional markets. In the United States, race viewing figures are up 50%. A Vox columnist recently declared that the show had changed her life and made her an F1 addict.
It has worked on me, too. Despite being well-aware of the sport’s ugly underbelly, Drive to Survive has propelled me into fandom. When I woke to the news earlier this month that Ricciardo had won his first race in three years, I was jubilant. Dissecting the race and reading competing analysis of the latest incident between F1 heavyweights Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, I was already awaiting the Netflix recount in the forthcoming fourth season.
This weekend, for the first time I will be watching the live broadcast of a Grand Prix – in Sochi, Russia. I will not be the only one to have switched from the Netflix entrée to the F1 main course. That, I suppose, is the hope for sports in 2021: that content, highlights, clicks and likes are not a substitute for the real thing, but a gateway.