Thursday, October 5, 2017

What NBC Sports Loss of Formula One Means For Fans

I don't want to write this. The last thing I wanted to do was have to write about NBC Sports losing the Formula One deal but here we are, one day after the announcement was made ESPN would be the U.S. Formula One rights holder starting with the 2018 season. It was always a possibility because the contract was up but you hoped the hard work and the dedication NBC Sports gave Formula One would be enough to keep them around. Instead, Liberty Media sees a partner they would rather tango with.

It is hard to see it as a gain for Formula One in the United States. Many have their issues with NBCSN's coverage of Formula One but it is the best the series has ever been covered in this country. It was the network that rolled the dice and put the Monaco Grand Prix on network TV live with commentators on sight and that wasn't the only live race on big NBC as both the Canadian Grand Prix and United States Grand Prix were shown with the USGP done on site.

Frequently, races had an hour pre-race show with an hour post-race show. The occasional qualifying session or race would be bumped to CNBC but it happens when a network has to squeeze in the Tour de France and Premier League at the same time as Formula One and while CNBC isn't the traditional go-to sports network, it isn't hard to find.

Social media might be the work of the devil because despite NBC Sports efforts, people couldn't help but pick apart flaws. Leigh Diffey wasn't Bob Varsha and people let him hear it. In 2017, people couldn't get over the fact that commercials are needed to pay the bills and would get on the broadcasters for it. Every week someone tweeted one of the on-air personalities about not being able to find the network despite most of them, if not all of them, tweeting out a schedule (like the one embedded below) in the days leading up to the first practice session.

I got news for those people who thought NBC Sports was the worst thing to happen to Formula One coverage in the United States: It won't be better at ESPN.

ESPN isn't bringing back Bob Varsha. It appears David Hobbs is calling it a day from broadcasting because of this move. ESPN isn't going to give you commercial-free races. ESPN isn't going to have a half-hour pre-race let alone an hour pre-race. You can say goodbye to the beautiful commentary pieces done by Sam Posey. There will not be auxiliary program such as the Off The Grid specials that Will Buxton and Jason Swales have done. ESPN is going to give us the barebones Formula One world feed experience, coming on air five minutes before the start of a session, including the race, and race coverage will likely cut out with no additional interviews from the track at 10:00 a.m. ET most Sunday mornings. Don't be surprised if you miss out on a podium ceremony or two next season because a race goes long.

While it is bad news for many Formula One fans in the United States, the good news for Formula One and Liberty Media is the ratings will likely go up because ESPN2 has slightly more pull than NBCSN. I think you end up with 300,000 viewers to starts just for being on ESPN2. Liberty Media didn't care about how Formula One would be treated. It wanted a name to cling to and ESPN is the frontrunner when it comes to cable sports networks in the United States.

We can look into the unpredictable domino effect of this deal. NBC Sports had been promoting itself as the home of motorsports and it was hard to argue against that when you consider we had multiple weekends with a Formula One followed by a IndyCar race with a NASCAR race rounding out the day or IndyCar and NASCAR reversed. I am not sure you can promote that now that Formula One is gone.

The motorsports identities of ESPN and NBC Sports are on the verge of significantly changing in the next few months. This could be a rebirth of motorsports coverage on the ESPN family of networks. ESPN will show the Monaco Grand Prix live next year but the race will be also be shown taped after the Indianapolis 500 on ABC. With next year being the final year of ABC's current IndyCar deal don't you think it would want to have that Indianapolis 500-Monaco Grand Prix doubleheader for more than one year? It wouldn't surprise me if ESPN ponied up to keep IndyCar. However, the loss of Formula One could make NBC Sports go all-in on IndyCar and maybe NBC Sports brings in another motorsports property to fill the void. The loss of Formula One could also make NBC Sports decide to let IndyCar go and focus all its efforts on NASCAR and other sport properties.

I am sad because NBC Sports picked up from where Speed left off in giving Formula One its own identity in the United States. Formula One is a universe away from being on the front pages of newspapers across the United States and it will never captivate the causal sports conversations in offices Mondays after a race but it had its own standing amongst the fans in this country. We all know who David Hobbs and Steve Matchett are and they have become apart of a Sunday morning routine for many of us. Those two have been frequent guests at breakfast for years.

American Formula One fans are losing the personal connection to the series and a broadcast meant for us. We are going to get a generic product in the world feed. What Speed and NBC Sports did was broadcast Formula One for us; it was meant for Americans viewers, they knew who we are. The world feed is put up for them. The world feed won't care to get to know us. The world feed isn't speaking to one audience but broadly so millions around the world can watch it. It is hard to embrace the world feed after years of having a tailored broadcast that cared about you.

The best way I can describe this is like watching a lover go to a man who you know won't treat her as well as you.

If there is any silver lining to this for NBC Sports is it has five races to go and it seems everyone there is going to give it ten-tenths for the remainder of the season despite knowing what the future has in store. NBC Sports was only Formula One's home for five seasons but it became a loving home and I expect NBC Sports will give it a proper send-off.