Formula 1 racing fans are some of the most passionate fans you will ever meet. They are rabid. They wake up at weird times to watch their sport, and have strange opinions on rules that read like home building code. Have you ever watched a race on TSN? You’ll notice something kind of strange. When they break to commercial, the screen splits so you can still watch the race in a small box while the commercial video and audio plays. This was a change TSN made after extreme complaining and lobbying from their small F1 fanbase. F1 fans are intense, and to them, there is nothing better.
From zero to hero
Formula One Management (FOM), the commercial rights holder for F1 and formally operated by Bernie Ecclestone, was not the most fan friendly ownership in the world. Yes, the group built F1 and watched it grow throughout the 90s and early 00s and did some great things. However, in recent times, they kept placing races in new countries with minimal F1 history and sold television rights to the highest bidder, and not necessarily to the group that would put the most F1 on the air or invest in world class broadcasting. Furthermore, the rule changes they instituted, or didn’t institute, often slowed down the races or made them more predictable. There is a legit argument to be made that FOM and Bernie Ecclestone built F1 but then stifled it as the world changed.
“This started what I consider to be the most exciting time to be an F1 fan in the last 30 years.”
In 2016, the parent company of FOM was purchased by Liberty Media, and thus F1’s commercial rights and promotion was under new leadership. This started what I consider to be the most exciting time to be an F1 fan in the last 30 years. They began moving races away from places with minimal fan support, started taking a modern approach to television, and started instituting rules that are designed for more exciting racing. It is great. This is what brings us to F1 TV Pro, their recently announced Over-The-Top (OTT) digital streaming service.
Liberty Media launches F1 TV Pro
F1 observers knew an OTT service was coming when NBC Sports walked away from the renegotiation of their F1 TV rights deal in the United States, stating that they didn’t want to buy rights and then compete with the same group in their OTT service. F1’s big negotiation sticking point was that they didn’t want to be part of the NBC Sports app and instead wanted their own digital streaming rights. With so little live inventory (21 races), an affluent fan base that has an unquenchable thirst for F1, and a minor property in the big scheme of things, NBC Sports were right to walk away.
TSN is in a different position. Their deal with F1 was signed before the Liberty Media takeover and includes all video broadcast rights through the 2019 season. From television to streaming, TSN controls all first call distribution of F1 content. When negotiations open again, you have to assume Liberty Media will look to add Canada to the F1 TV Pro OTT service. But in the short term, fans will be at the whim of TSN when it comes to being able to subscribe to F1 TV Pro or watch the content.
The WWE Network model
There are many ways this can play out but the most likely path is similar to how Rogers handled the WWE Network. WWE Network is the OTT service that includes all recent WWE content, select old video library content, as well as some original programming not available anywhere else. Rogers, is one of the biggest broadcasters of WWE content in the world. They have been showing more WWE events on their Sportsnet 360 channel than most other groups. They show Raw, Smackdown, NXT, Saturday Night Main Event, and tons of other content. Few groups were as exposed to cannibalization of viewership due to the WWE Network launch than Rogers was.
The solution for Rogers and WWE was to create a unique scenario where Rogers would put the WWE Network on their Rogers on Demand platform. This allowed Rogers to profit from the WWE Network as a reseller of it, and also ensure that they were still the destination for wrestling fans. Eventually, Rogers cut deals with the other cable companies to have the WWE Network on their platforms. Finally, they allowed subscribers to the cable version of WWE Network to sign into the actual OTT service. It took some time, and required wrestling fans to have a cable subscription, but eventually Rogers and wrestling fans had a conclusion.
“…if you’re TSN, I think you look to the WWE Network as your roadmap to coexist with this new direct to consumer model Liberty Media is going for.”
TSN has had a long history with F1 and has been a great partner. They give races airtime on SportsCentre, they replay races in better time slots, and you can tell the network treats the series with respect. Bell, the parent company of TSN, is also a major cable provider in the country and could put the OTT network on demand, and handle distribution of it similar to how Rogers did with WWE Network. The only wrench here is Liberty Media has shown they’ll walk away from traditional distribution in markets that have minimal revenue for them. Additionally, if you’re Liberty Media, you know you can sell F1 TV Pro direct to a rabid fan base so why cut Bell into the deal? Nevertheless, if you’re TSN, I think you look to the WWE Network as your roadmap to coexist with this new direct to consumer model Liberty Media is going for.
Alternatively, ESPN announced they are developing a streaming service through their purchase of BAMTech. The network plans to have a mix of mainstream big 4 sports, ESPN programming, and fringe sports. ESPN has a stake in TSN and could easily roll their network into Canada as a TSN product. They already share a lot of content, and rights deals. However, if the leagues and series like F1 choose to go direct in Canada instead of allowing ESPN to bundle Canadian broadcast rights into their larger rights frameworks, what happens?
What’s next for Canada?
In the bigger picture, it is interesting when leagues with marginal followings in Canada but huge followings globally like F1 launch their own OTT service. It creates a bit of a challenge for TSN and Sportsnet when they must outbid the concept of a league going direct and having full control over their content. When the next round of F1 television rights are negotiated in Canada, it won’t be a scorching hot property. It is air filled at weird hours that has a small but diehard fanbase. However, it will potentially give us a look into how global leagues with big OTT aspirations are going to treat Canada. Will they work with Rogers and Bell like WWE Network has? Will they avoid them and go direct? Will Bell and Rogers increase their bids in an effort to bolster their OTT efforts? What does this mean for fans? Are they expected to pay $9 per month for each sport they care about? It is an interesting time for leagues, broadcasters, and fans.