Racing needs new fans—and paywalls and geoblocking aren’t helping

The World Endurance Championship is trying something new. As it transitions to becoming a winter series at the end of 2019, it’s running a “Super Season,” which got underway at Spa Francorchamps in Belgium on Saturday and finishes with the 2019 24 Hours of Le Mans. But US fans of the WEC might have had a bit of trouble watching the race.

After many years on Fox Sports, the series has moved to Velocity, and as part of the deal it has geoblocked its streaming service in North America. It’s a retrograde step, locking content away from both existing and potential fans at a time when motorsports of all flavors are struggling for viewers.

It’s a topic that has been on my mind quite a lot of late. Partly, that has been driven by the headlines: Formula 1 has a new TV network in the US (ESPN), and in recent weeks we’ve seen announcements of similar news from IndyCar and the IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship (both of which will be exclusive to NBC from 2019). And partly because “the future of racing” was the topic of a panel I moderated at the Future of the Automobile conference, which just took place in Los Angeles. The sport is facing a number of problems, but one of the biggest is a declining audience, and I’m not convinced the deals we’re seeing are going to help.

The olden days

Things were much simpler in racing’s heyday, back before we had cable TV or Internet streaming. There were fewer competing demands for our time—and certainly fewer opportunities to watch drivers go head to head each weekend. With only a handful of TV channels, if one was showing the Indy 500, then millions of people would happily sit down and watch the show. Then along came specialized channels like the dearly departed Speedvision. Now you could see plenty of racing—as long as you were a subscriber. But the marquee events remained on free-to-air broadcast TV.

Things started to change with F1. In the late 1990s, Bernie Ecclestone launched F1 Digital+, a satellite subscription service available in Europe. F1 Digital+ was a flop, but it pioneered the use of multiple different video feeds and more content than we’d been used to with plain old linear broadcasting. Although F1 couldn’t make a go of the service itself, broadcasters like UK-based Sky took the idea and ran with it. Soon, Ecclestone was selling rights packages to these broadcasters for use in pay TV services, although still with some effort to ensure most of the races were still free to watch in some form.

Then we got the Internet, and theoretically a TV aerial or satellite dish was no longer necessary. After all, it shouldn’t matter where in the world you are as long as you have an IP address and the stream can find you. That was the hope, but the men in suits signing the deals weren’t ready to think about that. Instead, streaming rights were just another box that got ticked as lawyers exchanged paperwork. If (say) NBC wanted the rights to show F1 in the US, then those rights included streaming F1 races over the Internet to US-based viewers, which meant paywalls and geoblocking.

Cord cutters beware

For most of the WEC’s existence (the series got started in 2012), this setup made watching the sport relatively easy. The series had a broadcast contract with Fox, but it also offered its own streaming service, either via a webpage or iOS or Android apps. (Plus there was the always excellent and always free Radio Le Mans audio stream.) However, you did have to pay to watch the races via the WEC stream or apps, even though one of the OEMs that raced in the series had offered to sponsor the streams to make them free for viewers.

As the TV-watching landscape shifts with more and more cord-cutters, this seemed to me like a step in the right direction. Viewers didn’t need to be beholden to a massive cable bill each month to watch the series. It’s something F1’s new owners, Liberty Media, appear all too aware of—as the series negotiates new broadcast contracts, it’s insisting on the right to offer its own in-house streaming service globally, which debuts later this month. (In some countries like the UK this has to wait for current contracts to expire before the service will be available.)

But the new WEC deal is a step backwards. The series—justifiably—felt that Fox was giving it short shrift, showing most of the races on Fox Sports 2, a channel with such little reach that it barely figured in the ratings. A move to Velocity and Motor Trend promised 65 million eyeballs, but one consequence is that the WEC app is now geoblocked in North America. To make matters worse, it appears we can forget about being able to watch replays, and don’t bother looking for the races on the Motor Trend on Demand app; my experience this weekend was, you either watched it live or not at all.

The problem isn’t unique to WEC and Velocity. As part of a deal with disinterested title sponsor Verizon, IndyCar has been offering a second-screen experience, but only for subscribers of the aforementioned cellular network. NASCAR did something similar with Sprint until that cell company was replaced by Monster Energy. Fans of Formula E here in the US can find the races on Fox Sports, but often they’re tape-delayed by up to a day, and again there’s no legal way to watch them live via the Internet.

All of this matters because racing is a sport that most of us engage with via a screen, and again and again racing series are making it harder, not easier, for new fans to find. You only need to attend a couple of races in person to realize the sport is aging out rapidly. if racing wants a robust and healthy future, one thing it needs to do is start putting its races in front of fresh eyes. Consider this fact: almost a million people watched the 2016 Audi 24 Hours of Le , an e-sports race held concurrently with that year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans race. By contrast, only about 300,000 US viewers tuned in to the start of that race on Fox, with maybe only 50,000 watching the dramatic conclusion.

So I think it’s time to think about the long view. Instead of locking up streams behind paywalls and geoblocks for the sake of a few extra dollars in the near-term, that means embracing free-to-view, YouTube, and the like.

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