Ross, could we keep politics, ideology out of F1?

I’ve read the story at James Allen on F1 about Ross Brawn coming in under the Liberty Media wing of Formula 1 and working as a sporting operative to cure F1’s woes. The idea is that he would be in charge of the sporting elements of the series moving forward and one presumes just one of the multiple folks it will take to replace Bernie Ecclestone.

I am unclear on what that role would be as the sporting and technical regulations are duties the FIA currently control and Liberty Media’s presumed acquisition of F1 would be from a commercial rights holder position only but alas, there is most likely a “sporting” element to that part of ownership as well.

I was reading a parallel article at WaPo about the waning interest in the NFL and while many folks have pointed to the football league as a model that F1 could follow to find success and to staunch any bleeding of interest or viewership it may be experiencing; I would submit that this article cautions us as to this thought.

“Sunday Night Football” by 19 percent, “Monday Night Football” by 24 percent and the dreaded Thursday night game by 18 percent. A variety of factors may be contributing to this dive, from the election to so-called “fragmentation” of mass media. But none of the explanations make as much sense as the simplest one: The NFL has put less appealing and more disturbing action on the screen, and viewers are turning it off.”

The fact is, the demographic that has kept the NFL moving skyward for years is now turned off by the politics of the sport and the narrative, as well as quality of product, it seems to be selling. The Article continues:

“But the NFL is beginning to seem over-managed and over-staged. Constant commercials and interruptions by refs waving their arms do not produce “appointment viewing;” rather, they produce punts, ties and stasis. Look at the standings: A cluster of 18 teams, indistinguishable save for the colors of their shirts, are at .500 or worse and five more at 4-3. In other words, 23 teams are not must-see-TV to anyone but their most fervent fans. The constant advertisements and hail of yellow flags from overly officious officials make a PBS series seem fast-moving, with a clearer story line.”

Is any of this tickling some notion or thought you may have had recently had about F1? Even from this past weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix? It’s not my intention to take the stuffing out of F1, I love F1, but I would caution the sport to avoid the cultural narratives that have little or no resonance with the majority of its demographic. NASCAR started down this road and quickly slowed its gallop when the O-Rings starting to buckle under full throttle-up. Fact is, sport is sport and not a cultural mirror that instantly equals the mobocracy of social media or punditry.

When you are trying to appeal to five million viewers per game or race, there are too many ideologies, socioeconomic levels, age groups, and genders to pin yourself to one particular group. In a sporting event, identity politics and social narratives miss the target on large swaths of viewers while sating the particular group they feel might be interested or compelled to tune it. You’re a “progressive”? A “Conservative”? Fine, enjoy the race but if the broadcast package is scripted, demagogic, heavy handed or even outright politically salacious in one direction or another, you are going to experience a tune-out and as long as you are fine with the lost revenue and appeal of the sport, then more power to you.

I, for one, am not comfortable about alienating progressive, liberal, conservative or libertarian viewers because to me, they are F1 fans first and other folks when they turn the race off and go about their day. I don’t need to have technical or sporting regulations written to support a format that drives a social agenda nor would I want the regulations to send a message about a completely unrelated political or social topic.

Sports have usually been an escape from grind of daily toil and ideologies. One time when fans from all stripes can come together for the purity of just sport. My recent editorial on the “Verstappen Rule” was an attempt to suggest that the over regulation of this sport is killing it. The NFL is facing the same situation:

“The NFL’s overemphasis on “brand” and “shield” has meant increasingly petty attention to discipline and uniformity, which is sucking away dynamism and rendering it joyless. The league is picking apart its own product with stoppages, until it’s hard for the viewer to separate the major from the minor offense”

The current cultural outrage model of mobocracy is demanding that the sport litigate or mitigate any and all elements that could breach whatever cause or concern they have with the sport until the sport ceases to be recognizable or appealing. In F1’s case, the sport is now controlled, litigated and directed by what I call the holy trinity of trump cards—Safety, Cost and Sustainability. Any move in direction is immediately met by the mobocracy with one or more of the trinity trump cards in which to judge the direction. What??!! Are you against safety?

No one, me included, wants unsafe racing but some seem to live in the delusion that you can litigate or mitigate all risk from motorsport and that’s simply not true and in their quest to do so, they run the risk of neutering the sport entirely of any real sense of racing. I’m not saying that’s already happened but you can see where this is heading. No one wants the NFL to take concussion lightly, quite the contrary, but to what length can the sport go to make it impossible to be injured playing the game and still have it be football?

The Article goes on to say:

“The NFL ratings malaise is being puzzled over by everyone from media executives to stock analysts, who offer a variety of speculative causes. Everything from fantasy football to Twitter live-streaming to the shorter attention spans and habits of millennials has been cited. But none of these entirely add up. Other sports aren’t suffering precipitous drops; NBA and Major League Baseball ratings have strengthened over the past year.

In looking for a difference, it’s hard to dismiss the coexisting facts that the NFL has ruined the flow of its on-field stories while experiencing a spate of deeply negative stories off the field — most of them self-inflicted and perpetuated, from the Deflategate four-game suspension of Tom Brady, to the spousal abuse case of place kicker Josh Brown. Donald Trump has blamed Colin Kaepernick for dissing the national anthem for the fall in ratings. If that’s a factor, then undoubtedly so are narratives involving concussions and domestic violence.”

Even this article couldn’t steer clear of the politics in citing Trump when there was a clear poll taken recently they could have pointed to that said the exact same thing. The biggest reason? The National Anthem protests, the lowest reason? Head injuries and player safety. What would F1 find in a similar poll? Would driver safety be the biggest reason for waning interest or would it be Mercedes domination, hybrid engines, lack of sound, too many races, or the lack of sprinklers and walls at corners or even gold medals? Ok, just having fun with Mr. Ecclestone on the last few.

The NFL has offered several reason but none of them add up, as this article points out, but when a poll was taken that suggests the leading cause for the drop in ratings is the National Anthem protests, I think it rather concerning that the NFL is still blaming Millennials for being cord-cutters and not liking football as much. Well, if that’s true, then know your demographic.

If F1 is completely convinced that Millennials are the future of F1, have they even asked them if they like F1 or racing in general? They may just not be that jazzed about the sport finding other interests more appealing. What could you possibly change about F1 to make someone who doesn’t care for racing find it more appealing? Put a mustache on it? Call it “Authentic” or “artisan”? Make team bosses wear skinny jeans? Bring PBR beer on as the title sponsor? What?

If F1 is to look to the NFL as a model of how to run a sport, I would kindly and humbly suggest they keep walking because F1 is not the NFL and NASCAR took a real caning when they started down the road of social narratives that instantly turned their key demographic off. I don’t care about the political, social or ideological justices when I am watching F1, I care about good, competitive racing devoid of life’s more complicated topics and would prefer they also keep sex and religion out of the sport as well.

I don’t care if the next F1 world champ is Lewis Hamilton, a Hindu woman from India driving for Force India or, perhaps very unlikely, Fernando Alonso in a McLaren. Leave the politics and protests out of F1 please, it’s already doing a real number on the NFL and NASCAR is still wearing a cast and IV over its dipping of the toe into ideologically driven broadcast and marketing attempts.

Hat Tip: Washington Post and Boston CBS