If Formula E were a person, it would be action movie legend Tom Cruise of the Jerry Maguire era: fresh faced, incredibly charismatic, screen friendly, and despite a diminutive stature, destined for Big Things.
The new electric racing series has its eye, not on changing the face of sports management, but on transforming both motor sports and sports broadcasting. These, too, are Big Things, though the goals could easily be seen as risky business at best, and mission impossible at worst.
Series organiser FEH has answered doubts with a powerful emerging broadcast strategy. A deal was struck with TV top gun, Fox Sports, in August 2013, securing coverage across nearly 90 countries including the US, where all 10 races will be shown live, Australia, Canada, Italy, Hong Kong, the Netherlands and more. A deal with Japan’s TV Asahi also includes live broadcast of all races, and was announced in November last year.
UK audiences looked to be the outsiders, with Sky seeming the likely contender to pick up the rights. That is, until yesterday’s revelation that ITV will broadcast the entire Formula E first season live and share highlights with a pay-per-view channel.
This is far and away the best possible news – for the sport, for fans, and for the British motorsports industry. ITV has a long and proud history of motorsports coverage. Many had feared that had a subscription-based service, such as Sky or BT Sport, landed the deal, Formula E would have been on course for certain and rather early oblivion as far as Britain was concerned.
And Britain matters. The UK has a very real stake in the battery powered championship (lots of British staff, two British teams, and a shiny new technical base at the Donington Park circuit due to open in May). Free-to-view television coverage on ITV4 and ITV4HD, alongside online streaming, will give the sport access to a huge potential audience right from the beginning of the series, while giving the UK a sense of ownership of the international series that it may have thus far been lacking. It’s the perfect cocktail to get the party started.
Each ITV programme will run to 90 minutes. That includes live coverage of each hour-long race, qualifying highlights and post-race analysis. By anyone’s reckoning, that’s a tight schedule, especially if there are pauses in the race for safety car periods.
It’s not exactly a second mission impossible, but it’s going to make for a compressed programme, even though qualifying will be restricted to just two flying laps, which will help keep things brief enough for telly. It’s not yet been made clear whether all cars will be put on the track at the same time (which could cause issues with traffic), or whether each driver will have the track to himself (or herself).
Formula E has still to issue its sporting regulations, however, so we may find these sorts of issues are already resolved. It may be that ITV will extend programmes if necessary.
Inhouse broadcast company Aurora Media is charged with providing footage; the firm has recently been demonstrating its prowess with live online streaming of sporting events. It will face a particular challenge in how to convey the excitement of the racing despite a significant absence of noise from the electric racing cars (although F1’s new power units have reduced the decibel level of the sport considerably in the new season, which has been – rather surprisingly – welcomed by many; perhaps this is the beginning of the end of the days of thunder).
But it is the digital side of things where the new sport really has a chance to shine. Early FEH statements revealed ambitions to not only stream races live over the internet, but also to include a whole suite of new interactive features – such as fan-controlled 360 degree cameras viewed through a smartphone apps. Also promised is a real-time computer game running on live race data, pitting fans at home against the professional racing drivers on the track in a virtual war of the worlds. That may seem a third mission impossible, but it could just be possible. Fingers and toes, firmly crossed.
Formula E may not be shouting “show me the money” with quite so much verve or volume as Jerry Maguire, but it’s clear that it really doesn’t have to. The deals are coming, and more TV announcements are expected imminently. The slogan of the racing series, “Go green”, might have been coined to refer to environmental sustainability, but it may apply equally well to the colour of money – and financial stability is vital to the long-term viability of the sport.
The ITV deal shows that FEH has all the right moves and that, in its ambitions for the future of broadcasting, Formula E really does offer a tantalising glimpse over the edge of tomorrow.
(And if the new sport comes with a Springsteen soundtrack, so much the better.)