Can F1 survive a post-free-to-air Australia?

Both Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes will vie for their respective Formula One titles at this weekend’s United States Grand Prix, but only around 30 per cent of Australian households will have the opportunity to watch it after the sport moved exclusively to pay television this month.

Free-to-air F1 was wrenched suddenly from television sets during the Malaysian Grand Prix weekend, reducing Network Ten’s 10-race live allocation to just one race — the Australian Grand Prix, legally mandated to be available for free — in what is now the new norm for Australian audiences without access to the viewership wilderness of pay television.

It would be unfair to say that Ten has acted in poor faith with fans, however, with its hand — or perhaps more accurately the hand of administrator KordaMentha — forced by the mechanics of the ailing network’s impending acquisition by CBS.

A creditors report released last month reveals that Formula One is an unsecured creditor in the station’s demise and that the successful CBS deal would repay only $2 million the $20 million owed to it.

Needless to say F1 was unlikely stand idly by and cop such a loss, and F1 global director of media rights Ian Holmes alluded to as much in his statement.

“Following the recent difficulties at Network Ten, our first priority was to ensure that Australian fans of Formula One remained able to watch the championship without interruption,” he said.

“I’m pleased to say that, having moved quickly, it is now guaranteed that anyone in Australia who wishes to watch … will be able to do so …”

Foxtel, however, remains pricy, with a cable subscription including sport coming in at $55 per month. Foxtel Now, a lightweight online service, reduces that by $16, but with only around 50 per cent of the country connected to the NBN, live television streaming is frustratingly unreliable for many, including this writer and his humble ADSL connection.

Where does that leave F1 in Australia?

To put it lightly, in a fair bit of trouble.

Australia has always had a core Formula One following, but there’s no denying the bulk of it stays afloat on the success of Daniel Ricciardo. When Daniel’s up, so too is news coverage and social interest; when he’s not, it’s not.

An Australian colleague put the question at the Japanese Grand Prix: what happens when, sometime in the next decade, Daniel hangs up his helmet?

Can Formula One still be sustainable in Australia without a home hero to cheer on at 10pm on a Sunday evening? Certainly the nation’s ongoing enthusiasm would have to be called into question, as would be the health of the Australian Grand Prix itself, for which race organisers have openly acknowledged the ‘Daniel Ricciardo effect’ has boosted ticket sales.

With no other Australian F1 hopeful on the immediate horizon, drawing the conclusion Formula One’s popularity in Australia is on the precipice of a terminal downward spiral is worryingly easy.

There is, however, a sliver of light in this increasingly dark tunnel.

One week after Foxtel’s announcement a similar proclamation was made for the United States market. Broadcasting rights will transfer to ESPN from next season in a shock move that ends NBC Sports’s four-year association with the sport — but it’s the latter’s exit reasoning that is most interesting.

“In this case we chose not to enter into a new agreement in which the rights holder itself competes with us and our distribution partners,” its press statement read, making a not-so-subtle reference to over-the-top broadcasting apparently being on Formula One’s horizon.

Could broadcasting direct to the consumer, cutting out the expensive Foxtel middleman, be the solution to keeping F1 in the Australian consciousness?

The only question, naturally, would be the cost to view. Foxtel subscription numbers remain modest because the price point is high; Formula One would have to find a happy medium between affordability and profitability.

However, a non-scientific straw poll of internet forums and comment threads — emphasis on the non-scientific — suggests that Australians are generally unwilling to pay for most content. This is exhibited across a range of media, from news websites to television, and indeed one could set a watch to the regularity of articles calling Australia the world’s piracy capital after each Game of Thrones release.

But on the other hand, according to a Deloitte report, in the reasonably short time Australia has had access to a healthy gamut of entertainment streaming services their subscription rate has grown beyond that of Foxtel, a 22-year stalwart of the media landscape.

A question of the right content for the right price, surely — but that balance is easier said than achieved, putting great onus on what Formula One does next when it comes to the sport’s future in Australia.