- Netflix is chasing Formula 1 rights in the US, sources told Insider, in its first foray into live sports.
- Disney’s ESPN, which currently holds the rights, Comcast’s NBCUniversal, and Amazon are also in the mix.
- Netflix doc series “Drive to Survive” has stoked Americans’ interest in the global luxury auto sport.
US media rights for Formula 1 are up for grabs and
is among the suitors, according to three people familiar with talks.
Netflix has been holding talks for months, the sources told Insider, along with Disney-owned ESPN, which has held US Formula 1 rights since 2017. One person told Insider that Comcast’s NBCUniversal, which held the rights for the previous five years, is in the mix, as previously reported by Sports Business Journal. That person and a fourth source said Amazon is also a bidder. ESPN submitted an opening bid in the region of $70 million, one of those people said, noting that figure is well below the $100 million that Formula 1 is now targeting.
One of the sources said Netflix talks have grown more serious but added that the pitch is tricky given that the company doesn’t have an in-house sports negotiator. The Los Gatos-based streamer played a role in stoking Americans’ interest in the team-based auto racing events — Grands Prix that roll out in swank locations such as Monaco and Montreal — thanks to its long-running documentary series, “Drive to Survive,” made by Box to Box Films.
ESPN confirmed its talks in a statement from John Suchenski, director, Programming & Acquisitions. “We are aggressively pursuing a renewal — we feel that we have a distribution package and event presentation that can’t be matched in the industry and the viewership and exposure growth they have received since returning to ESPN platforms in 2018 is reflective of what we can do for them,” he said. “It has been a mutually beneficial relationship.”
“Understandably, they are looking at other options,” Suchenski continued. “We had very good meetings with them in Miami recently and are in constant communication.” Sports Business Journal previously reported on the Miami talks.
Amazon and NBCUniversal declined to comment. Netflix did not immediately respond to request for comment.
“Based on the success of ‘Drive to Survive,’ it would seem obvious that Netflix would be an interested participant and that Formula 1 would feel similarly,” said Sean Bratches, the former managing director of commercial operations at Formula 1, who was previously ESPN’s EVP sales and marketing.
Bratches, who joined Formula 1 when it was acquired by Liberty Media in 2017, made the deal to land the documentary series after recording market research interviews with fans from Beijing to Barcelona who felt they couldn’t get close to the cars or the drivers. “Drive to Survive” delivered what they asked for.
Formula 1, which boasts a global fan base and a bite-sized rights fee compared with major US sports, would be a fit for Netflix for other reasons. A new
license would begin in 2023 — ESPN’s rights expire at the end of this year — and could provide a lift-off for Netflix’s new advertising-supported subscription tier, currently slated to launch at the end of 2022.
ESPN said its May 29 telecast of the Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix averaged 1.4 million viewers, up 43 percent over the 2021 edition of the race. The next race is set for June 12 in Baku, Azerbaijan.
If Netflix does win the rights, it would be yet another significant pivot for the company, which has long shied away from live programming, advertising, and sports, only to reverse itself after suffering a 200,000 subscriber decline in the first quarter that wiped $50 billion off its market value. Netflix engineers have been working on building live programming capabilities for the streamer.
Netflix co-CEOs Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos have spoken with TV sports executives for years, feeling out the industry, weighing the players and the costs involved, and meeting with the leagues and even rival companies in the space.
With Apple recently making a deal to stream Major League Baseball and bidding on NFL’s “Sunday Ticket,” Amazon prepping to launch exclusive streaming of NFL’s Thursday Night Football, and Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery already armed with a range of sports content on their streaming services, it’s easy to see how Netflix could get left behind if it sits out of sports rights bidding.
In an interview with German magazine Der Spiegel in September 2021, Hastings ignited speculation on Netflix buying into the sports category. “A few years ago, the rights to Formula 1 were sold,” he said. “At that time we were not among the bidders, today we would think about it.” He added that Netflix would be interested only if it could score the rights exclusively.
UK and Ireland rights to Formula 1 are held by Comcast’s satellite broadcaster, Sky, in a deal that extends through 2024. While NBC and the now-shuttered NBCSN had their own Formula 1 commentators, ESPN’s coverage brings the Sky Sports feed and its pundits to US viewers. Formula 1 races can also be streamed on its app F1 TV Pro, which is $80 per year.
One sports industry executive speculated to Insider: “Formula 1 stays at Disney/ESPN for just above $75 million.”