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How Far Can the Formula 1 Formula Go?
Netflix and Formula 1 modernized the sports docuseries. That doesn’t mean the model will work for every sport.
Five years ago, there was no formula. There wasn’t, at first, even a desire to create one. The executives at Liberty Media, fresh off purchasing Formula 1 for $4.4 billion, simply had a desire to grow the sport’s audience. They had enough know-how to guess that a television series could help.
The result, Netflix’s Drive to Survive, now five seasons in, is not what was originally intended. Rather, those executives, along with the show’s producers, ended up creating something novel: a modernized sports docuseries built for the streaming era. In doing so, they vaulted the sport to new heights, rapidly expanding its audience, especially in the United States.
That success, it seems, has created a gold rush. So far this year, Netflix has released two new docuseries by the same production team: Break Point, following tennis, and Full Swing, following the PGA. Both are evidence that the Drive to Survive model can be applied to other sports. But with demand for the model growing amid a changing sports media environment, the question is: how far can the Formula 1 formula go?
Sports docuseries, obviously, are not new. Before Drive to Survive, though, they often centered around a singular team. The narrative arc was the season. The conflict was the sport itself. For non-fans, the series promised entertainment. For fans, a look behind the curtain. On either promise, it rarely delivered.
Drive to Survive may very well have ended up looking like that had a different group of execs and creators been involved. Through a combination of smart creative choices and completely winging it, though, the final product feels different from what came before. The result is effective advertising for the sport hidden inside a Trojan Horse of effective entertainment.
By far the most important quality to the series is its unique blend of documentary-style and reality TV-style filmmaking. There’s a specific tone to all three series that is simultaneously prestigious and casual. The scenes and interviews feel journalistic, but the show is edited like reality television, cutting together voiceovers and reactions to heighten the tension.
Crucially, the series is also edited non-chronologically, so rather than focusing on the Formula 1 season as the narrative arc, personal and internal conflicts are the focal point. The races are simply part of the story. As a result, Drive to Survive functions as both an entry point and companion piece to the sport it depicts, rather than a recap.
Those essential qualities — plus the whole “attractive people in beautiful places” thing — helped make Drive to Survive a creative and financial success. Before the series first premiered, ESPN was paying around $5 million annually for the rights to air Formula 1 in the US. Now, they’re paying upwards of $75 million a year.
Success, alone, likely would not have been enough to get other sports to seek imitation. The past decade, though, has also seen a rapidly changing media landscape. Put simply, the shift to streaming has led to two important changes:
Live sports are one of the few aspects of linear television still growing in profit.
Streaming has made more live sporting events available than ever before.
Those two changes mean that:
Media companies are willing to pay more for the rights to live sports.
Sports organizations have more ability than ever to grow their international audiences.
All of this equates to one simple takeaway: Sports organizations have more incentive, and opportunity, than ever before to expand their audiences in order to maximize the value of their media rights.
Based on that shift, it makes perfect sense that organizations and leagues would look to the success of Drive to Survive as an opportunity for growth. Tennis and golf, in particular, are perfect candidates to copy the formula. After all, both function similarly to Formula 1 on a structural level: they are individual-driven, are based around touring to different locations, and have the whole “attractive people in beautiful places” thing going for them.
Those shared aspects mean that when the producers of Drive to Survive made Break Point and Full Swing, they were essentially able to click copy and paste. You can see it clearly in the series, right down to the graphics. As a result, all are more or less equally effective as entertainment and as entry points into the sport. The specific characters and narratives featured in Drive to Survive might still be the most compelling, but all three are worthy watches.
Looking ahead, the question is how the formula will translate to sports that don’t share so many qualities with Formula 1. Box to Box, the production company behind Drive to Survive, already has a Tour de France series and a Kentucky Derby series lined up with Netflix. They also already created a surfing series for Apple TV+ and will partner with the service to create an MLS show, which comes after the $250 million annual deal between Apple TV+ and MLS kicked in earlier this year.
Meanwhile, the NFL has partnered with Netflix to create a show centered around individual quarterbacks, rather than teams, a choice surely influenced by the success of the narrative arcs in Drive to Survive. Even with such a creative decision, though, a series like that will require more than a copy and paste, something producers will likely take far too long to learn. After all, even the best formulas don’t solve every problem, and even the biggest gold mines eventually run out of gold.
That’s all for this edition of Cansler Culture, which is back after my extended vacation hiatus.
I’ll leave with you some floral pics I took and the sweet, sweet sounds of my (unfinished) Spring 2023 playlist: