• Opinion

Formula One could learn from Vince McMahon

Nate Saunders June 26, 2014
Vince McMahon's gimmicky XFL football league was a disaster © Getty Images
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It says everything you need to know about Formula One's current grasp of social media that its official Twitter account has fewer followers than the Brazuca, the official ball of the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

In fact it has under half the number of followers, a paltry 835,000 to the Brazuca's two million. And it gets worse. While the Brazuca account tweets several times an hour, the official F1 account tweeted just three times during the Austrian Grand Prix, linking out at seemingly random intervals to a live timing screen which also leaves plenty to be desired.

Let's recap on what Bernie Ecclestone said about Twitter just last month: "I think the change that is taking place is very short lived, as these social media people are starting to think its not as good as they thought." A fairer assessment could be that it is in fact F1 that people are starting to think is not as good as they thought.

Apparently artificial sparks and standing restarts are a couple of the answers to F1's falling viewing figures, two gimmicks which alone are unlikely to make former fans and people who have never watched the sport before reach for their wallets and splash out on subscriptions to F1 coverage. As Maurice Hamilton wrote on ESPNF1 this week, any notion the latter will make for a more entertaining spectacle is wishful thinking. Much like with the controversial double points format for the season finale, F1 appears to be giving fans answers to questions no-one was asking.

For a man who has spent so long trying to establish F1 as the number one motorsport series in the USA, it is surprising Ecclestone has not learnt from the cursory tale of one of the nation's most farcical sporting failures. The lesson comes from an unlikely source; Vince McMahon, most famous as the owner of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), who in 2001 set up the XFL, a football league intended to complement the off-season of the National Football League (NFL).

The XFL was unpopular for the very reason F1 seems to think it can attract fans back to the sport. It was just too gimmicky

With his "sports entertainment" background McMahon wanted to mix the sport with shock value, while also getting rid of penalties and conversions to create "real" American football, with the show itself given higher priority than the on-field action in an attempt to capitalise on a season of unspectacular NFL ratings. Among the wacky gimmicks introduced was two men literally fighting over a loose ball instead of the standard pre-game coin toss (which would be a hilarious concept if it hadn't led to a player separating his shoulder before the first game), silly monikers like "He Hate Me" and "Ron Mexico" for players, a revised points system and unusual names for its franchise teams such as Maniax, Demons and Xtreme.

The gimmicky side of XFL was supposed to be its main draw and on the league's first week it recorded a massive 9.5 Nielsen rating - double what was expected - as people watched out of morbid curiosity. But it took precisely one week for the novelty to wear off; dropping to a 4.6 by the next round of matches, a downward spiral which continued until the league folded at the end of its inaugural year. By that time McMahon and broadcaster NBC were $35million worse off than they had been at the league's inception.

The XFL was unpopular for the very reason F1 seems to think it can attract fans back to the sport. It was just too gimmicky. At the end of the day, people just wanted to watch football. The same as most F1 fans don't care as much about artificially-created sparks, double points or standing restarts as being able to watch the best drivers in the world race one another.

A quick comparison between the official websites of Formula One and the NFL gives further evidence of the problem. While video content is limited to just a several-minute race edit on F1.com (which often takes several days just to go online), on the NFL website you are treated to immediate and in-depth game highlights, analysis from top pundits and player interviews, all free of charge. As well as its own affordable TV network - NFL Game Pass - there's also a superb fantasy league and scores of journalists dedicated solely to the official website's content.

XFL's player nicknames quickly became a source of ridicule © Getty Images

It's as if the NFL wants to make it as easy as possible for fans to watch and engage with its product. Even if you cannot afford a subscription to watch NFL regularly, there is an outlet for fans to follow each season closely in a way which you just could not do in F1. All of this is a great starting point for new NFL fans and is tied together by superb social media engagement which exposes Ecclestone's comments last month as being woefully uninformed.

The NFL is as popular as it is today because it made itself easily accessible for the fans and by utilising new media, not by being gimmicky to the point of overkill. F1 is a long way from becoming a farce like the XFL but it is also a long way from truly understanding what is turning fans away from the sport for good.