The Drum: The Drive to Survive effect: you need more than just a great documentary to save a sport

The Drive to Survive formula has been heralded as the magic bullet to bring in new fans to any sport. But Ausura Eccleston, strategist at Dark Horses says you need more than a doc to save a sport.

If you have started watching Formula 1 in the last two years, then statistically you probably did so because of its enormously successful Netflix documentary Drive to Survive. It has helped transform a rich white man’s hobby into an entertainment platform for the masses.

But as Drive to Survive is set to come back for a fourth season, it’s a mistake to think F1’s success is down to a documentary alone.

Tennis and golf have just launched Break Point and Full Swing respectively, rugby is set to follow suit. But both docs landed with a lukewarm reaction to tennis, which proves just that there is more to growing a sport than producing a good documentary.


The first thing you need is luck

All the great success stories have a little bit of luck and F1 is no different. The 2021 season was one of the most dramatic ever. In fact, forget F1 it was arguably one of the greatest sporting stories ever told. Hamilton, the veteran Goat, is on the cusp of winning a record-breaking eighth title. Up against Verstappen, a young challenger who is next in line to hold the crown of best in the world.

It was the first time Verstappen had come close to winning the title, and the first time since 2016 that Hamilton looked to have someone that could match him. Throughout the season they battled, collided, traded insults, and in the end, it came down to the final lap of the final race, a hugely dramatic affair. You might quibble about the ending (yeah I’m still not over it), but it helped create a story that scriptwriters could only dream of. A story that enthralled fans, and brought the best, and worst, out of the competitors. The stars aligning like this is not something every sport can rely on.


Luck is earned; you need to engineer entertainment

Roman philosopher Seneca said that luck is what happens when opportunity meets preparation. This story didn’t just come to F1, they’ve been proactive in fighting against stagnation. Even before this rivalry played out, the FIA (the Formula 1 governing body) had already gone about making sure the sport is as entertaining as ever.

2021 saw the introduction of sprint races at races to make the weekend even more fun for those attending. At some races in the calendar, a shorter 30 min ‘sprint’ race was introduced on the Saturday before the main 90 min race on Sunday. The idea was that for the sprint races, drivers can go all out without needing to manage their tyres or fuel which should make for more entertaining racing.

The massive shake-up of technical regulations in 2022 was designed to change aerodynamics to make it easier for drivers to battle against each other. The FIA are constantly thinking ahead about how they can make races more competitive and thrilling for fans. They were even criticized for taking this too far in the Verstappen-Hamilton duel, with entertainment prioritizing a fair sporting contest. There is a balance to be struck but the ambition is clear.


Going after new fans (in the real world)

The FIA has also moved fast to grab momentum and embrace new fans from new places. This means that short-term interest is likely to be sustained and won’t be a quick flash in the pan. Next year, Formula 1 will race in America three times. You might think that is excessive, but Drive to Survive has created a demand among American sports fans and F1 is eager to satisfy it.

It’s similar to how upcoming musicians will use streaming platforms to decide which cities to tour based on where the most streams come from. F1 are making sure that their latest recruits are able to physically be part of their new-found sport and they are able to continue building momentum as interest grows.


Going after new fans (virtually)

Previous F1 owner Bernie Ecclestone said that he was “not interested in tweeting, Facebook and whatever this nonsense is.” New owners Liberty Media, on the other hand, went all in. They’ve seen F1 become the fastest-growing major sports league in terms of follower growth in 2021.

The real advantage of pushing hard on social media is that it’s a good way to inform new fans about the complex sport. F1 content creators PitStop are self-proclaimed newbies and a lot of their content is quite digestible, especially on the technical aspects. Acknowledging its unique perspective, F1 has fully embraced the PitStop duo. They’ve invited them to races and given them access to F1 drivers, commentators and experts. Ultimately, social media is a great tool for not only connecting with global fans but bringing them along on their learning journey.

Drive to Survive is undoubtedly one of the best things that could have happened to Formula 1. It has inspired a whole host of other sports to bring fans closer to the stories and rivalries of the athletes. But it’s not a magic bullet. Of course, you need a bit of luck, but you also need the courage to move fast and make major changes.

You need to welcome new fans in-person and online, you need to be bold in changing the sport itself, and you need to do everything within your power to maximize the entertainment on offer. This might mean standing up to the traditionalists and focusing on the future. A killer documentary helps, but it won’t solve all your problems on its own. It needs to be part of a bigger commitment to change.

Ausura Eccleston is a strategist at agency Dark Horses.