There are terrible start times for sports television, and then there is the Formula 1 Las Vegas Grand Prix.
The race is scheduled to begin at the sleep-deprived time (especially for East Coast and Midwest F1 fans) of 1 a.m. ET this Sunday (10 p.m. local time Saturday night in Las Vegas) on ESPN, ESPN+ and ESPN Deportes. There is massive anticipation for the race, the celebrity factor will be off the charts (I mean, it is Vegas) and the visuals will be stunning (as well as absurd). But the run-up has also seen its share of problems. All of it makes for an interesting juxtaposition given Las Vegas is one of the most-hyped races in the sport’s recent history, as our Luke Smith noted, but the race is set up much better for audiences in Europe and Asia.
None of this is a surprise for ESPN. John Suchenski, the company’s director of programming and acquisitions who manages ESPN’s business relationship with F1, said F1 officials have long been transparent with ESPN on the desire to make Las Vegas a night race.
“It was always intended to be a late-night race in Vegas time, and I think that plays well with the Vegas theme,” Suchenski said. “The city that’s up at all hours. Other major events that happen there, whether they be boxing matches or UFC pay-per-views, typically end up being late as well too. So we’ve known from the start that it was going to be a late-night race. Then we react accordingly.”
That reaction has focused on educating ESPN viewers on the start time of the race as well as the qualifying sessions. There were F1 mentions on “Monday Night Football,” and Suchenski said the race will be promoted heavily within ESPN’s college football windows this Saturday.
F1 has been a hot property in the U.S., but viewership has cooled down a touch this year. The series is averaging 1.1 million viewers per race in 2023 heading into Las Vegas, down 8 percent after a record year last year. (Last season averaged 1.21 million viewers per race across ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC, a 28 percent increase over the previous U.S. television record of 949,000 average viewers that was set in 2021.) Much has been written on why the numbers are down, and undoubtedly competitiveness is an issue. Red Bull driver Max Verstappen has won 17 of 20 races so far this season and clinched the drivers’ championship over a month ago.
Suchenski said he is not worried about ESPN viewership and believes the property has room to grow moving forward. Also, as he noted fairly, it’s important to keep in mind that one advantage to having global programming is that it provides live content where otherwise you’d have to do something studio-related. The programming eats up innings, as the baseball vernacular goes. ESPN has the U.S. rights through the 2025 season.
“The numbers we put up this year are slightly down from a record year last year,” Suchenski said. “The pace we’ve been increasing viewership year over year for the last two or three years was significant. While we are down 8 percent right now, a lot of that is being driven by the Max Verstappen factor. He’s won 17 of 20 races. He’s already wrapped up the regular season. A lot of the races have not been overly competitive on the track. But we’re still seeing a lot of positive numbers. We had three of the four most viewed races in the U.S. of all time this year alone. We are still getting races that are setting all-time (viewership) records, most recently the Mexico Grand Prix. We are still very bullish on the property.”
ESPN is using the Sky Sports coverage, as they always do, and the pre-race coverage will start at 11:30 p.m. ET. ESPN will also have its own preview show, “Countdown To Las Vegas” on social platforms and the ESPN App starting at midnight.
Long-term, ESPN has no plans to move away from the Sky Sports presentation, but Suchenski said he does anticipate ESPN continuing to amplify its presence at U.S.-based events. “SportsCenter” will be onsite for the Vegas race, with anchors Nicole Briscoe and Gary Striewski reporting from Las Vegas this week into the race. (ESPN says Red Bull team principal Christian Horner will do a live interview with “SportsCenter” following the race.) In synergistic support, ABC’s “Good Morning America” is airing segments from Las Vegas on Friday.
Time differences are a massive challenge for broadcasters, as Fox Sports and NBC Sports executives can tell you as rightsholders of the World Cup and the Olympics. Conventional wisdom suggests that the Las Vegas race will be below the season average given the start time. But it is a unique race given the location and the newness, and there is the possibility that ESPN will get some curiosity seekers checking in early Sunday morning just to see what the spectacle looks like.
“We’ll see what the viewership is when it comes in and then try and put some context behind how that stacks up to the rest of the F1 season or other types of events that happen late at night,” Suchenski said. “Maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised. I don’t have an expectation in mind, but the amount of buzz could potentially turn it into something special. It’s not the end-all, be-all of success or failure, but hopefully we will be pleasantly surprised when the numbers come in.”
Las Vegas Grand Prix mailbag: What does success look like for F1’s glitziest race?
I had a great conversation with new Detroit Tigers broadcaster Jason Benetti as part of my latest sports media podcast. We discussed his move from the White Sox to the Tigers, his reaction to the Tigers pursuing him, why he ultimately left the White Sox, the tension between someone who has a national job in addition to local, and the importance of ownership buying into a broadcast, among many other topics. Benetti is a particularly transparent interview. I also recommend this excellent piece on Benetti from The Athletic’s Cody Stavenhagen.
• My old Sports Illustrated colleague Tim Rohan has a new two-part podcast out this week — “Volley and Serve” — which profiles Sergiy Stakhovsky, a Ukrainian tennis player fighting on the front lines of the war. Stakhovsky beat Roger Federer in the second round of the 2013 Wimbledon tournament — an unheard-of upset at the time — and Rohan traveled to Ukraine to tell his story.
• Gary Myers, the longtime NFL writer and a big part of HBO’s popular “Inside the NFL” franchise, has written “Once A Giant,” which focuses on life after football for the 1986 Super Bowl champion Giants and the mental, physical and financial challenges they’ve encountered in their 50s and 60s.
• The University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism has an excellent Povich Symposium on Friday (you can stream it online) featuring NBA commissioner Adam Silver and Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, as well as a series of writers (including The Athletic’s David Aldridge) on the future of the NBA.
• Kevin Harlan called his 500th NFL game last Sunday.
500 NFL telecasts for Kevin Harlan 🎙
One of the best to do it 👏 pic.twitter.com/XApxwF284F
— NFL on CBS 🏈 (@NFLonCBS) November 12, 2023
Some things I read over the last month that were interesting to me (Note: There are a lot of paywalls here):
• How to Hijack a Quarter of a Million Dollars in Rare Japanese Kit Kats. By Amelia Nierenberg of The New York Times.
• Excellent piece from The Athletic’s Jeff Reuter, who examined CBS’ handling of Carli Lloyd’s Gotham investment during their NWSL Championship broadcast, in which Lloyd served as a studio analyst.
• Most Americans still have to commute every day. Here’s how that experience has changed. By Lydia DePillis, Emma Goldberg and Ella Koeze of The New York Times.
• The Untold Story of the Washington Football Team’s First Black Cheerleaders. By Luke Mullins of Washingtonian.
• Bills legend Jim Kelly used to be mad about all he’d lost. Now he focuses on what he’s found. By Dan Pompei of The Athletic.
• Saudi Arabia’s tightening grip on sports. By Gus Garcia-Roberts of The Washington Post.
• The shortest career in NHL history? 1 shift. 4 seconds. 0 regrets. By Peter Baugh of The Athletic.
• The librarian who couldn’t take it anymore. By Ruby Cramer of The Washington Post.
• When bullied students end their lives, parents are suing. And schools are paying. By Donna St. George of The Washington Post.
• The Secret History for Alan Alda’s M*A*S*H Dog Tags. By Andy Lewis of The Ankler.
• Inside an OnlyFans empire: Sex, influence and the new American Dream. By Drew Harwell of The Washington Post.
• The Secrets of the JFK Assassination Archive. By Scott Sayare for New York Magazine.
(Photo from Red Bull Racing’s Las Vegas Grand Prix livery reveal on Tuesday: Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images)