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Austin’s U.S. Grand Prix a critical F1 marketing tool for NBC

While NBC Sports travels the world to televise Formula One, the network is happy to have a home game this week.

The United States Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas is the only F1 event in this country, and it starts a string of three successive time-zone friendly races for the network, with events in Mexico City and Brazil to follow.

“Most races are early in the morning so we’re thrilled to have an afternoon event accessible to so many more viewers,” Jon Miller, NBC Sports president of programming, told the American-Statesman. “Austin and COTA do a great job making this feel like a showcase event, and our numbers continue to grow for it.

“I’d like to see one or two more races in the States. There’s so much potential to tap into the American market.”

Even though world-wide motorsports TV viewership is in decline, Formula One in general and the Austin race in particular still pack a punch. Last year’s U.S. Grand Prix, even with abysmal weather, was the top-watched race of the year, with 96.1 million viewers, according to Forbes Magazine.

The afternoon start works well for South America and puts the race in prime time in Europe.

Although barely more than 1 million of the 2015 audience for the U.S. Grand Prix was from the United States, F1 viewership on NBC and NBC Sports Network, which carries most of the races, is trending upward. The races average about 520,000 viewers, far better than the 366,000 they averaged in 2013, the first year the NBC Sports Group carried them.

“I’m never satisfied with ratings, but we’re happy there is an upward tick when other sports properties see market erosion,” Miller said. “We’re signed up for 2017 and we’re committed to showing every race live and also repeating them later in the day for those who want to watch in an easier window.”

Miller pointed out a demographic benefit of F1 are “well-heeled advertisers and an upscale, desirable audience.”

NASCAR remains the 800-pound gorilla of U.S. motorsports, but that beast has shed considerable weight, with typical viewing audiences around 4 million weekly, down from a high of more than 7 million in its 1990s and early 2000s heydays.

U.S. F1 viewership has room to roam, but there are severe limitations.

“There are four major, established sports in this country, and you’re not cracking those,” said David Hobbs, a former driver from England who provides color on NBC telecasts. “Then you’ve got NASCAR and other things, but F1 can definitely grow its niche audience. Look at the crowds that come to COTA.”

Hobbs, who now lives in Milwaukee, said he sees anecdotal evidence of Formula One awareness in this country.

“I find more interest on the speaking circuit,” he said. “Even my neighbor was asking me about Lewis Hamilton. There is a good, solid nucleus of fans.”

Circuit of the Americas chairman Bobby Epstein told the American-Statesman the sport will take off here “once we have an American champion driver,” a prospect that appears years away since F1 does not have currently have an American on the grid.

Owner Gene Haas has started the first F1 American-based team in 30 years, though it faces a steep learning curve and currently has French and Mexican drivers.

NBC analysts are hopeful the pending purchase of Formula One by the American company Liberty Media leads to positive changes.

“I’d like to see a more NASCAR-style, fan-friendly atmosphere where you can get up closer to the drivers and cars,” said Leigh Diffey, NBC’s F1 play-by-play announcer. “The sport also needs to catch up in the social media area to attract a younger demographic, be more user-friendly.”

Miller also would push better access for fans.

“There is a rock-star nature and high-end excitement to Formula One, but the average fan can’t get up close to fully appreciate it,” he said. “At a NASCAR race, you can go to the garages, check out the pits, walk the track. They do a wonderful job embracing fans.”

All the NBC talent said COTA does its best within the sport’s limitations.

“It’s a terrific facility, and they offer a lot of entertainment within the grounds,” Hobbs said. “The spectator can see a very large amount of the track, more so than at most venues, and it’s easy to get around. I really like the place.”

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