How Liberty Media made Lewis Hamilton ‘more popular than Tom Brady’

Thomas Maher
NFL's Tom Brady and Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton.

NFL's Tom Brady and Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton.

Liberty Media CEO Greg Maffei has revealed how a simple change in social media strategies helped boost the profile of the F1 drivers globally.

While Formula 1’s approach to social media now sees the sport take a far more visible approach, continuously posting video footage and highlights reels across its range of channels, it’s a markedly different approach to how F1 treated social media under the tenure of its previous owners.

It’s not particularly surprising that Liberty Media, a mass media corporation, would have a different approach to private equity and investment firm CVC, who had owned the sport during the previous decade – Bernie Ecclestone having held the role of Formula 1’s chief executive under CVC.

‘Prior management wouldn’t even let the drivers tweet’

Up until Liberty Media’s purchase, Formula 1’s presence on social media was threadbare. While accounts on all the usual platforms were active, postings were piecemeal and video content was practically nonexistent.

Liberty Media’s CEO Greg Maffei has revealed how his organisation spotted the potential opening up the sport and making it more visible and accessible could make it more popular – a move that has paid off as F1’s global popularity has never been higher, while he has also laughed off selling the sport for a figure such as $20 billion, despite having only purchased the sport for just over $4 billion.

While F1 has always been a popular sport, its positioning meant it found it difficult to attract new fans, seen as a niche interest that wasn’t helped by cutting itself off behind closed doors on social media as the internet became prevalent.

Appearing on the Walker Webcast, Maffei detailed the importance of Netflix to the burgeoning US market and the runaway success of docuseries Drive to Survive in boosting the popularity of the sport, but said there was more to it than just the TV show.

“There are many other elements opening up and telling that story that were important,” Maffei said. recommends

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“Fan festivals that didn’t exist, you know, driving the cars around Trafalgar Square and doing donuts, opening up social media.

“The prior management would not let the drivers tweet, would not let them be on Instagram, believing that that would reduce the appeal for our broadcast partners, because we were giving away product. We flipped that on its head.

“Now, Lewis Hamilton has twice or three times as many Instagram followers (34 million) as [NFL’s] Tom Brady (14 million).

“We opened that world up and Netflix… now you can go race drivers on Twitch and race them in video games. So changing the perspective, of which Netflix was an important part but not the only part, and opening that story up to our fans was a huge part of what’s made the difference.”

Despite the success of building up an F1 star to the point to eclipse a legend of American sport, Hamilton still has some way to go to catch the likes of Lionel Messi (350 million) or Christiano Ronaldo (470 million).

How Drive to Survive came about to create an F1 behemoth

With F1 also willing to open up to TV and streaming media, including opening up for a new scripted drama series starring Felicity Jones, alongside Drive to Survive, Maffei said the brunt of thanks for creating the behemoth that F1 has become can be laid at the feet of former commercial operations managing director Sean Bratches.

Bratches, formerly of ESPN, was hired by Liberty Media to work alongside CEO Chase Carey in helping to build up the sport in their image as they assumed control from Ecclestone and CVC.

“In life, you hope you do the right thing, but there’s a huge amount of luck involved,” he said.

“The other claim to credit, besides hiring Chase Carey, was helping hire Sean Bratches with Chase.

“Sean came from ESPN. Sean, probably more than any other person, was the person who said the story needs to be about the drivers, not about the cars.

“The late Sergio Marchionne, who ran Fiat and Ferrari, used to think ‘My car is the star’.

“From his ESPN background, Sean understood the telling the story, the drivers, what was compelling these, you know, handsome young guys who have lots of competitive issues internally against each other, thinking about the car and all the team stuff – there was a great narrative here. And it was going to be a compelling narrative for our fans.

“Sean was really the one who went to Netflix and there’s the line ‘Success has many fathers’.

“But Sean is probably the true father, he went to Netflix with the idea, and drove it. You can work hard, you can be thoughtful, and this was absolutely working hard and being thoughtful in the right idea.

“But we got lucky that Box to Box and Netflix did such a great job.”