How Netflix Made Americans Care About the Most European of Sports

I never gave much thought to the champagne-soaked world of Formula 1. Then I watched Drive to Survive.

#1 foam finger turned into a black/white checkerboard racing flag
Jason Fulford and Tamara Shopsin

As recently as June, I had never heard of Daniel Ricciardo. The fault was mine, not his: Ricciardo is a world-famous Formula 1 race-car driver with millions of Instagram followers and a zillion-watt smile, whereas I am from the United States—a nation traditionally standoffish to international sports, and to anything that seems suspiciously European.

F1 and most of its drivers run afoul of these sensibilities. The last time an American had notable success in the series was in the late 1970s, the heyday of the Italian-born immigrant Mario Andretti, who won his only championship seven years before I was born. In the decades that followed, F1’s American potential was squandered, and the sport remained a niche pursuit. But Ricciardo is Australian, a spiritual plane closer to Americanness than, say, being Finnish or Dutch. His driver number is 3, an homage to the NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt and an exhilaratingly American choice in a sport that reeks so intensely of European aristocracy that true fandom requires a basic understanding of Monaco’s whole conceptual deal.

I don’t know if that’s why Ricciardo is the first driver viewers meet in Formula 1: Drive to Survive, the ultra-compelling Netflix docuseries that began its third season this spring, but his goofy-jock charms are very popular among new American fans (or at least among the female ones I know). In the weeks between starting the show and writing this sentence, I’ve developed a detailed set of opinions about Danny—that’s what those of us in the know call him—and the three teams he’s raced for since 2018. I have theories on tyre (yes) strategy; fears about the Eau Rouge corner at Spa; and thoughts on the Red Bull Racing team principal, Christian Horner, who is sometimes the Greek chorus and sometimes the villain but always very handsome and married to a literal Spice Girl. I would protect the 21-year-old British phenom Lando Norris, Ricciardo’s current McLaren Racing teammate, with my life. On the weekends when there is no Grand Prix for me to watch while groggily drinking coffee on my couch at 9 a.m., I now feel a bit disoriented.

For me, Drive to Survive worked like a trapdoor directly into F1 fandom, and it seems to have done the same for lots of previously indifferent Americans. Netflix is averse to releasing viewership numbers, but a spokesperson told me that the third season was the show’s most popular yet; it was also the platform’s seventh-most-watched series in March. Circumstantial evidence of its influence abounds: ESPN, which broadcasts Grand Prix events in the United States, says race ratings are up 50 percent over 2020. The Circuit of the Americas, which hosts the United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, plans to add 20,000 more seats for its sold-out October race. Zak Brown, the CEO of McLaren Racing and a periodic presence on Drive to Survive, told me that the show has had an enormous impact on the sport. For people like him, who weren’t previously among F1’s most public faces, that means getting recognized in airports and while out to dinner. “If it wasn’t for Drive to Survive, I don’t think I would have had Michael Strahan coming to give me a fist bump in a restaurant in New York,” Brown said.

In Drive to Survive, F1 has found a way to convert Americans to a sport they have traditionally ignored. In the process, it may have hit on something even more valuable, something every American sports league is desperately seeking: a recipe for building and sustaining interest at a time when sports, facing all manner of new competition, are losing their grip on the nation’s psyche. Already, the teenagers and early-20-somethings who make up Gen Z are much less likely than Millennials to identify as sports fans or watch live sports. To head off disaster, the major American sports leagues need better answers to the questions that already haunt every licensing deal and marketing initiative: How do you get people who grew up with the entire internet’s worth of entertainment to care about sports? How do you make a new fan?

Before I became suddenly consumed by Formula 1, I knew only one way to become a sports fan, and that was to be born into it. That’s how I came to college football, and specifically to the University of Georgia Bulldogs. My dad went to UGA; I was still in the womb when I attended my first game at Sanford Stadium. College football is part of the Deep South’s culture and factors into millions of southerners’ familial relationships—the only time I’ve ever heard my dad swear at another family member was when my Uncle Joey suggested one Thanksgiving that he might bring me a University of Tennessee shirt at New Year’s. My understanding of myself as a Georgia fan is approximately as integral to my identity as my understanding of myself as an American.

This is not as extreme as it might sound: Sports fandom is one of the primary organizing principles of American social life. Daniel Wann, a psychologist who studies the topic at Murray State University, in Kentucky, once administered a survey asking students to make a list of important things about themselves. Several University of Kentucky basketball fans mentioned their team allegiance before their Christian faith. But that’s not so surprising when you consider that the two things were likely passed down to them around the same time, by the same people. I know plenty of young parents who, somewhat jokingly but also very seriously, began encouraging their babies to say “Go Dawgs” as soon as they began talking.

Generational transfers of fandom don’t take for everyone—kids, Wann noted, love to rebel—but childhood is key to determining whether someone will follow sports later in life. And that doesn’t just mean watching sports growing up: “The best predictor of being a sports fan as an adult is having played that or another sport as a child,” he told me. Youth-sports participation is more closely correlated with fandom than any other trait he’s looked at, including gender and personality type and even whether you’re a good player. Spending just a season or two in Little League makes a person more likely to eventually become a sports fan—even if the eventual gateway is a Patrick Mahomes–obsessed college friend, and the result is an NFL habit rather than an MLB one.

For generations, these factors played to sports franchises’ advantage. Teams sewed themselves into the social fabric of their cities until they seemed closer to a civic organization than a corporation owned by a local baron. Their product was also difficult to avoid—a few generations ago, most families had a single television, and it got just a handful of channels, one or two of which probably ran sports on any given night or weekend afternoon. Kids had fewer activities to choose from, and most boys were expected to play sports—if not on organized teams, then to pass the time with their neighbors before dinner.

Virtually everything about how children entertain themselves has changed. Youth-sports participation has been declining pretty rapidly as playing has gotten more competitive, expensive, and time-consuming. If you’re a working- or middle-class kid with no real chance of a profitable athletic future, playing a sport might not make sense. For football, still the most popular spectator sport in the United States, fears about the game’s safety have contributed to a particularly steep decline in youth involvement.

Where sports have receded from childhood, other sources of entertainment have flooded in. Video games and social media are popular bogeymen in tales about the laziness of Kids These Days, but they are a much less expensive way to keep your children occupied than travel soccer. Parents are also less likely than those before them to send their kids out to roam the neighborhood and put together pickup games themselves, a change precipitated by the various panics—satanic, stranger danger, gang—of the ’80s and ’90s.

As children who lack much firsthand experience with sports reach adulthood, Wann said, converting them into sports fans will be difficult. “How can you grow a fan base,” he asked, “that has already spent all of their life basically telling you that they don’t care about your product?” Unless something changes, a self-perpetuating cycle is likely to set in: Kids who feel little connection to sports that are too expensive to play and too boring to watch grow up to be adults who don’t take their own children to baseball games or give them team-logo hoodies on their birthdays.

Everyone involved in big-time American sports knows that something must be done. They have invested in developing large audiences on social-media platforms, in creating real-life “fan experiences,” in tying themselves to social values that might shore up their shaky reputation as cultural leaders. During last season’s playoffs, the NFL simulcast a game on Nickelodeon, which overlaid slime graphics onto the field while announcers, some of them kids, explained the rules and answered questions about the action. Some sports leagues dabbled in reality television long before Drive to Survive was a twinkle in a Formula 1 executive’s eye—the HBO docuseries Hard Knocks, which premiered in 2001, follows a different NFL team’s preseason training camp every year.

But Hard Knocks has never converted many new fans. The most notable American-sports docuseries, such as ESPN’s 30 for 30 and The Last Dance, which chronicled Michael Jordan’s final NBA championship, tend to lean on nostalgia more than on current action. Live sports broadcasting, as ubiquitous as it is, tends to presume knowledge of a sport. If you don’t know anything about baseball, I’m not sure you’d come away from a televised game with any inkling of why you should care about it, even if you were looking for reasons.

While watching Drive to Survive, I wondered whether a series about an American sports league could replicate its appeal, and what exactly made it so effective to begin with. The show is fun and loose, two things that tradition-weighted, heavily sanitized American sports entertainment often isn’t. The drivers and team principals can be petty or rude or a little too honest. F1 and its governing bodies have not required that their visages be polished to an unblemished sheen. Drivers and execs complain about the uneven application of penalties, and, when they think it will get them an advantage, they form alliances and narc on one another openly. The series is frank about how, in 2019, F1 let Scuderia Ferrari, its most storied team, escape public censure for an allegedly illegal fuel system, and about how mad that made everyone else.

Drive to Survive has its detractors—some of F1’s longtime fans think it’s too dramatized, and takes too many liberties. Yes, the show is clear and unapologetic propaganda for the sport—but compared with what American leagues make public, it’s practically cinema verité. It is a shortcut around fandom’s gatekeepers, and once you get past them, you can judge the sport for yourself. It helps that Formula 1 teams don’t seem to think of themselves as pillars of their communities; they’re named not after places, but after the companies underwriting them. Cheering for a company can feel weird, but only until you remember that all professional sports teams are companies. American sports franchises, by contrast, want fans to believe in their purity and goodness. They seek to model certain values about hard work and tradition and achievement while also merging their identities with those of the cities or states they inhabit. This is a useful reputational sleight of hand, one that benefits the teams when it’s time to dip their hand into public coffers to build a new stadium. But their stated ideals are hard to reconcile with the barely obscured and often bleak reality of big-money sports.

Formula 1 isn’t as shy about its petrochemical and tobacco ties, its aristocrats and oligarchs, its demonstration of what bored money buys. The centrality of cash isn’t masked with queasy invocations of meritocracy—it is thrillingly explicit. The drivers are generally young and handsome, and many grew up wealthy. The sport has a long history of “pay drivers,” whose seats in Formula 1’s two-person teams are bought—either with their own money, or with that of an interested sponsor, usually from their home country. In the case of the Canadian driver Lance Stroll, who races for Aston Martin, his billionaire father bought the whole team.

The teams with the most cash generally win, because building rocket ships that function on dry land is very expensive, and carting them around the world to race in occasionally deadly fashion is even more so. Some of the series’ newer races are held in countries with abysmal human-rights records whose authoritarian regimes apparently thought it would be cool to host a race. The whole thing is soaked in champagne and decked out in luxury watches, and it always feels as though it’s coming to you live from the French Riviera, no matter its actual location that week.

I feel conflicted about these things—and other Drive to Survive converts I spoke with described their new obsession as, at best, problematic. But I also find F1 a refreshing change from American sports, which for all their lofty self-descriptions fare at least as poorly under the microscope. The NFL, for example, just spent a season marketing itself as an opponent of racism while defending in court its use of “race norming,” which assumes that Black players naturally have lower cognitive abilities than their white counterparts, and therefore should be paid less when football harms their brains. (The league announced in June that it will eliminate the norms but continued to deny they were discriminatory.) The difference is that Formula 1 assumes you’re smart enough to understand that nothing involving this much money is likely to be morally sound.

If American professional sports wanted their own Drive to Survive, they wouldn’t just have to let in a film crew; they’d have to be more honest about their product, and less controlling of how other people speak about it. If you haven’t already bought in, the hypocrisy and stodginess you have to get past to find the fun in every major American league—except for maybe the NBA, which embraces personalities and interpersonal drama more readily—is enormous.

Formula 1 doesn’t try so hard to paper over the uncomfortable realities of its business with nostalgia, or with old-fashioned notions of grit and determination and selflessness. It wants to be loved not because it’s good, but because it’s fun.

This article appears in the October 2021 print edition with the headline “How I Fell for Formula 1.”