Paywalls. It’s a concept that isn’t new, but it’s one that’s been causing a lot of controversies lately. Ever-increasingly we are being asked to pay money to view news articles, editorials, think pieces and TV shows. This is something that’s recently seriously made inroads into the world of motorsport.
It’s most keenly felt amongst British viewers of Formula 1 thanks to an exclusivity arrangement on live broadcasts with Sky. This is an arrangement that’s been in place ever since the BBC’s coverage of Formula 1 ended in the early 2010s. Whilst British viewers can watch races for free on Channel 4, they have to be broadcast after the race is over.
This is due to the terms of the exclusivity agreement that Sky has. Whilst other TV channels are allowed to broadcast F1 races in the UK, broadcasting them live as they happen is Sky’s sole legal right. There are serious legal repercussions for any other broadcaster who tries to mess with this.
I really don’t think this kind of arrangement is fair for fans and viewers of motorsport. In fact, I think it’s seriously damaging our enjoyment of motorsport as a whole. It’s causing a system that is fundamentally unfair to a lot of us and I’ll attempt to explain why.
Why is putting motorsports almost exclusively behind a paywall really unfair?
A lot of us simply do not have the disposable income to be able to afford to pay for a premium broadcasting service like Sky.
The thing is, motorsports is something that’s not just enjoyed by the middle and upper classes. Due to the hugely entrenched connection of motorsport to the car industry in the UK, many of the people who traditionally watch these races are people who work in the factories of the companies who race cars in these series or they may even build components of the cars themselves.
These viewers are watching racing because they feel personally connected to it. They earn a living working for the companies that develop the cars we see on TV. It’s hard to not have any kind of personal connection at all when your entire working life revolves around working for those companies.
If you’re a factory worker, it’s pretty likely that you’re not getting paid enough to be able to afford to pay for the borderline exorbitant cost that Sky Sports asks you to pay. This prices those fans who feel that personal connection to the sport through their working involvement with the automotive industry out of being able to enjoy those races live. Watching live races in the UK has become the preserve of those higher-class viewers who have more disposable income.
This causes a perhaps very sinister consequence. That consequence is that the working class are being priced out of entertainment that, traditionally, has a working-class audience. This is something that’s already happening in other televised entertainment that has a consistent working-class audience. This includes combat sports and professional wrestling.
By pricing the working-class fans out of this entertainment, you’re essentially gentrifying it and all the problems that come with making things gentrified and ‘genteel’ manifest themselves. You only have to watch Mel Brooks’ classic The Producers to know how the ‘genteel’ middle classes can, through their own machinations, create something that comes with a lot of problems!
The gentrification of the world’s entertainment is a whole different discussion that would require thousands of words in and of itself, though. Let’s move onto something else…
Is it a symptom of a wider problem?
What have paywalls done to change other types of media? Well, there’s a pretty serious problem developing here.
Have you ever seen a link to a really interesting piece in Bloomberg, the Financial Times or Business Insider, clicked on it and found out you need to pay a monthly fee to be able to view it? Yup. It sucks, doesn’t it? Things that could be genuinely brilliant pieces of journalism that everybody should be able to read are being walled off from the vast majority of internet users because of the need to pay a subscription to view it.
Have you ever seen all the buzz about a cool new TV series and then found out that it’s Netflix or Amazon
Prime exclusive, meaning that you’d need to dig even deeper into your disposable income to be able to watch it? Again, it really sucks. Whilst I am lucky enough to have access to Netflix and Amazon Prime, a lot of people simply just cannot afford those services.
The rise of platforms like Patreon has also created an insane amount of paywalling amongst artists and content creators. Many have started creating so much content that’s only accessible behind the wall of a subscription that it feels to me like it’s incredibly selfish towards people who can’t afford even a $1 or $5 a month payment.
I do understand why. We all need to make a living somehow. The bills don’t pay themselves. But when the vast majority of your content is so far behind a paywall like that, it feels like you’re creating a hyper-exclusive, sycophantic club of paying supporters. That’s something that, honestly, doesn’t sit right with me at all.
But, I have digressed here, so back to the major point of this whole thing; how paywalls are ruining our enjoyment of motorsport.
So, what do you do if you can’t afford to get behind the paywall?
You use illegal methods. Whilst it works, they are exactly that. Illegal. Whilst it’s fairly difficult to enforce things like this, which is why they are so prevalent in the first place, you are still walking a dangerous line in terms of legality. There will always be people who can’t afford to pay the money to get through the paywall. If you make sure that there is space to give them a free option that’s legal, people won’t use
illegal platforms. That’s just common sense!
Thankfully, some racing series do understand this issue. They will throw their racing up online for free either via their own website, via an already-ubiquitous video platform or even through a deal with another media provider.
For example, as a UK viewer, I’m able to watch the IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship live for free through IMSA’s own website as IMSA doesn’t have any paywalled exclusivity agreements in the UK. The Race has agreements to broadcast the British GT Championship, Super GT and Super Formula
live for free through its YouTube channel and have them saved to the channel to watch on-demand whenever you want. Again, this is possible because those racing series don’t have any paywalled exclusivity agreements in the UK. It’s actually the norm in sportscar racing for races to be able to be viewed legally for free!
Funnily enough, I find watching these series a lot more enjoyable in many ways than even thinking about going through the illegal gymnastics I’d need to do to watch a Formula 1 race if I didn’t have access to Sky Sports. You realise how simple and easy it can be to make these series accessible to everyone and, most crucially, get annoyed at how so much of motorsport is hidden behind near-exorbitant paywalls that only those with deep enough pockets can access.
Why can’t Formula 1, a series that used to be broadcast live on free TV in the UK either via the BBC or ITV, cater for this? It seems so crazy that it can’t seem to work this out for British viewers!
As a whole, paywalls are damaging our enjoyment of motorsport. We shouldn’t be forced to pay crazy amounts of money for a Sky Sports subscription just to be able to watch races live. We should be allowed to have a choice and that choice should always include a free TV option.
Paywalls have already ruined a huge amount of consumable media. We should learn from what’s gone before and not allow motorsport to be ruined by the same process.