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Formula One Racing to Return to ESPN

Formula One racing will take another lap on ESPN.

The Disney-owned sports-media unit said Wednesday that it had reacquired U.S. rights to televise Formula One races, meaning the racing entity will return to its original American TV partner.  The first Formula 1 race ever aired in the U.S. was on ABC in 1962. Starting in 2018, ESPN and ABC will air all 21 races in the championship series, which starts with the season-opening Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix on March 25, and ends with the Nov. 25 Formula 1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Financial terms were not disclosed.

The maneuver means NBC Sports will no longer show the events, but parent company NBCUniversal may have reason for ceding the rights to the sport. Formula One is now controlled by John Malone’s Liberty Media, which purchased the racing league for $4.4 billion. Executives – who include both Chase Carey, the former lieutenant to Rupert Murdoch and Sean Bratches, a former high-ranking ESPN staffer – have since that time unveiled plans to launch in aggressive fashion more digital properties to reach fans. One of those ventures is believed to be a broadband service.

“Although we take great pride in having grown Formula One’s visibility and viewership since we became its exclusive U.S. media rights holder in 2013, this will be our last season with the series,” NBC Sports said in a statement. “In this case, we chose not to enter into a new agreement in which the rights holder itself competes with us and our distribution partners. We wish the new owners of F1 well.”

ESPN said it had negotiated a “a multi-year linear and digital partnership” for Formula One that encompasses “more than 125 hours of Formula 1 programming, including all practice sessions, qualifying and races” that “will air live and in replay across ESPN platforms in 2018.”

Formula One races have enjoyed a viewership surge in recent months. Through 14 races shown across NBC, NBCSN and CNBC , the 2017 season has drawn an average of 548,000 viewers, according to Nielsen, up 13% from the same point in the 2016 season. Viewership for 12 races shown on cable during the 2017 season to date is up 135% from the 2013 season. NBC Sports first gained rights to the sport in 2013.

“We are excited about the return of the world’s foremost motor racing platform to the ABC and ESPN platforms,” said Bratches, who now serves as managing director, commercial operations at Formula 1. “ABC’s ‘Wide World of Sports’ first started airing live grands prix in the early 1960’s and this linear and digital partnership with ESPN represents a significant step forward in achieving Formula 1’s aim of broadening the sport’s appeal. The U.S. market is very important growth opportunity for Formula 1 and we are looking forward to working with ESPN to ignite the growing fan interest.”

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