Why BTS are exactly what Formula E needs
Formula E's new global ambassadors, BTS © Formula E
Formula E's new global ambassadors, BTS © Formula E

Why BTS are exactly what Formula E needs

You might not have heard of Formula E. It’s an all-electric, street-racing series that doesn’t mince words about the climate crisis.

Is that a weird opener, in a publication that ostensibly mostly covers Formula E? Yes, of course, but Formula E had a viewership of, cumulatively, 411 million over 13 races last season. BTS’s last music video, Boy With Luv, has accumulated 643 million views in a few months. And that’s just one of their videos, for their Korean Wave/Hallyu, ultra-aesthetic pop, which has topped the US Billboard 100 even though it’s (mostly) not in English.

If you’re a racing fan, you might not have heard of them but it’s a push. If you know anyone in their 20s or teens and have managed to totally overlook them, or if you’ve ever been on the internet before, you’ve probably had to pretty much consciously avoid them to not notice these pretty, multicolour boys who wear clothes better than any of the rest of us ever will.

BTS are bigger than almost any sport and have the sort of demographic reach that certainly any motorsport series would run someone over for. They’ve been estimated to contribute about $3.5 billion to the Korean economy as their merchandise and endorsement-loving army of fans buy everything with their name or particularly faces on.

Their fans are young – mostly under 35, mostly in their 20s and teens – and predominantly female. BTS’ message is positive, with tours titled Love Yourself and gorgeous, technicolour music videos. Their style has nothing to do with the tightly-policed masculinity of sports where a man driving a pink car makes people come over a bit “no homo,” they speak out about LGBTQ rights, mental health issues and the pressure of what they do. They have spoken at the UN about the need for young people to assert their identities and rights to a future.

Young women interested in LGBTQ rights aren’t motorsport’s key traditional demographic. I’ve carefully curated my social media to see more aesthetic gifs and cute phone backgrounds than grumpy takes from old men but it’s extremely fair to say those of us who want to appreciate motorsport in a fandom way have had to cater to ourselves. Our love isn’t actively sought out by the series and even on sites like Tumblr where we dominate the way motorsport is spoken about, it’s ignored more than examined while predominantly male sites like Reddit are openly used as ideas-mines for official accounts.

Until now, that is, of course. Formula E announced today that BTS are becoming global ambassadors for the sport, in a partnership intended to address the critical threat presented by worldwide air pollution and promptly broke (some of) the internet.

If you’re a motorsport fan wringing your hands at the idea of getting pop stars involved: stop. You’re living in a world that doesn’t exist anymore, not just because any confusion about what makes BTS appealing is showing yourself up as not understanding modern culture but because we have some urgent things to do right now. The planet is dying, the global mobility that makes us able to sustain the (often wonderful, amazing, progressive) modern world we’ve built needs to change incredibly fast and we all need some hope and motivation and numbers to be able to do that.

If you’re a BTS fan: I know you love your boyband and I absolutely understand why. Let me show you mine.

and JEV absolutely respecting the series bosses in New York, 2018 – Image: Rebecca Jodgalweit

Formula E is the offbeat cousin in motorsport. The strange wave that regular publications and broadcasters are still struggling to understand, to some extent. In theory, it’s got all the hallmarks of a “normal” motorsport series, in the sense that the point is to race innovative, bleeding-edge technology cars against each other and to allow the best athletes, the fastest drivers to showcase their skills in a properly thrilling battle of nerves and training.

On another level, everyone in it is slightly messed up and there’s this really pressing mission to the whole business that just driving cars in circles doesn’t quite cover. Electric technology is racing the destruction of life as we know it, not just each other. And Formula One would never launch a car with bisexual, neon lighting.

Formula E’s Gen2 car, representing me more than I expected – Image: ABB FIA Formula E

Formula E’s fanbase is poorly understood across motorsport. The series’ social media following is 72% aged under 35, which is almost totally unheard of across a type of sport that’s expensive to attend and prohibitively inaccessible to even watch, with F1 having disappeared behind a Sky paywall in most countries that leaves my non-motorsport friends sometimes bemusedly asking me if it even still exists.

For the generation that can’t afford luxuries like long-term rents or a secure future, it might seem perverse to be spending billions on a boyband, let alone cars. But the barrier to accessing BTS is basically just an internet connection – and so is Formula E’s.

Six years after having been initially regarded as a weird laughing stock, Formula E has stopped being the family oddball and got big recently. Environmental and technological credentials have forced manufacturers to pay attention to it and consistently cheap ticketing, free-to-air broadcasts (including YouTube streaming) and Formula E has now grown to the point that F1 routinely issues statements about how incredibly not threatened they are by it. The hallmark of definitely not at all being threatened.

No matter how pretty your drivers are, though, it’s much harder to sell people on a 45-minute motor race than a three-minute music video and Formula E’s growth has been good but hasn’t always reached the people it really wants to. Which is basically everyone young enough to have a future to worry about, anyone who could be convinced – like me – to put the despair and helplessness into competition and drive.

BTS fans definitely have the motivation – and just seeing the replies to Formula E’s announcement tweet, where the army discover a sport that cares about the same things they do, is extraordinarily exciting. I don’t know what Formula E had to do to get BTS onboard but it is the motorsport marketing move of the century.

So to RM, Jin, SUGA, j-hope, Jimin, V and Jung Kook, from one multicoloured aesthete to seven others: thank you, I cannot wait to see you bring your fans to love Formula E like I do.

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Written by
Hazel Southwell
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