IndyCar's TV Deal - beneath the surface of ratings
However, there has been one topic that we seemed to see eye-to-eye on up until recently; the IRL Versus television package. As part of an overall $10 Million package with $4 Million per year coming from Versus, and the other $6 Million from ABC for the Indy 500 and a couple of select events, Versus has produced some of the best broadcasts we have seen...for those of us who tuned-in.
With the dismal Nielsen ratings from this year on Versus, showing an overall decline in viewership of 28 percent (75% if you just look at Versus), all of us around here have cried that this is the death of open wheel racing. If a racing series does not have sufficient TV coverage to provide a measurable return for sponsors, it will just become a playground for a bunch of rich guys who can afford to blow $10 Million per year just for kicks (I think they call that Vintage racing)
If that was compelling for a sports fan, polo would be huge.
Well, my view took a major shift when I was covering the Miami IRL race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. During that weekend, there was a fairly low profile press conference with IRL President Terry Angstadt and Versus President Jamie Davis Terry. As I sat there eating my barbecue lunch and waiting for the GrandAm race to start, I have to admit that I wasn't paying particularly close attention. But since the press conference stage is directly in the press room at HMS, it's hard to miss (good idea by the way guys)
So I started to absorb this, and even posed the tough question about dismal ratings that wasn't yet being asked, and I got some interesting answers that started to shift my view a bit.
So to illustrate this, let's start with a metaphor. Let's say you once were the president of a business that had seen its better days. You moved on to another job in a family-owned company. You are there for several years and you make a livable paycheck and have decent benefits. But you know that you will never have the opportunity to run that company because you are not part of the bloodline. So do you just stay there and hang on to what you have, with little to no chance of being able to get back to the leadership position you really should have? Let's then say you have an opportunity to take a position with a new and growing company, with better pay and benefits, but a questionable future with their new product. Which do you take? I think a lot of people would stick with the safe route. But the people who succeed always seem to be the ones who, at some point, took the calculated risk for a bigger future.
Let's tie this into the IRL's situation a little over two years ago. They were buying time on ESPN, and getting a few races covered by network TV as part of that deal. Their ratings were quite low; so low that it started to make the series tough to justify for many sponsors (though compared to Versus right now, the ESPN ratings were huge). So last year, with a unified series and no confusion for the fans, the IRL knew they needed a network that cared more about their product than simply getting a check out of them. They needed a network that values their form of sports entertainment, and was willing to make a commitment to them. They needed to be the star, not the bench-warmer.
Along came Versus. They were willing to pay for the programming, and do the production. They were willing to showcase IndyCar as their premium programming. That's a huge turnaround from the "other deal" and it would have caught anyone's attention; especially at time when the IRL has to start making some dough or close up the bakery.
A lot of people think that they were being penny-wise and pound foolish, because paying for time on the more established network that has the potential to reach many more viewers, would seem to be the obvious choice.
Taking in the press conference that day, it became more clear to me that there was more to this Versus deal than meets the eye. To me, it wasn’t even about TV really. It was about a philosophy shift.
I have criticized open wheel racing for years about their habit of watering the leaves of the tree, and not the roots; of looking at today’s results instead of what you can build months and years down the road.
Versus knows very well that they don’t have the reach of ESPN. But the IRL also knew that without a more committed network partner, they would just be an after thought and struggle to pull an extra 1/10 point now and again.
Because the IRL was buying their time, there was minimal promotion by the network across their other sports programming like SportsCenter (especially another unnamed racing series that is known for their control over programming and media)
One thing that Jamie and Terry kept talking about was "cross-pollination" and "super-serving" the viewer. These are interesting catch phrases for sure, and something we were not seeing (or would not be likely to ever see) with the other network.
So I think they made a decision based on Versus' huge commitment to the IRL, and seeing potential in where that network can go. I also had a hunch that they might have also known some other things taking place in the boardroom, that the viewers and fans would never see.
We have seen this in recent rumors about a possible takeover of NBC by Comcast, the owner of Versus. This could lead to some much bigger things for the IRL...down the road, with a network that has a big investment in IndyCar, and doesn't carry NASCAR races. So the IRL would be free to build their own house, outside of that shadow.
So with these things in mind, it doesn't seem like it was such a completely thoughtless deal after all.
In the cases of the NHL and Tour de France, Versus has built the viewership of these properties to higher levels than they were seeing before they switched to Versus. I think some people in the IRL front office think that can happen with IndyCar too. Apparently they are not the only ones who agree, because despite lower TV ratings, they just signed their first title sponsor in several years with IZOD.
The only way we will know, is if three or four years down the road, the IRL is pulling 3.0 rating for their races. Could that come on Versus itself? I doubt it in this day and age because there are just so many channels and choices out there. But could they pull that kind of rating on NBC? Of course they could, with a commitment like Versus has made.
We all agree that this year's broadcast quality has been the best we have ever seen. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard this from everyone I talk to. Without that, we would have nothing.
So let's all just do our part and watch and be the fans we are, and see how this whole thing pans out.
Even if they only ever get back up to the same rating they had on the other network (which were not good enough anyway), at least they are getting paid for this deal. That is really a double benefit, because they were bleeding cash in the other deal. Personally, I think that makes this a good decision either way.
Let me punctuate all of this by saying I have no idea if I think this deal will prove to be fruitful or not when it comes to ratings, and sponsors that value those ratings. Only time will tell. What I can say, is that I like the forward thinking behind it, and the willingness to take a calculated gamble for a big payoff. After all, that is what racing is about, isn't it?
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