Part 1: A look at IndyCar's horrid TV deal
In the summer of 2008, on the heels of helping to unify the sport of Indy car racing after a more than decade long senseless civil war, Anton "Tony" Hulman George negotiated a new television deal for what was then known as the Indy Racing League. At the time, ABC/ESPN, who had broadcast the series since 1996 showed little interest in covering much of the schedule outside of the Indianapolis 500.
At the time of the initial deal, reviews were, at best, mixed. While it was clear Versus did not have the reach or cache of the gargantuan ABC/ESPN empire, rumors of mergers, the promise of extended coverage, the belief that the production of IndyCar broadcasts would improve and the possibility of a growing network tempered some of the concerns. Lastly, there was at least, the hope that maybe Versus, now NBC Sports Network, and IndyCar would make for a wonderful partnership, collaborating to grow one another other's fledgling brands.
Fast forward to now, and hope might be all IndyCar has.
Yes, after some encouraging improvements to the television ratings in 2011, 2012 saw IndyCar's ratings drop precipitously across the board. Of course, this very assertion doesn't exactly constitute news, as the series' lousy television deal is an often- discussed topic in the world of IndyCar.
And Mark did concede his idea wasn't exactly a recent thought since he has been calling it a noose around IndyCar's neck from the day the deal was announced, but likewise made the point that the situation had reached a critical point, a nadir. Although, not exactly thrilled by the subject, I did begin researching. Slowly, it became apparent that the situation was not as simplistic as I had originally believed. I was under the belief the matter was simply one of "the ratings stink, and they need to promote better." However, the more I studied, the more it became apparent that my initial response to my boss' idea, was wrong.
Ironically, an idea I initially dismissed, has resulted in this two-part piece, which I believe, is the most important article I have written for AR1. Sadly, the following will reveal a sobering reality regarding IndyCar's television package.
Now, before moving ahead, I want to make something very clear. The goal of this article is not to restate the obvious, as indicted earlier, or pile on a great sport that has clearly seen better days. Nor is this a rambling smear piece devoid of fact, that we sadly see so often nowadays, as in the number of smear pieces from a few months back regarding the status of then-INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard.
Contrarily, we will take a cold, rational look at the facts available to us. We will consider where IndyCar has been, where it is going, the evolving television entertainment industry, and the future prospects of the sport we love with regard to its current television situation. Unfortunately, as someone who proclaims to harbor a deep love for the sport, the data revealed will paint a less than favorable picture. However, I cannot deny the truth it reveals.
I imagine you will come away from this piece much like I did in my exchanges with Mark. Sure, you knew the situation was bad. However, you will ultimately realize, as did I, it is much, much worse than you ever thought.
See, everyone knows the ratings are lousy. However, the ratings are merely symptomatic of a much larger issue: a preponderance of evidence suggesting that IndyCar may have yet to find it's potential abyss on NBC Sports.
Of course, when a situation is so dire, the data available to reveal the problem tends to be voluminous. Certainly, there will be examples relating to this matter, we will be unable to cover. However, to begin let us start with a race near and dear to my heart, my home race, Baltimore.
Airing on the same date this past year as it did in 2011, Baltimore's ratings dipped nearly 60%. While I will welcome evidence to the contrary, I don't recall anyone bragging about the 0.6 rating the 2011 Baltimore race received, yet in 2012 it dropped to 0.2. The next event, the season finale at Fontana, a fabulously entertaining race by any measure, was watched by an estimated 229,000 viewers, or about 18,000 fewer than watched Baltimore, and 8,000 fewer than watched a bull riding event on NBC Sports that same week.
To be fair, it would be one thing if the Baltimore and Fontana events were blips on the radar, victims of circumstance. For example, the Fontana race was up against Notre Dame playing Michigan State in football. We all know football, whether pro, college, or even high school, is king in America, and Notre Dame football is a huge draw, even by football's impressive metrics.
Still, while Baltimore and Fontana were below average, they weren't below average by much. In fact, NBC Sports averaged less than 300,000 viewers for their IndyCar broadcasts. Compare this to 2008, when the series averaged about 800,000 viewers for the races not aired on network television.
For those of you not proficient at math that means that less than half the people who watched IndyCar races in 2008, watched in 2012. Worse, the minuscule viewership is simply the beginning of IndyCar's television problems.
NBC Sports showed 40 MLS games in 2012, averaging about 125,000 viewers. And remember, some of these broadcasts featured international global icon David Beckham, who is no longer with the LA Galaxy. I wonder if the MLS decision makers sit around and say, "how we can be more like IndyCar?"
All kidding aside, it appears that relative to the capabilities of the network, IndyCar is actually maximizing its potential. Let me repeat, evidence suggests IndyCar is quite possibly maximizing not it's potential, but it's potential on NBC Sports. And judging from the performance of other NBCSN properties, it is conceivable IndyCar has not yet found the bottom.
See, of all the "niche," sports currently on the network, IndyCar produces the best ratings. However, even properties or shows that would be considered "more mainstream," are witnessing incredibly poor viewership.
Bob Costas, for example, undoubtedly a household name, drew 167,000 total viewers for the debut of his "Costas Tonight" show January 2nd, 2012. Reportedly, the production was good, yet only 108,000 tuned in to watch live.
Concerned yet? I can go on. In fact, I will.
Overwhelming evidence suggests that we have reached an era of complete and total ESPN hegemony in the world of sports. Sure, ABC/ESPN is ostensibly, at least, a "partner," of IndyCar, as the global sports behemoth will broadcast 6 IndyCar races on the network in 2012. Still, in terms of cable broadcasting, allow me to illuminate ESPN's reach.
Consider the number mentioned earlier, 108,000 viewers, who watched "Costas Tonight," live. That number equaled the least viewed show on ESPN that month: a repeat of the "World Series of Poker," which aired head-to-head against the Giants-49ers NFC Championship game on Saturday, Jan. 22 (9:30-10 p.m.)
Continuing, this past June, the Women's College World Series drew an average of 1.2 million viewers nationally on ESPN2. Yes, a record number of viewers, six times the number who witnessed the University of Alabama softball team defeat the University of Oklahoma team in a thrilling 3 game series.
To be clear, my intention is not to disparage softball, nor patronize the Women's College World Series. I was a collegiate athlete myself once upon a time, and came nowhere close to a national championship, or championship of any kind for that matter. Simply put, I understand first-hand the sacrifices and talent necessary to be successful at such a level, and have nothing but respect for the accomplished athletes, male or female, who compete.
However, let the record show the collegiate softball championship outdrew the IndyCar Series championship finale by a factor of 6! Let it be known that the 5 best rated IndyCar broadcasts on NBC Sports combined, about equal the viewership of the softball championship.
In fairness, this is a testament to the hegemony of ESPN, explained earlier. Simply put, other than maybe Nike, there is no entity is the world of sports as powerful as ESPN. While I could probably write a book about the many foibles of ESPN (i.e. their nauseating promotion of the over-hyped NBA, the seemingly endless array of blowhard mouthpieces they call journalists), no one can question the fact these foibles are a byproduct of their enormous success. In IndyCar, we see this with regard to ABC/ESPN's cursory, unprofessional coverage. However, the simple reality is, their privileged position within the sporting world, allows them to approach our beloved sport with a blithe indifference.
Ultimately, IndyCar has no one to blame for this, but themselves. The sport's well-documented self-destruction over the past two decades has diminished its bargaining power, resulting in a sad reality: ABC/ESPN, the most powerful entity in sport, is completely unconcerned with IndyCar.
Of course, this reality leads us back to NBC Sports, who despite it's many foibles does in fact pay IndyCar to cover its events. As stated earlier, the most worrisome concern is not simply IndyCar's putrid television ratings. No, television ratings are merely a symptom of a much larger problem: the possibility that IndyCar is maximizing its potential on the fledgling network. Yes, the evidence suggests there is more room to the downside regarding IndyCar's performance on NBCSN than the upside. If this is the case, any reasonable person must question the sustainability of IndyCar.
For now, the best IndyCar can do is work within the current parameters. It's deal with NBC Sports runs through the 2018 season, and last time they negotiated the television deal, IndyCar was not exactly fighting off suitors.
In Part 2, we will look at the future of IndyCar and the future of NBC Sports Network. We will analyze what effect, if any, the coming changes to NBC Sports will have for IndyCar, such as the arrival of Formula One, the English Premier League, and possibly NASCAR. Lastly, we will consider what possibilities, if any, there are for IndyCar to blossom in conjunction with NBC Sports.
Brian Carroccio is an IndyCar columnist for AutoRacing1.com. He grew up around racing as the son of a longtime SCCA crewman, who regaled him with romantic tales of Jimmy Clark and Dan Gurney. His first vivid memory of Indy car racing is Danny Sullivan’s 1985 “Spin and Win,” at Indianapolis.
Brian lives in Rockville, MD. As a lifelong fan of the Washington Redskins his favorite colors are burgundy and gold. He is also a passionate supporter of Manchester United.
For witty insight on our beloved sport of Indy car racing, and thoughts on other topics of interest to Brian, you can follow him on Twitter @BrianC_AR1.
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