IndyCar needs to revamp its schedule
In fact, let's go a little further. Try picturing an F1 season entirely devoid of spectators. All the events run as planned with practice, qualifying and the race, but not one person purchases a ticket, not one person witnesses the racing live. What would be the reaction of F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone?
He probably wouldn't even care.
If anything, Bernie might actually enjoy the weekend minus the unwashed masses. Sure, he'd have to listen to some grumpy promoters, but that's pretty standard for Bernie. So long as Ferraris, Renaults and Mercedes sponsored by Vodafone, Petronas, Total and Red Bull continued to contest the championship, which they would, life for Bernie would, minor irritations aside, proceed as usual.
See, Bernie doesn't get carried away if an event draws 110,000 instead of 125,000. Bernie knows that 100,000 or so paying customers are a mere drop in the bucket compared to the estimated 350 million worldwide watching on television. And as long as that number remains, it really doesn't matter who, if anyone, shows up.
Yes, Bernie realized something long ago, that others seem to be quite slow at picking up on: Television drives everything. Sponsors, who are the lifeblood of racing, are not concerned so much with those in those that are there, rather the total number of those watching.
Of course, as we've outlined the prior two weeks, there aren't too many people watching IndyCar races these days. Amongst the issues facing IndyCar are the sport's lack of brand awareness, the poor production on ABC/ESPN, and the limited reach of NBC Sports Network.
However, there is something IndyCar can do to raise its television audience. To start, I'm going to take you back three days to this past Saturday.
With cold weather throughout much of the country, no football, college or pro on air, IndyCar's network television partner (albeit not a great one) ran local programming, 20/20, and a network broadcast of the Will Ferrell/Jon Heder movie Blades of Glory from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. Eastern Time. Yes, while much of the nation froze, IndyCar missed a wonderful opportunity to open their season before a prime-time television audience. Sure, there was some college and professional basketball on. Also, the opening of the National Hockey League season after a months-long lockout would have unexpectedly eaten into the audience a little.
But for a series desperate to increase its woeful television audience, IndyCar must consider adjusting its television-unfriendly race schedule.
Now, I'm aware this will not be a simple project. The series will need viable warm weather venues, a promoter, and willing television partner. Also, the series has to be careful in that other racing series have events in warm-weather locales during this time of year. For example, starting with next week's 24 Hours of Daytona, there are numerous racing events in Florida for the next two months. Further, the series has done a better job building "date equity," at some events in recent years, which I know they don't want to surrender.
Also, I'm not necessarily saying IndyCar should open their season the third Saturday of January every year, as there are viable opportunities in February as well. Considering IndyCar does not start until late March, the series would likely have to build up to starting in January.
And while I have been critical of the new Hulman and Company/IMS/INDYCAR management team, this is in fairness, an issue they have inherited and one that will not be fixed overnight. However, a 3-5 year plan should seek to find greater television slots for the series. Below we will outline a plan to better maximize IndyCar's television exposure, arguably the most critical issue facing the sport, going forward.
1. To begin, it must be repeated that the television audience drives everything:
The example of Bernie Ecclestone and F1 helped highlight this.
In short, because of its potential global reach, the television audience is vastly more important than the live audience. And while this issue will not be explored in detail here, IndyCar would arguably be better served moving some of its events to weeknight primetime slots. While the live audience would be weaker, the television audience, and in turn sponsor's exposure, would be much stronger.
2. Step 1 in maximizing the television audience is to begin the season earlier...
Currently, IndyCar begins WAY too late. This year, St. Petersburg is March 24, the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, and a whole month after NASCAR begins. While NASCAR is taking advantage of the television friendly, cold-weather months to build momentum, IndyCar is well, waiting to begin, sitting idly as they squander potential momentum.
In short, IndyCar must look to start earlier. In particular, the third Saturday in January is the first weekend slot with no football, and an ideal one for IndyCar to look at. And to do so, IndyCar will need to secure some warm weather venues, which we will discuss in greater detail below.
3. Step 2 in maximizing the television audience is to end the season earlier.....
Given the modern hegemony of American football, IndyCar should try to begin as football is ending (January), and end when football is beginning (Labor Day).
Even this year's Fontana race on September 15th was too late. IndyCar was up against Notre Dame playing Michigan State in football. Keep in mind, not only is Notre Dame football a huge draw, but a lot of IndyCar fans are also Notre Dame fans.
This year, Houston and Fontana will be in October, competing against pro football, college football, baseball playoffs, NASCAR and whatever else. Not good!
In short, football is boss in America. IndyCar should do whatever possible to avoid competing with football, college, pro, and even high school.
4. To run in January and February, you need warm weather venues:
I'm perplexed at how often I hear IndyCar discussing warm-weather venues in months such as September and October. For example, there is no reason to run Houston in October, at the heights of football season, in football crazed Texas. Why not run Houston in say, February or January? A doubleheader with Race 1 under the lights, Race 2 Sunday afternoon?
Fort Lauderdale, of course, has had serious discussions with IndyCar about a downtown event. Apparently, the stumbling blocks for the event are money, and an October boat show that would conflict with the event. Although I cannot say for sure, I don't believe there is a boat show in January.
Often, the desire to have events at certain times of the year are driven by local promoters, who are attempting to have a well-attended event. For example, the Fort Lauderdale group may not be interested in January because of the abundance of races in Florida in February and March.
However, from a television perspective both Houston and Ft. Lauderdale would be best in for January and February, not October. October belongs to football, playoff baseball, and to a lesser extent NASCAR. While IndyCar might have well-attended events in October, the competition for television interest is simply too much.
5. In addition to running earlier and ending earlier, IndyCar needs to run at night as often as possible.
Simply put, the television audience is larger at night than during the days. While there will be greater expense in running at night, the potential payoff for IndyCar is vast, particularly if they run night races during the winter months when people are home watching television.
Below, is a proposed schedule, we have for IndyCar. Again, it is not realistic to enact immediately or even next year. Rather, IndyCar should have a 3-5 year plan with the goal of a schedule like the one below.
I used the 2014 calendar for dates:
Saturday, January 18: Fort Lauderdale (Night race in a beautiful downtown area, which would look spectacular at night. NASCAR opens its season with a spectacular event, and so should IndyCar.)
Saturday, February 1: Fontana (night race on eve of the Super Bowl. While it is seven weeks before the NASCAR race, remember our larger concern is the television audience.)
Saturday, February 15: Houston Race 1 (under lights)
Sunday, February 16: Houston Race 2 (day or night)
Sunday, March 2: Sao Paulo
Sunday, March 9: South American venue #2 (I've long believed IndyCar should do 2 international events if they make the effort to travel for one, and split the costs between promoters. Also, South America is good because it is on a similar time schedule as North America. Thus, the television audience is unaffected.)
Sunday, March 23: St. Petersburg
Sunday, April 6: Barber
Sunday, April 27: Long Beach (Easter Sunday is April 20, 2014, the traditional Long Beach date. Also, Masters is April 10-13)
Sunday, May 4: Pocono (Not a fan of this race wedged between two NASCAR races. A good lead-in to the Indy 500 is another big oval race).
Saturday, May 24: Indianapolis (Saturday night. Traditionalists will cry bloody murder, but IndyCar needs to raise its television profile. Memorial Day Sunday is often full with graduations, barbeques, and other activities that take people away from the television set. When Mark Miles says he wants lights at the Speedway, it should not be the NASCAR race, but the 500.)
Saturday, May 31: Detroit #1 (The well-promoted Detroit event is making a nice comeback.)
Sunday, June 1: Detroit #2
Saturday, June 7: Texas (night race, again good for TV)
Saturday, June 14: Milwaukee (would prefer a night race)
Sunday, June 22: Iowa (again would prefer Saturday night)
Saturday, July 12: Toronto #1
Sunday, July 13: Toronto #2
Sunday, August 3: Mid-Ohio^^^^^
Sunday August 17: Baltimore
Sunday, August 24: Sonoma
Sunday, August 31: Brickyard 400 (Sunday night for the IndyCars. Yes, if they have any sense, IndyCar will get rid of the NASCAR Brickyard 400, which does immeasurable damage to the IndyCar brand, and replace it with a well promoted end of season IndyCar race. IndyCar races will bookend the summer from Memorial Day to Labor Day.)
^^^^^IndyCar needs to make alternative plans for the Mid-Ohio race, as NASCAR will kill that event with their Nationwide event.
As you can see, our proposed schedule has completely moved IndyCar away from competing with football. Also, we've outlined a plan to raise the television audience for the series by placing it in more opportune times. Further, we have done so in a way that does not significantly compromise date equity, moving only the newer events on the schedule.
In closing, IndyCar must address their woeful television performance. Fortunately, however, there is a strategy Miles and company can adopt. Will they be able to pull it off? Time will tell.
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.
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