2013 IndyCar Season preview - Part 2
Yes, while 2012 was as exciting as any season in recent memory, infighting, poor television ratings, rumors of the series being sold, and finally the deposing of popular CEO Randy Bernard dominated the headlines. And for a variety of reasons, the struggles of 2012 are by no means in the rear view mirror.
Today, in our second installment previewing the 2013 season, the focus will shift from on the track to off. After what has been an incredibly long and trying off-season, we will discuss the subjects crucial to the sport's health, look at the obstacles facing the series, and explore some of the changes in store for 2013.
Lastly, using a topic-by-topic format, we will analyze some of the unique opportunities IndyCar has in 2013 to attract a larger audience and grow the sport’s brand.
1. New Administration:
Any evaluation of IndyCar must begin with the new administration occupying the offices at 16th and Georgetown. And how exactly this new administration will operate is well, anyone’s guess.
To begin, five months after Bernard's dismissal, we still have no idea who his permanent replacement will be. Of course, despite a different role within the company, new Hulman and Co., CEO Mark Miles is viewed as Bernard's de facto replacement. While he has been incredibly quiet thus far, Miles has of late made some public appearances winning over some within IndyCar.
Still, what role, if any, Miles will have with regard to IndyCar, is unclear. Ditto for how Miles and company will react, if at all, to the recent internal review by the Boston Consulting Group. Likewise, how exactly IndyCar fits into the overall business goals of Hulman and Co., is well, a complete and total mystery.
Further, if the first few months of Miles' tenure are any indication, no one within Hulman and Co., is in any hurry to tell us.
However, this we know: whatever plan, vision, or strategy Miles lays out; or whoever he selects to run IndyCar will be the most important decision for the sport going forward. Also, if Miles does want to grow IndyCar, he or the person he selects, must do something about the public perception Hulman and Co., and their various auxiliaries, are incapable of running IndyCar.
And while there are numerous examples that could illustrate this, I'll elaborate further on one....
2. Indy Lights:
Of course, news broke last month that a much-anticipated new Indy Lights car, would not be forthcoming in 2014. While the decision could reasonably be attributed to costs, the perception of IndyCar having no direction and leadership, was reinforced. Further, the future of Lights, which has seen very low car counts in recent years, was understandably called into question.
With regard to Indy Lights in 2013, IndyCar must decide on whether the venerable series will continue to nurture talent for the top-level going forward. After some lean years, Lights has proven to be a good feeder system in recent years with James Hinchliffe, Tristan Vautier, Josef Newgarden, and Charlie Kimball amongst others graduating to IndyCar.
However, the potential for Lights, and the entire ladder system in general, particularly from a commercial standpoint is much greater. Long-term, IndyCar must address what role Lights and their Road to Indy program have in building the sport. Further, defining and nurturing a proper ladder system would go a long way in showing the new administration is capable of leading the sport forward.
At the risk of stating the obvious, television is the lifeblood of any sports entertainment property these days.
In January, I wrote a two-part column about IndyCar's current television deal. Part 1 of said column painted an incredibly bleak picture, eliciting more response than any column I've written since joining AutoRacing1.com last summer.
To briefly summarize, I presented data arguing that poor television ratings were merely part of IndyCar's problem. Further, the notion that better marketing or promotion would solve the problem was misguided. If anything, IndyCar was conceivably maximizing their potential on NBC Sports Network, as the ratings of other NBCSN properties, indicated IndyCar was actually performing well relative to the capabilities of the network.
Although, few of you believed me after reading Part 1, I argued in Part 2 , there was/is hope for IndyCar on NBCSN.
For one, there has been increased viewership on the fledgling network since the end of the NHL Lockout. Also, NBCSN acquiring Formula One's American television rights, presents an opportunity for cross-promotion, which we saw during this weekend during the Australian Grand Prix coverage. Further, NBCSN has taken some measures to grow its brand, such as acquiring the rights to broadcast the ever-growing-more-popular-in-America English Premier League. And while it may be difficult to see now, NBCSN is much better positioned than its competitors at CBS Sports and Fox Sports 1, to be the #2 all-sport cable network behind ESPN.
Now, whether NBCSN's activation and diversification of sports properties will improve IndyCar's make-you-cringe ratings, remains to be seen. However, as we will see below, Bernard adopted a rather unconventional measure with the hopes of doing just that.
Yes, Bernard's idea to run two races at Detroit, Toronto, and Houston has been met with -- to put it politely -- mixed reviews.
While travelling to two races for the price of one, has been cited as more cost effective, team owners have maintained that any benefit there is does not offset the increased costs of running two races in a weekend. Drivers have expressed concern about the physical toll, particularly considering all three doubleheader weekends take place on very demanding street circuits. Also, the venues of these doubleheaders (all street circuits) increase the already undesirable imbalance (now, 13/6) between road and street courses and ovals.
Still, while all of these points have validity, each fail to take into account the real motivation behind doubleheaders: television. Yes, it's all about television. And the motivation behind Bernard's unpopular-in-many-circles doubleheaders was always about television.
See, IndyCar has long suffered, and still does, from what you might call, non-contiguous scheduling. While this has little effect on race attendance, it makes attracting the casual viewer to the TV set difficult.
Sometimes there's a month between races, other times there's a race the next week. One week, the race is at 4 p.m Sunday, and the next week is a Saturday evening start. One week, the race is on NBCSN the next week, or month(s) it’s on ABC. Worse, unless you follow the sport closely, there is little rhyme or reason to any or this.
However, the doubleheaders, at least those in Detroit and Toronto will be different. For example, on Saturday in the motor city, the first Detroit race broadcast will begin on ABC at 4 p.m. ET. As for the following day's race you might ask? Same bat time, same bat channel. Ditto for Toronto, albeit with a 3:30 start and NBCSN coverage.
In short, the continuity allows IndyCar a better chance of attracting the casual viewer to become a repeat customer. Said person does not have to wait ten weeks to watch a race on a different network. He or she can simply watch the next day.
Of course, the question of whether Belle Isle is the proper venue to attract repeat customers is an inevitable, and valid one. Hopefully, the new layout combined with a better track surface will allow IndyCar to avoid the fiasco of last year after the sterling Indy 500, which is why.....
5. The Indy-Detroit-Texas Stretch is Crucial:
Yes, that's four races in 13 days, all on network TV; one being the series showcase event, one a reviving event with excellent promotion and a racier layout (thank goodness), one in prime time. Conceivably, an Indy 500 like last year's, followed by better racing that Saturday on Belle Isle, and a race the very next day may provide television traction for a good audience for the following Saturday evening prime time Texas race June 8.
Of course, any prediction about how this stretch will help the series is, at best, speculative. However, what isn’t speculative is the fact IndyCar has not enjoyed such a contiguous run on network TV since well, anytime I can remember. To his credit, Bernard cleverly connected the dots between Indy and the prime time show in Texas with the Detroit double on network.
If IndyCar wants that casual viewer to find NBCSN (which is getting a little easier, mind you) for the Saturday Milwaukee race following Texas, its best chance in years will be this unique network TV Indy-Detroit-Texas stretch.
6. Standing Starts:
Some love the excitement of a standing start, which allows a driver greater potential to improve upon qualifying position (think Fernando Alonso in F1). Others believe the rolling start is inherent to the tradition of American open wheel racing, and view standing starts as another butchering of tradition. Also, opinion on the safety of standing starts tends to be split.
Personally, I'm all for them. For a series that should market the diversity of its venues and drivers adding rounds with standing starts would seem a natural idea. And if you remember, the Champ Car experiment with standing starts in 2007 was an unqualified success.
7. Triple Crown:
A blast from the past has returned in the Fuzzy's Vodka Triple Crown. Should a driver
While I would like to see more financial incentive spread throughout the field so IndyCar could entice, say a Bryan Clauson to compete in the Triple Crown, this is definitely a start. Further, while Pocono, wedged between two NASCAR events, and Fontana are going to be tough race-day draws, both tracks seem committed to IndyCar. And if the series can gain some traction and date equity at both venues, the Triple Crown could be here to stay.
Turbo, another Bernard brainchild, is a DreamWorks animation film, about "Turbo," a snail, who races in IndyCar. The movie, which debuts in July, features Hollywood heavyweights such as Samuel L. Jackson, Ryan Reynolds and Paul Giamatti. No word yet on who will be cast as Jimmy Bly.
Yes, I could not resist the low-hanging fruit from Indy car racing's last foray onto the big screen. However, with an A-list Hollywood cast, and substantial marketing budget, all indications are Turbo will be a marked improvement over the 2001 Sylvester Stallone debacle Driven.
The question becomes whether Turbo can showcase IndyCar to a larger audience. Will youngsters come away knowing who Will Power, Graham Rahal and Ryan Hunter-Reay are? Or will IndyCar racing simply be the backdrop for Turbo's story, and a fad of snail figurines flooding the market this summer?
As of yet, I don't think anyone can say. However, unless the dialogue and plot line are Driven-esque, I can't really see the downside to Turbo. Further, the film represents the best opportunity in years to introduce IndyCar to a younger audience, something it desperately needs.
Overall, this 2012-2013 off-season has been a difficult one for IndyCar. However, the competition on track promises to be as good as it has in a while. With a few wrinkles, added activation from a television partner, some better television slots, and a major-studio film aimed at a younger audience, 2013 does offer some genuine potential for IndyCar.
Sure, the benefit of such measures remains to be seen. For now, we can take solace in the fact, we will begin to find out, sooner rather than later.
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