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Naive to think NASCAR's NBC deal is good for IndyCar

by Brian Carroccio
Wednesday, July 24, 2013

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It's time for the IndyCar set to take off their rose colored glasses. Definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. If you believe NASCAR on NBC is going to help IndyCar, we have a bridge we want to sell you.
I don't want to be overly dramatic. But with just over 24 hours after news broke that NBC Sports and NASCAR have finalized a ten-year deal worth over $4 billion (yes with a b), I am shocked by the reaction of those within IndyCar articulating the deal's merits for the series.

Now, I should admit I do have some biases that may influence my thinking. For one, I've long been of the belief that IndyCar should differentiate itself as much as possible from NASCAR. Others view the concept of bringing different entities  under one umbrella as a positive for motorsport, and I can't outright reject the validity in such thinking. Of course, NBC Sports Network is contracted in conjunction with ABC/ESPN to carry IndyCar through 2018. Plus, considering NBC Sports acquired the rights to Formula One last year, the network has suddenly become quite the motorsports outlet.

And generally speaking, there are many prominent figures in the world of IndyCar and motorsport in general, who have expressed optimism regarding the deal. This I cannot deny.

Still, regarding IndyCar's place in the new alliance between NASCAR and NBC Sports, I have major, major concerns, all centering around one theme: the reasons many are citing as a positive about the new television deal, again with respect to IndyCar, are the very things that arguably support the contrarian view. Yes, those who contend NASCAR joining forces with NBC Sports Network will somehow help IndyCar, are ironically the ones best articulating the reasons it will not. 

Let me explain.

To begin, one reason most commonly cited explanation arguing the new deal is good for IndyCar is that NASCAR's presence on NBCSN will raise the profile and reach of the growing-slower-than-some-would like cable network.

As stated above, this is undoubtedly true., and no reasonable person would disagree.

Simply put, NASCAR is an incredibly valuable sports entertainment property, and NASCAR fans are incredibly loyal. They will find NBCSN. If they don't currently have access to NBCSN, most will upgrade their cable package and gain access to it.

Yes, acquiring the NASCAR rights will undoubtedly result in more eyeballs viewing NBCSN.

But here's my concern: this argument presumes IndyCar's poor television ratings are attributable to NBCSN's limited reach. However, a real simple argument can be made that the inability for people to find a channel while by no means good, is not the root of IndyCar's well-documented television problems.

After all, I've yet to hear anyone say they have difficulty finding ABC. Yes, the ratings of ABC IndyCar races are clearly better than those on NBCSN. Still, no one is happy with the ratings as they stand now on either ABC or NBCSN. No one is happy with the consistent decline in the ratings over time. Yes, NBCSN's lack of reach is a problem, but with ABC as clear evidence, no one can reasonably say the only problem.

Also, others have noted that NASCAR moving to NBCSN makes the upstart network the undisputed leader in motorsports coverage, providing ample opportunity for cross-promotion, and auxiliary programming.

Again, taken at face value, no one can dispute this. With two strokes of the pen in the last year, the first being the acquisition of Formula One and now NASCAR, NBCSN has become the undisputed motorsports leader. Or at least they will be come 2015.

And according to IndyCar vice president of marketing Kasey Coler “We fully expect significant cross promotions across NASCAR, IndyCar and Formula One [on NBC Sports Network].”

I should point out that Coler didn't say he was sure there would significant cross promotion, only that he expected it. As a major IndyCar executive, I would hope that he knows what exactly the plans are sometime soon. Mark Miles was asking Curt Cavin (on his radio show) about the deal.  IndyCar hasn't a clue what's going on. In the dark because they never were, and never will be, a true partner with NBC.

In the meantime, he should be reminded of this: the next time NASCAR and IndyCar successfully collaborate on a commercial endeavor that benefits both organizations will be the first. And Coler needs to look no further than the initial motivation IndyCar had to enter into a contract with NBCSN.

Of course, there were significant complaints back when IndyCar was exclusively an ESPN property regarding the lack of promotion. This point was magnified when ESPN/ABC became a NASCAR partner beginning in 2007, and the perception was ESPN/ABC did more to promote NASCAR than IndyCar. There was also frustration over ABC/ESPN's small coverage windows, and a general sentiment that a network without so many commitments could better serve the goals of IndyCar.

At the very least, these were some one of the reasons cited for the series entered into a deal with Versus in 2009 (which later become NBCSN). And I'd like to ask Coler what exactly has changed between now and when IndyCar went to Versus frustrated by the lack of cross-promotion with a network that had a larger investment in NASCAR?

Also, when ESPN/ABC had NASCAR and was supposedly indifferent towards IndyCar, this was despite the fact they owned the sport's greatest television property: The Indianapolis 500. In 2015, NBCSN is not going to own the Indianapolis 500. Remember, according to the terms of the current contract ABC is the exclusive network home of the IndyCar Series, and owns the rights to the Indy 500. NBCSN will simply have a balance of IndyCar races after ABC selects their schedule.

Yes, NBCSN will remain a partner of IndyCar, contractually at least. But keep this in mind: NBC will have a $4 billion investment in NASCAR. Or stated another way an investment about 200 times greater than their remaining commitment to IndyCar. And this doesn't even take into account their commitment to F1. 

Still, Coler thinks there will be "significant cross-promotions." But I have to ask: why?

In other words, what is the motivation for NBC Sports to grow IndyCar? Where does IndyCar fits in with the goals of NBCSN going forward? When push comes to shove will there be a place for IndyCar to grow amongst the Premier League soccer, NFL auxiliary programming, college football, NHL, F1, NASCAR (Sprint Cup and Nationwide)?

Coler "expects," there will be, but he didn't offer much more. In other words, he is telling us there he expects the deal to be good, but it's conceivable even he doesn't know.  There is a better chance NBC will use the IndyCar broadcast to drive fans to watch the NASCAR race so they can pay that $4.4B nut they just committed to.  They are not going to drive fans toward IndyCar, they want all the eyeballs watching NASCAR.

Now, I don't want to be entirely morbid. Like I said earlier, I'm still somewhat digesting this. I suppose there may be some sort of grand plan we are unaware of. I suppose there are some creative scheduling opportunities that can be explored such as week-night races which would help IndyCar reach a prime-time audience but result in near-zero fans in the grandstands.

But considering the history of IndyCar and NASCAR on the same network, I have serious doubts that such creativity will be allowed within the confines of a suddenly crowded slate of programming for NBCSN, which brings me to my next point. 

Ultimately, what IndyCar needs is not a better television deal, or even a network with greater penetration. Sure, those things would be nice, but focusing solely on such things misses the larger picture.

What IndyCar ultimately needs, and what it has been lacking in recent years is a partner. Yes, IndyCar has been contractually a partner for NBCSN and ABC/ESPN. But in reality, IndyCar has merely been another sports entity to fill programming time; a sports entity with a committed, albeit small, diehard fan base. For whatever reason(s), the interests of IndyCar have not aligned with either the television partners to benefit both sides commercially in a meaningful way.

To be fair, one can't necessarily blame ABC/ESPN and NBC for this. Sure, we make fun of ABC with the "Always Bad Coverage," moniker, which I would argue is somewhat deserved. Yes, we make fun of NBCSN's minuscule television ratings, and odd programming such as fishing shows. 

Yet, at the end of the day, these are branches of major corporations that don't fulfill our wishes. They have bottom lines to look after and shareholders to answer to. For whatever reason(s), these entities have not seen value in marketing IndyCar as many of us would like, as aligned with those goals.

In other words, each side has seen value in filling airtime with IndyCar, neither side has seen value in a significant partnership with IndyCar. The indifference of ABC of course, is well-documented. But if anyone suggests NBC is somehow different, my reply is simple: they just committed $4 billion to another motorsports property.

And I'd like to say this means NBCSN is going to make motorsports a centerpiece of their programming, and they see IndyCar as enhancing that. I'd like to say this means the network has plans to cross promote, and run one motorsports property before another motorsports property in attempts to attract viewers of the prior program. I'd like to say there are plans afoot that will benefit motorsports as a whole, which has seen a decline in popularity in recent years, something we've outlined on AutoRacing1.com.

I'd like to, but I can't.

That's not to say that won't ultimately be the case. But right now it's hard to get on board with the virtues of this new TV deal, particularly when the very people advocating for it, seem to be validating the arguments against it. 

Brian Carroccio is an IndyCar Columnist for AutoRacing1.com. He can be contacted at BrianC@AutoRacing1.com

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