The fallacy of IndyCar’s shortened schedule

Mark Miles

Did they actually pay for such advice?

That was my first thought 22 or so months ago after reading ideas of daredevil drivers and a 5 month IndyCar season in the leaked Boston Consulting Group internal review of INDYCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway 22 months ago.

Well, they paid for it alright.

Fast forward to December 15, 2014, with more than 100 days of the demented horror show concocted by the BCG and carried out by Hulman &Co. CEO Mark Miles behind us, it seems that they're going to be paying for it at the corner of 16th and Georgetown for quite a while. Granted, you won't hear that from the cheerleading types in the I-465 media. Further, the PR rhetoric, creative number-parsing and compelling pleas for patience might advocate allowing the plan to take root before rendering final judgment.

But believe me when I say we've already seen more than enough of this BCG/Miles Leviathan. No, it is not what might happen going forward that is the greatest indictment of Miles's measure and the seemingly imperious manner in which he has gone about it. Rather, it is evidence already rendered which presents the most compelling reasons to banish this ludicrous idea to the ash heap of history.

Why?

Of course, the main motivation Miles has cited for the shortened season is IndyCar improving its woeful television numbers by avoiding competition with American football during the fall. And the de facto leader of the IndyCar Series has cited improvements in television numbers during a more-condensed 2014 season as validation of his decision to close shop in late-August.

And to be entirely fair, I don't disagree with the general guiding principle of minimizing conflicts with football. The idea that IndyCar or any sports entertainment property should try to avoid direct competition with America's most sport football, professional, college and even high school, is a sound one. I can produce mountains of evidence showing the dominant position football has as a television property in this country. NASCAR, for example, regularly declines in its ratings when football season begins. IndyCar wanting to minimize such conflicts does not constitute irrational thinking.

However

As things stand now, Miles is treating football not as a less-than-ideal circumstance. Rather, football is something that must be avoided not at some cost, but AT ALL COSTS; even if those costs are placing IndyCar events on tenuous ground or squandering potential opportunities.

And while the preceding might on the surface sound outrageous, let the record show: it's happened already.

Baltimore was the first victim of the decision by INDYCAR to conclude their season Labor Day weekend

Charm City

You might remember that from 2011-2013 the Labor Day Weekend slot was occupied by Baltimore. Of course, conflicts with the Baltimore Convention Center in 2014 and 2015 meant that Baltimore was not going to be able to host a race Labor Day those years.

Now, it should be remembered that from aerial launching train tracks, four promoters in three races, tepid support from local law makers, and an apparent ocean of red ink, Baltimore was a host of problems from the beginning.

Still, the crowds were good (150,000-plus estimated in 2013), and while Labor Day Weekend for 2014 and 2015 were out, Baltimore wanted another date for 2014 and 2015 with the hope the event would return to Labor Day in 2016. Baltimore had even agreed to clear Labor Day Weekend going forward if the event could remain, specifically with an August date for 2014 and 2015.

Of course, the city was already facing a new hurdle from the series: the schedule had to be wrapped up by Labor Day Weekend.

The Squeeze Job

It was one thing that the series couldn't do a date after Labor Day. However, the other issue was that with Labor Day now a drop dead date, other events had to be squeezed into a shorter time. Milwaukee, for example, would be moved from June to August, Houston from October to June, and Baltimore was left out in the cold.

Granted, with the numerous factors plaguing Baltimore, it would be foolish to lay the blame solely at the feet of the series. However, it is also true the series limited the available dates of a growing event with its unwavering end-by-Labor-Day rule, and Baltimore would become the first event squeezed out.

A June date didn't work for the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston

Houston

Say what you will about the Mickey Mouse Houston circuit. However, for someone who has been adamant about improving IndyCar's television scope, Miles was more than willing to jam an undesirable date down the throat of a top-ten TV market to ensure that event's failure. The Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston, which ran in October of 2013 was moved to June of 2014, despite warnings from well, everyone, about the oppressive heat that time of year in Houston. Miles was more than willing to walk away from an event with the backing of SHELL and PENNZOIL because well, the Houston race fans preferred a time of year in which they could actually tolerate being outside. That didn't seem to matter to Miles. No, Houston, Shell, Pennzoil, Lanigan and local fans were going to have a race in the oppressive heat of June, or they weren't going to have a race.

Which now, they don't. Citing the inability to find an agreeable date, Houston will not return to the calendar in 2015.

Now, don't misunderstand me, I understand that when an event is discontinued there is usually blame on multiple fronts. But let's be clear on this: IndyCar's policy of ending Labor Day put Houston in the undesirable June date, effectively ending any chance there was of event working.

It was one of those proverbial cannon in the grandstands situations this past August at Fontana. And the television audience wasn't much better

Auto Club Speedwayy

Labor Day weekend, of course does not have the same level of football competition that say, mid-October does. Labor Day Weekend does however, have bedtime competition.

With a setting sun in Southern California that caused visibility issues on track and prevented an earlier start, the series-finale was unable to begin until well after 10 p.m. ET. The plan guaranteed the series champion would be crowned before an audience of dozens and a few more who bothered to remain awake watching in the nation's largest television market.

Ultimately, in a plan intended to improve television ratings:

1. compromised Baltimore's ability to stay on the schedule

2. moved the nation's 10th largest television market to a date that insured its failure and

3. created the third date for ACS in three years on Labor Day

4. failed to produce better TV ratings relative to the event's date a year earlier, as ACS drew a 13% smaller TV audience than the 2013 finale held in the middle of October during the height of football season.

Also, it should be noted, the 2013 finale was likely compromised by USC playing Notre Dame that weekend. Yes, get this: the college team from the race market and the home of IndyCar squared off in a game that conflicted with part of the IndyCar race. Yet October 2013 outdrew Labor Day 2014 by every metric.

Conclusion: The notion that TV ratings would increase due to the end by Labor Day policy was disproven by Fontana, and the fact IndyCar overlooked other important details, such as yes, the sun setting.

Speaking of TV

IndyCar's TV ratings did improve in 2014 relative to 2013. It's certainly plausible that the condensed schedule as Miles suggests had something to do with that. But the next person who convinces me that any more or less people watched an IndyCar race in 2014 because there wasn't going to be an IndyCar race aired at some future time against a football game will be the first.

A better explanation for IndyCar's improved TV ratings probably can be seen in the improved scope of NBC Sports Network. While there are a number of statistics I can give, NBCSN's overall viewership in the third quarter of 2013 grew 20%. What percent did IndyCar TV ratings grow in that time? 20%.

For the record, other than Labor Day Weekend and college football both years, there was no competition between an IndyCar race and football in any slot. Thus, any notion that TV ratings improved because IndyCar avoided competition with football is a fallacy. A more logical explanation is that IndyCar's improved TV ratings simply mirror that of NBCSN.

There's more

We can see how Miles end-by-Labor-Day policy to improve TV ratings eliminated a race in a top-10 TV market, and assured that the IndyCar Series finale would take place before dozens and a few more on television. For 2015, ACS will have its fourth dates in four years as the track insisted they be moved out of the woeful Labor Day date IndyCar forced on them for 2014.

Perhaps worse, is that without a willing partner to assume the Labor Day date vacated by Fontana, INDYCAR had little choice but to accept Sonoma Raceway as the location for the 2015 finale. Whatever spin the series might happen to put on the champion being crowned at the picturesque, although not terribly racy circuit, I can assure you this: the finale being a double-points race at Sonoma was not part of The Master Plan.

The 2004 Champ Car race at spectacular Road America

A better place for the finale

It's well known that Road America in Elkhart Lake, WI would like to host a September IndyCar date. While there has been some public wrangling over sanctioning fees and the like, track President George Bruggenthies has hinted that money is not the biggest issue. “With Mark Miles ending the year on Labor Day, it compacts everything," Bruggenthies explained. “The schedule is more the issue than the business side."

So, according to the promoter the precluding factor in an IndyCar finale at the breathtaking Road America is not the race at Milwaukee, nor the sanctioning fee. It is “the schedule." And any chance of Road America happening at a lovely time of year in Wisconsin is dead, because well, there are football games on.

Conclusion

I can go into other downsides of the condensed IndyCar schedule. For example, a series which struggles so desperately for any mainstream coverage and recognition further hampers itself when the answer to the “when is the next race?" question is 82 days.

Another negative factor is the fact the industry becomes essentially a seasonal one, with a schedule spanning less than six months. While this is probably a separate article altogether, instead of vendors, media, entrants and the like participating in the endeavor year round, they participate on a seasonal basis.

Now, theoretically the above factors could be offset with a schedule that ended Labor Day, yet started much earlier (there's a fabulous idea), or a more active year-round calendar with say an international cup or some type of ‘silly season' event a la golf.

However, as of now, there is no such thing.

Rather, what we do have as outlined above is clear evidence of events who's continuation has been compromised (Baltimore and ACS) or all out lost (Houston) because of the schedule. We've also seen opportunities passed up (Road America) and the establishment of what is likely to be a less-than-ideal one-and-done host for the series finale (Sonoma).

Moreover, as yet, there is no legitimate evidence which suggests ending the season before football has resulted in achieving its stated goals: a discernible increase in TV ratings. While one could argue that the compacted schedule helped (it certainly helped during the month of May at Indy last year), the notion that more people watch an IndyCar race that airs during the football off-season because IndyCar doesn't directly compete against football, is suspect at best.

Yes, there is no need to see how Mark Miles' plan to end-by-Labor-Day plays out going forward. Enough damage has already been done.

Brian Carroccio is a motorsports columnist for AutoRacing1. He can be contacted at BrianC@AutoRacing1.com.

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