Reaction to dismal IndyCar TV ratings

A reader writes, Dear Your recent article on Indy Car (as well as ALMS’s) “dismal" network rating numbers reminds me of several articles I have written going back to 2008 ( ), including articles that have appeared on ( or ), which illustrates the point that network coverage is no guarantee of ratings success. Admittedly, the Olympics skew heavily in the current outcome but as I have tried to communicate, the Indy Car television package on Versus (now NBC Sports Network) is not, respectfully, “a noose around Indy Car’s neck," but perhaps more accurately an indication of Indy Car’s strength as a promotion platform; a mere reflection of Indy Car’s current level of popularity. It is up to Indy Car to find the new fans, as well as rekindle additional older ones, that can bring Indy Car back to some semblance of historically higher levels of fan popularity. Television coverage itself has virtually nothing to do with it until this first goal is closer to being realized.

To explain, I need to go back in time. Years ago, I sold television time at a local ABC television station in Virginia. At the time, I learned that selling advertising time was hugely influenced by two things – each relative to the other. A media buyer, the person often buying the advertising time, was primarily interested in: 1. Ratings for a specific demographic, and 2. Cost per thousand or CPM. The balance between these two elements was the critical step in determining whether a sale was made. The size of the audience reached was reflected in the cost of the advertising time. A smaller audience that reached a better targeted demographic might well be a better “buy" than a bigger audience that did not reach the advertiser’s desired target. Size alone was all but immaterial to an advertiser. The CPM figure was adjusted based upon the size of the audience reached. The Olympics audience will cost much more (size), while the Indy Car audience will not. And that dear reader, is why the Versus television package was/is an appropriate television partner. Advertisers are drawn (or not) to the Indy Car demographic as a means to reach their desired target. What it does illustrate is that the amount of money that can be charged for the advertising time to reach the Indy Car audience has shrunk in recent years because of the size of the viewer audience.

Back in the day, television had a virtual lock on advertiser’s mass media budgets. Now, move forward in time some twenty or thirty years, and add in the complex mass of media choices, and the real noose that is around Indy Car’s neck emerges. How does Indy Car (or even racing as a whole) reach its audience in such a way as to attract new advertisers and partners? To begin with, “exposure" as a stand-alone commercial value is virtually worthless in this new world of communication. Interestingly, the Olympics does not provide commercial exposure during the actual content of the telecasts yet attracts massive commercial sponsor support. "Exposure" is certainly not unique, not particularly powerful or indeed even relevant. Until the industry as a whole moves far beyond the world of “exposure", the sport will be lost somewhere back in the 20th century wishing for a time more like it used to be and perplexed as to why it can’t achieve it.

Today, television itself is having to adjust to this new world of communication. It has challenges all its own. To rely on network television as the savior it might once have been to bring new fans to Indy Car via “exposure" is a fast track to failure. Indy Car needs to focus on the one element that can bring about a more successful commercial outcome and ultimately, better national network rating numbers. More fans. It is clear to me that Indy Car is working toward that goal given its own set of internal parameters. But it isn’t easy. A new television package won’t take them there. More fans will. Because without them, Indy Car charts a course squarely toward becoming irrelevant to advertisers and sponsors, with or without network television.
Most respectfully,
Brian Mackey,
Mackey Marketing Group, Inc

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