Of all the topics raised by those within the IndyCar Series over the past week, questions surrounding NASCAR's exit from ESPN after 2014 to join NBC and the NBC Sports Network have been at the top of the list.
On the surface, NASCAR's 10-year move to bring 20 Sprint Cup races to NBC and NBCSN starting in 2015 should help NBCSN with its greatest problem: awareness.
Currently in its fifth year on the channel, IndyCar's on air product has been routinely tweaked and modified at NBCSN, yet the ratings have only seen slight increases. The latest changes to NBCSN's IndyCar broadcast lineup, especially with Leigh Diffey calling the shots from the booth and Townsend Bell in the analyst role, have Terry Lingner and his production team delivering the strongest IndyCar Series television product we've seen in well over a decade, giving rise to the belief that if there's a problem, it isn't with what's being televised.
The quality of this year's NBCSN broadcasts have even been enhanced by a number of popular first-time winners and some spectacular racing throughout the field, but the ratings have either maintained their unacceptably low figures or decreased in some instances.
IndyCar's continual struggle on NBCSN has been a prime example of the central issue with the channel as a whole. No matter how good the product is, very few people know it exists, and if they have heard of it, they probably don't know where to find it among the other 700 channels on the dial.
Diehard IndyCar fans found their way to NBCSN, then known as Versus, when the series signed a 10-year deal beginning with the 2009 season, but Indy car racing's most valuable demographic, the casual fan, has been entirely absent during the NBCSN era. And solving that problem to some degree, if everything goes according to plan, is where the 2015 NASCAR deal should play to IndyCar's favor.
“This just shows there's a demand and interest for motorsports among quality broadcasters,” Hulman & Company CEO Mark Miles told RACER. “And when it all shakes out, I believe it will be good for IndyCar. I think it will take some time to verify, but we'll stay close to it and we have regular discussions with the heads of NBC Sports and we think this could be very positive for IndyCar.”
The average person's awareness of NASCAR far outweighs that of IndyCar, and provided the marketing campaign to redirect NASCAR fans to NBC/NBCSN is as robust as one would expect, its legions of fans should be able to find NBCSN and boost its overall ratings.
At its core, the path to improving IndyCar's ratings on NBCSN is a lot like playing an open-wheel version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. If NBCSN can stop spinning its wheels, gain traction from a nation of stock car fans tuning into its programming lineup and then convert those casual viewers to come back and watch the other forms of racing on the channel, it's safe to assume some sort of a ratings increase would be felt by the IndyCar Series.
But, like the Kevin Bacon game, the connections to such an increase are brittle and barely visible. And to be clear, NASCAR didn't sign with NBC/NBCSN to add to the channel's rich stable of racing series; it changed networks with the intention of becoming the only series to watch on NBC network and its sports cable outlet.
Simply put, any collateral improvement the IndyCar Series receives will be as a byproduct of the NASCAR/NBC/NBCSN relationship, not because the France family was looking for ways to help open-wheel racing out of its ratings slump.
And if there's one significant action item for Miles to come from the NASCAR announcement, this was it. The king of North American motorsports properties is headed to IndyCar's home, and as history has shown, it will be looking to maintain its ratings dominance at the expense of its rivals. In 2009, IndyCar was the unquestioned No. 1 racing series on the channel. By 2013, it had serious competition from Formula 1 (although the graveyard air times for most live F1 races have generated lower ratings than IndyCar). And by the time we get to 2015, IndyCar could be the proverbial third wheel at NBCSN.
NBC/NBCSN spent something slightly north of $4 billion on the 10-year rights for Sprint Cup and a myriad of lower-tier stock car series, while IndyCar reportedly cost just $50 million over 10 years…. You do the math on which property will receive the lion's share of promotions. (Even more troubling is that the clause stating IndyCar must receive equal promotion to other racing series on NBCSN is said to expire at the end of 2013.)
Weighing the short- and long-term implications of the 2015 Sprint Cup deal, it looks like NASCAR's move to NBCSN will be a benefit for IndyCar without it actually being a benefit to IndyCar, and that's a crucial distinction.
(The same dynamic took place between Will Power and Helio Castroneves when the Aussie joined Team Penske. Helio had Power's data to look at and increased his own speed thanks to his teammate's addition to the lineup, but Power didn't sign on to be Castroneves' cheery sidekick. He came onboard to beat the Brazilian – and every other driver in the series – like a drum. The fact that HCN got a little bit faster from having Power under the same tent was an unintended benefit.)
Moving the conversation beyond NBCSN, the biggest growth potential for IndyCar could be the void left at ABC/ESPN by NASCAR.
At least one person from inside the company has said the network is actually looking forward to stepping away from having motorsports as a significant slice of its programming, and if that's true, it spells trouble for IndyCar. But if Miles can stoke their interest in using IndyCar to fill some of NASCAR's programming vacuum, there might actually be some light at the end of a pitch-black tunnel.
According to the details of the contract the series revealed in 2008, “The partnership with Versus calls for the network to televise at least 13 races per year,” and one look at the current schedule reveals NBCSN has its required 13 while ABC broadcasts the remaining five.
Miles knows that waiting for NASCAR to arrive at NBCSN isn't an actual strategy for IndyCar to rely on, and with the channel's need to throw its weight behind stock car racing, it could allow for some new, creative avenues outside of IndyCar's long-term agreement. Thanks to the low ratings, he might not be holding as many bargaining chips as he wants right now, but skewing the annual mix of IndyCar broadcast dates toward ABC/ESPN continues to be the key to a ratings salvation.
Expanding the schedule beyond its current 18 races would allow Miles to add more ABC events, but there are very few teams that harbor a desire to push out to 19 or 20 rounds. If there's some horse trading to be done – possibly to give up some of the NBCSN dates where inevitable conflicts between IndyCar and NASCAR will arise – Miles could shop those events to ABC/ESPN without having to grow the calendar. Whatever he does over the next 20 months, nothing will be more important than trying to turn ABC/ESPN into a motivated and engaged partner.
It's a problem without an easy solution; if ABC/ESPN wanted lots of IndyCar, it would surely have lots of IndyCar, and whatever comes of those discussions, Miles will have to make concessions to both of IndyCar's television partners to pull something off. But for the first time in five years, using the words "IndyCar," "TV" and "possible improvement" in the same sentence can be done without feeling like a rube.
A few expected changes to the 2014 schedule could also improve Miles' chances. He's made numerous statements about wanting to shift the start and end of the season forward, bookending the NFL season between early February and early September.
That window, if it comes to pass, could give Miles a chance to tailor air dates with ABC/ESPN that had never been possible. At least two new events could make it onto a schedule that would give the series, the network and a few tracks a chance to gain exposure while the NASCAR season is just getting up to speed.
The series would also be doing itself a favor to use its ABC dates wisely – to use its wider audience to build interest that will sustain awareness. The current schedule that spends all of the ABC dates between late May and early July was a good experiment, but a three-pronged approach that has a few early, a few in the middle and a few to end on a high note seems like the best compromise in 2014.
The IndyCar Series still has five years left to run on its NBCSN contract after
this season, and the constraints have been formidable to deal with. The series' pre-Randy Bernard management team sold the collective health of open-wheel racing for a $5 million annual paycheck, and as the post-Bernard leadership is finding, fixing the ratings chokehold that has come with it will take more time and experimentation.