Is it d?j? vu all over again?

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The latest "major announcement" of the 2008 IndyCar Series season has recently occurred, with the series' new television contract being announced for 2009 and beyond. The new deal sees ABC continue to broadcast the premier event, the...

The latest "major announcement" of the 2008 IndyCar Series season has recently occurred, with the series' new television contract being announced for 2009 and beyond. The new deal sees ABC continue to broadcast the premier event, the Indianapolis 500, for a 45th consecutive year. In addition, the Disney company will also televise four other events.

But the balance of the remaining schedule will be aired on Versus, a lower-end cable channel that has the potential to reach as many as 73 million homes. That is, at the best case scenario, 20 million fewer homes than ESPN or ESPN2, networks that will no longer broadcast future IndyCar events.

When one factors in that that number is the pinnacle of possible viewers, the number in all likelihood represents much less. Versus, in most cases, is only available via upgrading cable packages or switching to satellite, and with DirecTV as a presenting sponsor of the IndyCar Series this year, one figures that is the likely route a viewer would take if they are interested enough to keep watching.

Versus is a niche channel for what remains a niche series. For a series intending to grow in 2008, given the confusion and scuttlebutt that should have been put to bed with the end of the divisive dozen-year split, this is likely a step backwards for a series that should be doing everything in its grasp to try to get people to care. TV is the one area where new fans can tune in by accident and potentially get hooked.

There are a couple positives. What it promises to give IndyCar is something it never enjoyed on the ESPN family of networks, a plethora of additional programming that should give light to the drivers, teams, and additional features of the series.

Race broadcasts are scheduled at no less than three hours per, which is at least a half hour upgrade if not more from ABC/ESPN telecasts. So the worry of timed races should be for naught and all events should run to their scheduled conclusions. And in all likelihood, live video streaming and timing and scoring will continue to be readily available on IndyCar's website.

It's an intriguing but risky proposition for Tony George to undertake. Given his position as IRL founder and Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO, George is the man most responsible for the future of the one major American open-wheel racing series. It's somewhat concerning for the series to move to a channel that doesn't have the far-reaching capabilities of all that ESPN had to offer, even if its coverage and treatment of the series was lackluster more than often.

History suggests George is traveling down a dangerous road with this move. CART made the move from the ESPN family to SPEED Channel for a bulk of their races in 2002. There was more coverage and even a Friday night hosted show by Derek Daly, but again the number of homes was far less than what it was from 2001 previously. With all the turmoil of teams leaving based on their engine contracts, the exposure for 2003 showcased the first rash of pay-drivers and decrease in big name sponsors.

When Champ Car was awarded the CART assets prior to 2004, Champ Car was forced into a burden of buying its TV airtime, and as such bounced around channels like a pinball. Its first season was on Spike TV, all but a couple west coast races airing tape-delayed to a non-existent rating more or less.

After a couple years going wherever it could go, Champ Car agreed to buy its airtime for the 2007 season on ABC/ESPN for all but three races. Indirectly, Champ Car was funding the IndyCar Series' TV contract, as it was being paid by the networks to broadcast its races on those channels.

But look at the sponsor quality from that four-year period of Champ Car and one sees where the danger lies. Their final season featured a 17-car field with a host of no-name European drivers and sponsors. Endearing in hindsight, yes, but Pay by Touch, 42 Below or Grafiprint were never going to draw anyone to the races besides the driver bringing that backing. Several races achieved no rating at all.

Budgets are already tight for IndyCar teams, particularly the transitioning Champ Car teams that, frankly, got a raw deal. The engine and chassis leases George has provided for those teams were only for this year and, without sponsorship, how can it be assumed that those teams will survive into and past 2009?

From a purely business sense, what draw is there for sponsors to lend their name to a car or team that is invisible on the airwaves to a significant portion of the potential viewing public? Or more significantly, what draw is there now to a company such as Subway, long rumored to become the IndyCar Series' new title sponsor, to front several million dollars to give their support to a series if its best advertising medium, TV, is seen in significantly fewer households?

IndyCar has enjoyed a modicum of growth this year. For 2008 at least, fields swelled with the addition of the new teams and crowds were definitely on the up at Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and maybe one or two other events. There was more debate this year about which races deserved to make the 2009 calendar, rather than the politics of years past.

The diehards who have stuck by through the tough times will probably keep watching regardless, but the fact it's a small number of folks in total keeps the ratings at a fairly stagnant level. Collectively, they are a passionate and knowledgeable group but still a blip of the levels seen in NASCAR.

Incremental gains have occurred this year but there is no more damning statistic than this: In the first year of a unified open-wheel series since 1995, the Indianapolis 500 ratings only increased from 4.3 to 4.5 and were still two-tenths short of NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 mark.

Therefore, there remains much work to do in a project that is expected to take years to rebuild. The IndyCar Series is taking a substantial risk by moving to a network that is not as readily available. If an IndyCar races on Versus, and no-one is able to see it, does it make a sound? Just food for thought.

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Series GENERAL , INDYCAR
Tags TV