15 October 2009

Bringing IndyCar to the Masses

(The first in a series of looking back on the 2009 season and what the IndyCar Series can do moving forward.)

With the 2009 season being the first for the IndyCar Series on Versus, let's look back at IndyCar's partnership with the Comcast-owned station.  Was it worth it in 2009, and will it be worth it going forward?

Let's look at the pros and cons of IndyCar's decision to sign with Versus and how it can be improved upon down the road. 

First, the Pros:
  • Increased pre-race and post-race shows on Versus.

    • Can anyone say they really didn't like actually having these?  Of all the problems with Versus, this was one of the things we can definitely agree that they got right.
    • We actually had features on different drivers/teams and got immediate reaction from drivers/teams post-race.  Remember the good ole days on ESPN/ABC, when races would jump immediately from the checkered flags to women's golf?  Exactly.
    • Kevin Lee received increased exposure.  Good for him, as he's a pro's pro.  And if Jack Arute joins twitter as a result of Versus' coverage and the twitter explosion of 2009, signing with Versus was a no-brainer.

  • Being treated like an actual sport on Versus.

    • No tape-delayed races (see Texas, circa 2007), where we know the winner courtesy of a ticker at the bottom of the screen.
    • No being moved to another channel (ESPN Classic) when another sport (Rodeo, Women's Golf) runs late.

      • Both of these were key reasons while the IndyCar Series decided to hook on with Versus in August of 2008.  With Versus actually expanding their coverage of the ICS, they went all-out, refusing to push IndyCar racing around.

  • A booth that knows IndyCar Racing (i.e., no Rusty Wallace).

    • Yes, Bob Jenkins missed some identifications of cars.  But when you hear Bob's voice, you think IndyCar racing.  Jan Beekhuis was good as the technical color man, while Robbie Buhl was level-headed and brought a different perspective as an owner, especially when Conway would wreck and Beekhuis would ask, "How much did that cost, Robbie?".  All-in-all, their chemistry improved as the year wore on.  I would only anticipate it getting better.

Onward to the Cons of being on Versus:
  • Ratings.

    • We've all heard enough about how they were low.  However, since both the head of Versus, Jamie Daivs, and Terry Angstadt said that ratings were about where they expected (in the .25-.45 range per race), I'm inclined to believe them.  

      • My problems come with splitting up the racing between two networks on Versus and ABC.  It creates continuity problems for viewers.  Ideally, it would be ingrained into viewer's heads, "It's Sunday afternoon.  I should flip to Versus, as they'll have the IndyCar race on."  That doesn't happen when you spend the summer flipping viewers from ABC to Versus.

  • Versus dictating race times.

    • It makes no sense to start the Chicagoland race at 9 p.m. CT because of UFC fighting.  Yes, Versus presents better coverage, but the first priority of any IndyCar event needs to be the fans who attend the race.  That was ridiculous.  The IndyCar Series needs to be able to step in and say when a race needs to start to get the optimum amount of fans at the track itself, then worry about TV ratings.  A balance can be found between the two and needs to be struck so as to reward both fans at the race and those watching on TV.

  • The Open.

    • Seriously, Transformers?  Versus can do better.

  • Commercials.

    • Need more.  Make Izod create more than one or two ads for an entire season.  Same goes for Peak.  On the plus side, I was brainwashed into buying some sort of garden accessory I will never use.

  • NO ESPN.

    • IndyCar lost a place at the bottom of the ESPN ticker.  You had to wait for the 'Auto' category to come up, where the IndyCar winner would be announced next to the Formula 1 winner.  Unless a race was on ABC, you could just about count on the race not receiving coverage on SportsCenter.  That needs to change, and being on a network would aid that.

With this in mind, what can the IndyCar Series do or look forward to down the road?  Well, it's been rumored that Comcast is looking to buy a share of General Electric, which owns NBC.  Should it happen, Versus could easily provide programming to NBC Sports.

That would allow the IndyCar Series to put all of its broadcasts on one network - NBC.  The only two times the ICS pulled a rating above a 1 was on ABC (Indianapolis, Toronto), so they would be able to generate higher ratings on NBC.  If the pre-and-post-race production quality stayed the same, who would be opposed to putting all 18 races on NBC Sports?

Maybe only the Hulman-George family would object, given their strong relationship with ABC when it comes to the Indianapolis 500.  To be honest, this is an antiquated reason to stick with ABC; the 500 would draw a similar rating on NBC.  Given the fact that NBC could promote the 500 and its IndyCar coverage throughout the golf season (for instance, at the Player's Championship in May), it could increase its rating.

Having in-game promotions during the Player's Championship (it runs from May 6-9) for coverage of the Indianapolis 500 and qualifications, would be natural for NBC.  Right now, you don't get this from any station other than Versus itself.  Or how about this - NBC plugging future IndyCar races during its U.S Open (June 14-20, the 20th being the Iowa race) coverage.  The U.S. Open is one of NBC's top sporting events of the year.

You think the ratings at Homestead would not have benefited from constant promos not only on NBC during Sunday Night Football, but also during their golf coverage of the FedEx Cup?  I'm pretty sure if Comcast can buy into GE and push IndyCar Series racing onto NBC/Versus, things will drastically improve.

However, a potential drawback does come in the fact that throughout the summer, NBC airs golf.  They are not going to break from a tournament for IndyCar racing, unless it is shown that IndyCar draws a bigger audience.  More likely, races would need to be earlier on a Sunday (12-3, leading into golf from 3-7) or Saturday night.  Those details can be worked out and accomplished, whether it means airing some races (Iowa on June 20, for instance) on Versus or moving race times.

Looking down the road, IndyCar's best way to bring the series to the masses may lie in Versus' (Comcast) ability to merge with NBC.  Maybe the folks in the IndyCar Series knew something about Comcast's future plans when they negotiated that deal in August of 2008.  If so, we all have plenty to look forward to in the near future.

1 comment:

  1. Great ideas. I really agree. However, having women's golf on the 15th hole and letting them finish the final holes and then interview the winner, THEN go into lap 25 of 200 of a race would be a recurring nightmare, especially since NBC doesn't really have any other channels now that play tapes of older events all the time(aka ABC's ESPN Classic). Yet, the Versus (or VS channel, as some people call it; long story) and NBC merger would be great for the series in the long run. The sooner the better, in this economy.

    And yes, I agree, all the Izod, versus, Abc, and Danica (Peak, Boost, etc) commercials drove me up the wall. thank the good lord for side by side, or whatever versus calls it now.