19 January 2011

How Does the Comcast-NBC Merger Affect INDYCAR's Future?

(note: this piece also runs at SBNation Indiana)
When Comcast and NBC entered into an agreement in the fall of 2009, the IZOD IndyCar Series had just completed its first year on Comcast's sports network, Versus.  While the reviews were mixed from viewers, the general consensus was that Versus committed itself to covering INDYCAR as if it were a major American sport.
However, sponsors continued to clamor for network television, needing the ease of access to ABC in order to make sponsorship deals work.
14 months after the two sides announced a decision to merge, the FCC finally approved the $6.5 billion deal.  In November of 2009, we openly speculated how a merger could affect INDYCAR; now that the deal has come to fruition, it is time to reexamine just how the series will be affected now and in the future.
TV Ratings
Versus saw a dramatic jump in rating last year for not only hockey, but the IZOD IndyCar Series as well.  The series saw almost 100 percent growth among the key young male demographic last year, giving fuel to the notion that younger generation was racing fans was coming on board.
That Versus was able to do this with such a limited market share is remarkable; the casual sports fan does not flip to Versus, instead parking the remote between ABC, CBS, NBC and ESPN.  Finding the IZOD IndyCar Series when it is on channel 13 instead of channel 640 could now become easier if Versus and NBC split their inventory of races.
For the last few years, marketers have clamored about the need to bring in a "1" rating, especially when on network television.  With races potentially moving to NBC in the future, achieving that mark becomes easier.  With ratings up, it becomes easier to sell sponsorships.  A win-win for everyone involved.
Right now, Versus stood alone in promoting its races.  Sure, a graphic might pop up on an ABC telecast to let viewers know the remainder of the IndyCar schedule or to promote a future ABC race, but for the most part, Versus was left on its own.  With the merger, this ends.
When NBC Sports begins its golf coverage with the Florida swing later this winter, it would behoove them and Versus to promote the beginning of the IZOD IndyCar season.  During the U.S. Open, you think NBC can't or won't work a few promotions in for coverage of the Iowa Corn Indy 225, which runs a week later on Versus?
While the demographics for golf and Indycar racing are different, they also have a giant tie - IZOD.  The clothing manufacturer has line of clothing for both the golfer and race fan and would certainly want to bring those two together.  Additionally, some of the sports' drivers are big golfers, like Graham Rahal and Tomas Scheckter.  Working drivers into pro-ams or in-booth appearances to promote a race is a distinct possibility.
NBC presently airs the Dew Tours, a series of x-games styled events in the summer and winter.  The market here is remarkably similar to that of the IZOD IndyCar Series - young, thrill-seeking males.  Cross-promotions, or airing races and Dew Tour events back-to-back will bring in additionaly eyeballs.
Lastly, NBC has the rights to one of the world's most global events - the Olympics.  While auto racing is a longshot to gain a spot in the Olympics, the promotional opportunities for INDYCAR during an Olympics broadcast are endless.  During the 2012 summer games, chances to promote the (potential) change in coverage of the Indianapolis 500 from ABC to NBC would exist, while the 2014 winter games could serve as a platform to promote the entire IndyCar schedule.
ABC has been bringing fans coverage of the Indianapolis 500 since 1965, and there are many over at 16th and Georgetown who may reluctant to leave a partner that helped the sport grow into the mid-1990's.  However, the NBC-Comcast merger means that ABC (and ESPN) will have to step up their effort and coverage in order to retain their contract after 2012.
At his State-of-INDYCAR address, Randy Bernard remarked that they had been advised not to enter into contract negotiations on future TV contracts until after a merger had been announced.  With the merger in place, Bernard is now in a position of power, knowing that NBC Sports would likely pursue "The Most Important Race in History," bringing the entire INDYCAR stable of races under NBC Sports/Versus control.  
NBC devoted time and plenty of money to NASCAR back in the early part of the 2000's, helping fuel its growth; if similar resources were employed with INDYCAR, a similar growth pattern would likely occur.  NBC would surely be happy to become the new home of the Indianapolis 500 as the race neared its 100th running in 2016.
On ABC/ESPN's side, they will surely have to devote more promotional activities to try and raise the bar for its broadcasts.  INDYCAR executives will not sit on their hands when an announcer butchers a name or treats the series as NASCAR's ugly sister; now, the series has leverage, and should use it as much as possible to either improve the ABC/ESPN broadcasts and increase coverage on SportsCenter and other platforms, or go all in with NBC.
Randy Bernard has laid the foundation - with companies like Honda, Chevrolet and Lotus on board, advertising dollars are sure to follow (and if Firestone stays, all the better).  The series is in place to grow, whether it comes in the form of fans at the track or in sponsorship and marketing dollars.  With Comcast and NBC joining forces, Bernard has another ally in his push to return INDYCAR to its former place atop the American auto racing landscape.

11 January 2011

INDYCAR Gaining Quickly, Says Bernard

 INDYCAR is gaining momentum, INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard said in his inaugural state-of-the-sport address at the Westin Hotel in Indianapolis.  The addresses from Bernard culminated a day of drivers meetings, rules changes, sponsorship announcements and a look-ahead to March, when the IZOD IndyCar Series returns to the track.
Bernard's look at the 2011 season and beyond promised to continue his commitment from last year to listen to fans and solicit their feedback on how the sport can continue to grow and reach new markets.  Along those lines, INDYCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway announced that they were opening a joint office in Los Angeles, where employees will be charged with helping to grow the visibility of the sport in Hollywood.
The series already took steps in that direction last year with the help of title sponsor IZOD, who had celebrities like Mark Wahlberg and P. Diddy involved in IndyCar promotions, along with helping Graham Rahal secure Indianapolis 500 sponsorship from Quick Trim, a company owned by the Kardashian Family.
Bernard said the entertainment value of the sport must continue to increase: double-file restarts will now be a part of the oval track strategy, beginning with the Indianapolis 500.  Additionally, pit stall order will be determined based on the results of qualifications from the previous race at all races except for Indianapolis.  Previously, fans griped that the same drivers always had stalls near the front, benefiting them through the season.
Along the marketing and visibility lines, it was announced that Starwood Hotels will now be the official hotel of INDYCAR, hopefully providing discounted rates for traveling fans and creating additional marketing opportunities across Starwood's line of hotels.
ABC will return to televise five IZOD IndyCar Series races: St. Petersburg, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, New Hampshire and the yet-to-be announced series finale at Las Vegas.  While Versus will handle the remainder of races, INDYCAR has been advised not to negotiate any television contracts at this time; instead, the body will wait until the NBC/Comcast merger is finalized later this year.
With the ABC/ESPN contract running through 2012, the potential is there, should NBC decide to shift some races from Versus to NBC Sports, for the series to return to network television, or to force ABC/ESPN's hand in contract negotiations.
Perhaps most importantly, Bernard promised to try and engage fans that departed the sport in the mid-1990's, when bickering and in-fighting served to bring the sport to its knees.  In trying to draw fans from USAC, the series will try and bring back a pipeline of fans and drivers that brought some the stars of the past to the Indianapolis 500.  
Citing research, Bernard vowed to try and attract fans of NASCAR.  How exactly they will attempt to capture the crossover fans remains to be seen.
The third segment of fans Bernard wants to attract are the young, aspiring drivers involved in karting:
Our mission is to be as inclusive as possible to all karters and karting organizations with the goal being that all karters will have the top talent graduate into the Road to Indy ladder. But also, maybe more importantly, is connecting our sport and drivers to those karters that may not have the talent or desire to become a professional racecar driver but can become the next generation of IndyCar fans.
Perhaps the most noticeable change will be in the sanctioning body of the IZOD IndyCar Series, Firestone Indy Lights and Mazda Road to Indy.  No longer will the divisive "Indy Racing League" be used; instead, the sanctioning body will be known simply as "INDYCAR."
On a blustery winter day in Indianapolis, Bernard and INDYCAR's goals for 2011 and beyond was a ray of bright, shining hope for the future of the sport.