IndyCar Strikes Gold With NBC

Unless you live under a rock, you know by now that NBC was the winner in the negotiations for the new IndyCar TV rights package. It is an exclusive three-year deal, which will see a total of eight races per year air on regular NBC, including the Indianapolis 500 along with coverage of Indianapolis 500 Qualifying. The remainder of the races will be carried on NBCSN. All races will be streamed on the NBC Sports app and, assuming you can authenticate your cable provider. Ancillary programming will be carried on NBC Sports Gold – more on that later.

This also brings an end to an era for ABC. This May will mark the fifty-fourth straight and final time that ABC has carried the Indianapolis 500. While it has not always been exclusive, ABC/ESPN has been a broadcast partner to USAC, CART, IRL, Champ Car and IndyCar for as long as I can remember. Their coverage had fallen off in recent years and it appeared their commitment had as well. While I was very happy to see NBC win the bid, I’ll admit it’s a little bittersweet to see what was once such a solid partnership wither away.

There is someone with ESPN, whom I now consider a good friend that I’ll probably be seeing for the last time this May. At times, he would get miffed at my not-so-subtle jabs at his employer’s coverage of IndyCar and would tell me so in an e-mail; which is actually how we first became acquainted back in 2009 in the early days of this site. But our differences in how a TV race broadcast should be done, was overshadowed by a lot of things we had in common away from racing – including our love of dogs, especially yellow labs and golden retrievers.

I have not heard from him since IndyCar CEO Mark Miles announced on Wednesday that NBC won the contract. In fact, we haven’t corresponded since I wrote some very unfavorable comments about the ABC broadcast of the opening race at St. Petersburg. There are some other good people at ABC/ESPN that do a good job and that is why I say this is bittersweet. But their coverage was doing a disservice to fans and ultimately to the series itself. As much as I detest change, this was a change that was long overdue.

Jon Miller, President Programming of NBC Sports Group, said Wednesday that being the exclusive broadcast partner will give them the flexibility to do things that they just could not commit to doing under the last contract when they only had the partial season. For one thing, they were not allowed to put any IndyCar broadcasts over-the-air on Big NBC. By the terms of the contract, all of the races that ABC did not want had to be broadcast on NBCSN. This new contract stipulates that eight, almost half of the seventeen race schedule, will be broadcast over-the-air on NBC.

Former motorsports writer John Oreovicz wrote an excellent article about the change to NBC. Although I’m sure he is still bitter over his departure from ESPN, you couldn’t tell it in his very objective article. He explained something I did not know when he talked about how the Kentucky Derby had continuously fallen to new lows on ABC after a peak of 18.5 million viewers in 1989. By the last time ABC carried The Derby in 2000, the ratings were a dismal 9.1 million viewers – less than half of what it had drawn just eleven years earlier. Oreovicz goes on to point out that in the first year that NBC carried the Run for the Roses in 2001, ratings jumped to 13.5 million – a 48% increase in one year. Since then, ratings for the Kentucky Derby have stayed around the fourteen to sixteen million viewer range. For 2017, NBC had 16.5 million viewers for The Derby – almost double what ABC got in its last year.

This is what IndyCar fans are hoping NBC can do for the Indianapolis 500, which has been in a ratings slump for years. Last year was an all-time low rating for the Indianapolis 500, despite the fact that attendance had been strong for the last few years. The final rating for last year’s race was a 3.4, down from a 3.9 the previous year.

To put that in perspective, the “500” once consistently earned ratings in double-digits through the seventies and eighties, with a high of 17.9 in 1976. Now I understand that the TV world had few choices in the seventies. There were a couple of Superstations, but that was about it. ESPN didn’t launch until 1979. But still in the eighties, six races in that decade pulled in double-digits. The last time the Indianapolis had a rating over ten, was in 1992 when it earned a 10.9. it may be worth noting that the 1995 race drew a 9.4 rating. The first IRL sanctioned race in 1996 dipped to a 7.1. Do the math.

Today, there are more choices than ever – not only from your cable box or satellite dish, but online. Plus we are in an era where all sports are seeing a ratings decline, but IndyCar is actually seeing a resurgence in ratings – except at the Indianapolis 500. Hopefully NBC can change that.

The Worldwide Leader in Sports did not do a commendable job in promoting IndyCar or even the Indianapolis 500. NBC has vowed to change that. On Marshall Pruett’s podcast , Jon Miller said “I know what we’re going to be able to do for IndyCar and especially the Indy 500. By the time we get to May 2019, everybody in America is going to know when that race is and why they should watch it.” This is very welcome news. If that’s true, the days of watching ESPN in May and wondering where the promos are, will be over.

There will be some changes that some fans may or may not like. NBCSN will continue to show Qualifying shows from all races (except for the Indianapolis 500, which will be on NBC). But the days of going to You Tube or to watch practice will be over after this season. The “over-the-top” element or OTT was always to be a main part of the negotiations. OTT is an industry buzzword for direct-to-consumer content. That’s a soft way of saying that it is something you will pay for to access online.

The OTT content will be accessed through NBC Sports Gold, which is an app and a website where you can buy an annual package and access it through your television, mobile device or desktop computer. This is for any content that is not available through a linear broadcast (a normal over-the-air or cable broadcast). There will supposedly be archived races and replays. NBC says that the Sports Gold app is to super-serve the hard-core IndyCar fans.

My hope is that they would have races archived from way back. I’d like to be able to watch the 1972 Indianapolis 500 or the 1991 Texaco-Havoline 200 from Road America. Will that be the case? I don’t know. I am also hoping for additional content there before and after races. I would like to think that if Long Beach airs on Big NBC, post race interviews, press conferences and more analysis will take place on NBC Sports Gold, if not on NBCSN.

But I do know it will cost. How much it costs, I don’t know. I know that you could buy a season pass to the Premier League (Soccer) at the beginning of the season last August for $49.99. Now that the season ends in May, it is discounted to $19.99. Keep in mind, all of the IndyCar races are on either NBC or NBCSN. Only practice and ancillary programming will be shown on NBC Sports Gold.

I’m a hard-core fan, so I’ll buy it – at least for the first year. If I see that I rarely use it, I’ll decide before the next season whether or not to renew. I am curious to see what the ancillary programming is like. Can I watch archived races as I mentioned earlier? Will there be specially produced IndyCar shows during the week that are available only on the Gold app? If so, it might be worth it. I’ll be curious to see if my definition of being super-served is the same as NBC’s.

But if paying to be super-served is the only potential negative to this whole deal – it’s a good deal for IndyCar fans.

Since the days of Versus almost a decade ago, Comcast’s (parent company to NBC) commitment to IndyCar had been apparent. It also made ABC/ESPN look really bad in the fan’s eyes – almost as if they were just going through the motions to broadcast a race. But that’s not entirely due to Versus/NBCSN, because fans were getting fed up with ABC before Versus even jumped into the mix in 2009.

But this isn’t about ABC and what they didn’t do. After the Month of May and the double-header at Belle Isle, ABC will be gone. This is about NBC and what they say they are going to do. While I never like paying money for something that used to be free; I’m not totally opposed to NBC Sports Gold. More and more, this is the way things are going to be. Personally, I have no plans to cut the cord from cable in the near future. But fifteen years ago, I never thought I’d be getting rid of my land line either.

Wednesday was a big day for IndyCar. Most know that I was not a Mark Miles fan when he first came aboard. He seemed distant, aloof and not willing to listen to fans. But he is putting together a string of home runs here recently and now has IndyCar heading in the right direction for the first time in years, if not decades. Putting together this deal with NBC may be his biggest achievement yet.

George Phillips

13 Responses to “IndyCar Strikes Gold With NBC”

  1. Had to look up “linear television” before I could vote. So, I think it’s great that NBC will carry half the races on the main station. If you want to build your fanbase, I feel it’s the way to go.

    I have no love or patience with paying for practice or anything else. Especially, when we are dealing with a sport that’s hurting for fans. Seems short-sighted to me. The same thing in NASCAR which is continuing to lose viewers at double-digit rates each year.

  2. S0CSeven Says:

    I unequivocally support the fabulous NBC decision.

    However, I want to say thank you to ABC.

    Thanks for Wide World of Sports that brought high banked NASCAR racing to my home in vivid black and white.

    Thanks for color coverage of The Indy 500 in the 1960’s even if it was brought in by aerial and was awfully fuzzy.

    Thanks for decades of support to auto racing in all forms.

    You have lost your way in recent years with (I suspect) MBA’s in the big offices. But I’ll still have a soft spot for you and what you brought to my life.

    There’s no way I’m going to bad mouth you. Thanks for the memories.

    • Bruce Waine Says:

      I agree with you recalling when ABC began their first televised motorsport coverage.

      “You cannot go home……………” may be a fitting byline for the Wide World of Sports era that has became a part of history ………..

  3. billytheskink Says:

    This is a very encouraging deal for Indycar, particularly with the increased number of over-the-air races and the increased incentive that NBC has now to promote the series now that they have its biggest event.

    NBC Sports Gold could really win me over if they are able to take over ESPN Classic’s long-time role of airing old Indy 500 broadcasts in the week leading up to the race. I would be disappointed, however, if Indy Lights and Carb Day wound up exclusively there. I’ve had hope for a while that Lights could join NASCAR’s K&N and Modified series as part of a Thursday night motorsports block in the spring/summer.

    • Christopher Says:

      I think whether we see classic races will come down to who actually owns the rebroadcast rights for those classic races. Are they owned by ABC/ESPN or are they owned by IMS Productions? If ABC/ESPN owns the rights to old races which originally aired on ABC we may never see them again. If IMS Productions owns the rebroadcast rights to old races (regardless of which network they aired on) I could envision them being made available in some form.

  4. I think the move to NBC is good, although it is always risky to be shut out from the ESPN world (ask NASCAR.) Still I think NBC has a lot of experience with properties like Indycar. They do very well with Premier League soccer, NHL, and as stated in this article the Kentucky Derby. That said they haven’t been able to work miracles with NASCAR so that’s something to keep in min.

    Having all the races on the same channel will be helpful since, for whatever reason, racing doesn’t have a good track record of getting cross promotion. I’m not sure why, because I know NBA and MLS do cross promote between their TV partners.

    One last thought, I don’t agree with Miles that a short term deal is better. IF Indycar grows or if there’s major (positive) opportunities that are different that’s a great thing to have. BUT, if there isn’t a lot of growth or if there aren’t a lot of other positive opportunities, then the short term deal could really hurt.

  5. Fantastic news!!! Way to go M Miles!

  6. I love the coverage NBC has for Notre Dame games and the Kentucky Derby I can’t wait to see what they do for the 500

  7. 1. all sports are NOT seeing a rating decline. NBA, MMA, and
    the PGA (Tiger) are up.
    2. we cut the cord last year. Spectrum more than doubled our
    TWC bill for the same service. there are other ways to watch.
    3. finally, i hope this works out for IndyCar, but, as posted above,
    it better work out quick due to the short-term deal.

  8. I would never get cable again even if the races were still on ABC/espn and I will not pay to get “superserved”. I can get superserved at my local bar. I am quite confident that some enterprising folks will continue to supply vintage races and replays to YouTube.

  9. Christmas in March!! I couldn’t be happier.

  10. I’d like new episodes of the IndyCar 36 documentaries.

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