How Did This Happen?

geothumbnail10
There is a popular TV commercial out right now with the tagline “Stay in your lane, bro”. I should probably heed that advice and stick with what I know, rather than treading into waters where I could be eaten by sharks that know a lot more about this topic than I do. But I’m going to give it a try.

Just before the first race of the season at St. Petersburg, the NTT IndyCar Series released a carefully crafted announcement of the various international TV rights for the series. I knew that readers of this site that live in other countries were growing concerned; because the season-opening race was just days away and they didn’t know if they would even be able to watch it.

When I read the press release, it appeared to address all of the questions that international readers had – most notably those in Canada and the UK. It seemed benign enough as I read it and went about my day. I was busy at the day job that day and never had a chance to check social media until that night. But when I did, it didn’t take long to decipher that international fans were outraged – especially those in Canada.

I still couldn’t figure out why all the angst, until I read this article by legendary Canadian motorsports journalist Norris McDonald. If you aren’t familiar with him, he is the Robin Miller of Canada – meaning that he is usually right.

McDonald’s account paints a picture of IndyCar completely misreading the Canadian television landscape. Once they started to understand some of what was going on, it was way too late in the game. Arrogance and ignorance is a very dangerous combination.

My question is…how did this happen?

Hulman & Company (parent company of IndyCar) CEO Mark Miles is a very bright guy. He proved that when he was head of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and has proven it many times as head of IndyCar – a position he has held since December of 2012. I have not agreed with all of his moves, most notably the Indianapolis 500 qualifying format in place from 2014 through 2018; but he has made a lot of moves deserving of universal praise by fans.

I thought he did a great job in negotiating what appears to be a fair TV deal with NBC last year. Some fans aren’t happy with introducing NBC Sports Gold into the picture, but that’s where things are headed throughout all sports in this cord-cutting digital age. Personally, I think $50 a year is a bargain for what you get – but that’s just me.

The best thing Mark Miles has ever done is hire Jay Frye. In my mind, Jay Frye is the best leader of open-wheel racing in my lifetime, which now spans more than sixty years. I’ve followed this sport closely since 1965 and I never recall a leader of USAC, CART, Champ Car, IRL or IndyCar with a greater vision and deeper understanding of the sport than Jay Frye.

That’s why I’m puzzled as to how Mark Miles could completely bungle something as important as this?

I’ve gotten to know several Canadian IndyCar folks over the years. Some work for the series, some are journalists and some are fans. Canadian fans are some of the most passionate IndyCar fans you’ll come across. Last year alone, there were three Canadians entered into the Indianapolis 500; James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens and Zachary Claman DeMelo (now known simply as Zach Claman). Scott Goodyear, Paul Tracy, Greg Moore and Jacques Villeneuve are just some of the Canadians that are part of the IndyCar fabric over the years. Canadians passionately support their drivers.

They also support their races, and there needs to be more in Canada. The Honda Indy Toronto is one of the best attended races on the schedule each year. There have also been races in Edmonton and Vancouver over the last couple of decades. CART ran at Montreal, on the same site as the Formula One race for a couple of years. Then there was also Sanair in the eighties, where Rick Mears suffered his catastrophic foot injuries.

IndyCar has had a lot of fans in Canada for an awful long time. To treat them as an afterthought is more of a disgrace, than a disservice.

But according to the McDonald article and several others I’ve read, it appears that is what happened. Canadian fans were treated as an afterthought. It was taken for granted that a media partner was going to jump up for the chance to broadcast IndyCar races in Canada. That didn’t happen.

Without rehashing what McDonald has already laid out, Canadian IndyCar fans are now forced to pay over $200 a year if they want to see all seventeen races. From what I understand, if you live in Canada and pay for cable – you’ll be able to see the eight races that are carried on NBC, and that includes the Indianapolis 500. But if you want to see the nine races carried on NBCSN, they will be asked to pony up $200 to see it on (what I believe is) a streaming service.

At the eleventh hour, Canadians were offered the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg for free through said streaming service. From what I’ve read, it was a dismal failure. Some were unable to find it. Some had older computers that were incapable of handling the stream, while others with new equipment still complained of the dreaded spinning wheel as the computer sat trying to buffer the stream.

Canadian fans are irate and justifiably so. If you don’t believe me, check out Robin Miller’s latest mailbag on Racer.com. That will give you an idea of the level of frustration that Canadians are dealing with. Last week on Trackside, Kevin Lee read a tweet from someone in Canada demanding an assurance that this will be fixed soon or that he was done with their show as well. Curt Cavin, now Vice-President of Communications for IndyCar, delicately danced around the subject and pretty much gave the listener the corporate line. I’m not sure he gave the listener the assurance he was looking for.

I don’t blame Curt Cavin. He’s in a tough spot. He didn’t negotiate these deals, but in this new role – it’s his job to defend his employer and spin everything in as favorable a light as possible. When you’re defending something that appears to be indefensible, you’ve got a hard job and your work is cut out for you.

Although I usually don’t use this overused term, this time it fits – this is a perfect storm. On the outside looking in, it appears that everything that could go wrong in these international negotiations did go wrong.

Last November, IndyCar formed a new and separate company called IndyCar Media, to bring all of their media marketing and management in-house. According to the McDonald article, their timing was poor. That probably should have been done about six to twelve months earlier, in order to give this new group time to gauge the interest as contracts were winding down – not after they had already expired.

If you live in the US, this may not interest you in the least. If you don’t really care that Canadians aren’t able to see IndyCar unless they cough up $200, maybe it’ll get your attention that some sponsors count on international eyes seeing the races and the cars their logos are affixed to. The consequences to this are far more reaching than a few foreign fans being inconvenienced. Canadian drivers and other foreign drivers promise sponsors that their product name and logo will be seen in their own countries by so many people.

There are usually two sides to every story, and we’ve just heard one of them. As I said earlier, I have probably opened up a can of worms by giving an opinion on something I really know nothing about. I know just a little bit more about TV international rights packages than I do about brain surgery. But I’ve read a lot from people I think are qualified to speak on it, and they are of the opinion that IndyCar really bungled this. So who am I to disagree with them?

So the real question remains…How (or why) did this happen?

George Phillips

26 Responses to “How Did This Happen?”

  1. In the UK, we got a last minute deal with SKY [multi year apparently] so that all races and qualifying will be live on the F1 channel [which is a subscription channel]. Apparently from COTA green flag racing will be completely commercial free here. The way Canada [and Australia which only has a 1 hour highlights show later in the week I think] is a shocker and I expected better from that IndyCar team. Not a way to expand the series and popularity around the world.

  2. Pretty big mess, and a pretty big black eye. Two of the biggest fanbases outside of the US (Canada and Oz), one of which they’re trying to bring a race back to, and they get the shaft on tv coverage? Not a good look, in this time where lots of good things seem to be happening for IndyCar this is a major shot in the foot. I have a feeling it’s not going to be quick/easy to fix either.

  3. D0CSeven Says:

    Biting my tongue here (really) but there aren’t 2 more pompous, stuffed-shirted, arrogant people in Indycar than Miles and Barnhart. And I’ve personally met them both.

    I’m a Canadian on the outside now and have taken to playing with my 4 grandchildren on Sundays. A whole new world and I think I’ll stay here.

    Thanks for the blog George. I don’t think the message has got (gotten?) though to Indycar. ……… nor will they care ……… unless my letter to Honda Canada has some effect.

  4. Thanks for your take on this. I think IndyCar has mismanaged this an I also feel that as much as we know that things are heading to streaming it just isn’t time to go 100% that way. Mot all of the fan base is prepared for steaming and giving 4 days notice isn’t enough time for those who would consider to get what is necessary. There is an older generation of fans that have no interest or ability to go to steaming. How many couldn’t even program a VCR clock? I hope there is more to come to help resolve this but I fear we are stuck for at least this year with what we have.

    • Granted, a lot of people just won’t go the effort of streaming especially the casual viewer. Here, you can hit a button and watch F1 in UHD. I’m not suggesting that IndyCar is level pegging with F1 but a high quality ‘proper’ HD TV feed is, IMHO, essential. Putting IndyCar on the F1 channel here will definitely increase viewership as F1 fans [who will already have the channel] will likely tune in. I would say that it is a shame that Gold is unavailable [although it is if you use a VPN but who can be bothered…]

  5. Don’t forget Latin America which was left out with nothing. So much for a race in Mexico City I guess.

  6. I agree that IndyCar dropped the ball here. When they said the series was taking international rights in house my first thought was take care of Canada first, then UK and Australia. Everything else is a bonus.
    Mainly, this was one of the few negatives in a very positive off season. That it happened as the season was about to start makes all the positives seem less important.

  7. Bruce Waine Says:

    George – Given the world-wide reaching impact of this topic, I wonder if it would be worthwhile to revisit this topic in a month or two?

    Given that lapse of time, one could then base comments on what ‘corrective’ viewing actions have been or not been implemented or will be implemented by the appropriate IndyCar office.

    Race team sponsors are waiting in the office hallway……….

  8. big ball. dropped. how many suits does Indycar have in their TV rights department who let this happen? very short-sighted.

  9. I have not been one of the INDYCAR fans that think the league is doing great and heading in the right direction. In fact I am getting more and more frustrated with the continued move to F1 Lite. They are so F1 Lite now that we hear more and more drivers, struggling in F1, talking about coming to Indycar. Moving us further and further from the roots of American open wheel racing.

    What I think we have here is more of the “road and street course” arrogance shared by INDYCAR management and some of the team owners. Indy was just so sure that their beloved road and street courses would sell themselves, especially outside the U.S., that they never even imagined that Sportsnet would not have an continued interest. You can see that arrogance here in this country, with not one oval race except Indy on the eight that will be on the main network. Not to mention the lack of promotion of the oval races or even attempts to make them more attractive with more track activity, as they are doing with the road courses.

    I know this opinion won’t be popular with some, but I really believe this is the reason INDYCAR dropped the ball on this. But at least we have COTA, right?

  10. We thank you for blogging, George.

  11. A damn shame for our international cohorts. When I read the original piece I couldn’t believe it. Totally unacceptable.

  12. billytheskink Says:

    In fairness to Indycar, you can fairly point fingers at the networks they were dealing with here too… but the series should certainly shoulder most of the blame. They underestimated the task at hand pretty badly.

    One hopes they will learn from this and that the international television situation will get better perhaps as soon as next season. I am not as optimistic about that as I might have been a few months ago, but I am much more optimistic about it than I would have been several years ago.

  13. Everyone complained when Indycar signed with Versus but that eventually lead Indycar to being on one network

  14. Ron Ford Says:

    I just got off the phone with George Phillips who called to see if I was ok since he had not seen any recent comments from me. On the very slim chance that some of you may have missed my comments, the deal is that my computer crashed and I just recently got it up and running. It would have been nice to be in St. Petersburg with George and his wife because here in Wisconsin it is still colder than a gravedigger’ butt. Based on Robin Miller’s mail from Canada regarding the TV deal, I imagine that we can soon expect a tariff on maple syrup.

  15. Bruce Waine Says:

    Conclusion of Robin Miller article from his posting today in RACER:

    For the past decade, Australia and many other countries got their IndyCar fix from ESPN International, but those ties were cut this year.

    “We were part of a big sports package and never exactly knew when the races would run or if they were getting any promotion, so I wanted us to take control of our product,” said Miles.

    Nobody picked up IndyCar for 2019 in Australia, other than FOX agreeing to show highlights. But, as previously mentioned, there’s a chance the Indy 500 could be aired live so fans can watch Power try to defend his win.

    Another complaint heard constantly is that IndyCar doesn’t have a dedicated TV person, but that’s false.

    “We have a full-time television licensing person based in London, and we use consultants in certain markets as well,” said Miles.

    The bottom line is, though, that IndyCar can’t make a country take its races, no matter how compelling or competitive they’ve been in the past few years.

    But in addition to its new UK broadcaster, Sky Sports F1, IndyCar has added a few countries in the Nordics, including Sweden (Rosenvquist, Ericsson), to its media fold through its new deal with NENT/ViaSat, while France (Bourdais, Pagenaud), Brazil (Kanaan, Leist), Japan (Sato), Spain (Alonso), and Latin America (O’Ward) are signed up for 2019 with some of those arrangements, including added free-to-air coverage of several, if not all IndyCar races.

    In the last 10 years, the television landscape has gone from free to cable to premium cable. Boxing led the way to pay-per-view a long time ago. Could this new deal hurt IndyCar in Canada? Absolutely. But like they say, it’s business; nothing personal.

    Kicking and screaming, Canadians nonetheless have the option to pay $120 American for six months to watch the nine races not on NBC. It’s not popular, but it’s practical, and pay-per-view is only going to expand in the coming years.

    Formula 1 is likely headed that way on ESPN in 2020, and when the NFL decides it’s time to pony up; they’ll make a fortune.

    But whether it’s $50 for NBC Sports Gold or $120 for Sportsnet in Canada or whatever the charge for basic cable to pick up NBC/NBCSN in the USA, it’s not the end of the world, and it won’t change your life. It’s your choice: Either quit watching, or just pay a little extra for something you enjoy.

  16. johnoreovicz Says:

    1. INDYCAR underestimated the significance off the Canadian audience. 2. Attendance at Toronto is dismal compared to the glory days in the 1980s and ’90s. The crowd is down by 50 percent or more. 3. Curt Cavin now _IS_ the corporate party line. He’s no longer a media shill playing the modern game of whitewashing the truth to satisfy the corporate client’s (IMS) business relationship with the corporate media outlet he worked for. He’s now responsible for creating that corporate party line and insuring that the minions in the media run with it without question or challenge.

  17. johnoreovicz Says:

    Speaking of toeing the party line, Miller does a lot more of that these days than he used to…

  18. S0CSeven Says:

    Auto racing in Canada begins today.

    Aussie Supercars followed by 4 categories of IMSA at COTA tomorrow.

    CBSSN rocks!!!!!!
    Indycar……. not so much……… whatever that is…..

  19. I highly doubt they underestimated the significance of the Canadian audience, it’s well-known that Canadians love IndyCar. It seems what they did underestimate was Canadian tv channels desire to air IndyCar races, and once they realized this was the case it was too late to form a Plan B. Not a good look either way.

  20. It’s too bad that this move most likely will not help finding a new venue for a 2nd Canadian race nor an Australian race. Most of all, it’s annoying for the fans who miss out and the many Canadian sponsors that are represented in the Series.

    Living in Germany, for me, it’s going to be another season of watching race overviews on youtube mostly. I’ll probably miss the full race replays that were posted there last year. Preferring these over the live action is what a noticeable time zone difference will do to you.

    George, do you remember if you have watched any of the ChampCar races from a European venue live back in the 00s? What did it feel like to you?

  21. ecurie415 Says:

    Norris McDonald was reporting viewership of 50,000 nationally and as low as 37,000 for some races. He doesn’t explain it, but he quotes one TV exec as saying you can put “anying”on national TV in Canada and get 50,000 viewers. Canadian fans who love IndyCar really love it, but there aren’t enough of them to make it a viable TV package. And that’s with Canadians all over the series in different capacities. It will be difficult to recapture that audience.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: