A Random Stroke of Luck

Before anything else, I must boast on the efforts of my Tennessee Titans. Last weekend, they did most of the free world a favor by ousting the defending champion New England Patriots in Foxborough. This past Saturday night, they went into Baltimore and dispatched the Ravens, who had the best record in the NFL at 14-2. Next week, the Titans play the Kansas City Chiefs on the road for the right to go to the Super Bowl. Based on the Chiefs comeback yesterday it’ll be a tall order to beat them, but to say things are giddy in Music City is an understatement. Sorry, but I had to get that off my chest before I switched into race-mode.

The 2020 NTT IndyCar Series will mark the second year of the exclusive three-year deal with NBC Sports. Like last year, eight of the seventeen race season will be shown on what I call “Big NBC”, the traditional over-the-air network as opposed to NBCSN, which is on cable.

There were a lot of unhappy fans when it came to the TV package last year, some more justified than others. Those that were justifiably unhappy were those IndyCar fans that live outside of the US – most specifically Canada and the UK. I’m not sure how it all played out, but if memory serves me correctly fans in the UK ended up being served more than our Canadian friends north of the border. I should be more well-versed on the international package than I am, but in all honesty it falls under the category of It’s much easier to ignore when it doesn’t affect me directly.

But international fans weren’t the only ones griping last year I had less patience with the US fans that did a lot of chirping about the IndyCar Pass on NBC Sports Gold. If you bought it before the season started, it wound up costing on $49.99 for the entire season. With that, you got content that was as professionally produced as the race broadcast and covered every practice and qualifying session live. If you chose to watch qualifying on NBCSN, it may have been shown live or delayed – but you were guaranteed live and commercial-free on Gold.

As the season went on, fans were offered the remaining portion of the season for a discounted rate.

But this post isn’t about the Gold package or the subsequent griping about it by fans. This is more about what might have been…and not in a good way.

After the 2008 IndyCar season, ABC/ESPN only wanted to broadcast the Indianapolis 500. They weren’t all that interested in the “other” races at Texas, Kansas, Chicagoland, etc. Tony George and the IndyCar Series were at a crossroads and the Indianapolis 500 was their only bargaining chip. They finally got ABC to agree to broadcast five races each season, including the Indianapolis 500, but they would have to find a broadcast home for the remaining races.

They quickly found that their options were extremely limited. Ratings had been sagging for years on ESPN and without the Indianapolis 500, other potential broadcast partners were not interested. A little known network called Versus appeared to be their best option. Although it was available on most cable systems, most fans were unaware that they even had Versus. Most fans had never even heard of it.

Versus actually started as OLN – the Outdoor Life Network on Comcast in 1995 mainly showing camping, hunting and fishing programming. In 1999, the scored somewhat of a coup when they acquired rights to the Tour de France. When the National Hockey League (NHL) finally returned from their work stoppage for the 2005-06 season, ESPN was no longer interested in carrying their games and the NHL had to settle on OLN as their cable broadcast partner. The following year Comcast re-branded OLN as Versus, to imply a more competitive sports theme, since camping was not really considered that competitive.

When IndyCar went shopping for their best deal for 2009, their best option turned out to be Versus – who was still trying to build their sports brand beyond the Tour de France and the NHL. IndyCar fans were appalled that their sport could not command a better package from anyone other than the fledgling Versus. As I said earlier, most fans had never heard of this channel and many were unaware it had been part of their channel lineup for years.

Fans were also incensed that Tony George locked the series into a ten-year deal. Not only were all of the cable races restricted to Versus, but ABC held the exclusive rights to any over-the-air broadcasts for that length of time as well. Versus vowed to make their broadcasts to be equal to or better than what we had been used to seeing on ABC/ESPN for years. Fans, myself included, were very skeptical and rightfully so.

The hiring of veteran broadcaster Bob Jenkins was a giant step in allaying fans fears. In an odd arrangement, veteran pit reporter Jack Arute did double-duty that season splitting time between ABC and Versus. Hiring Jenkins and Arute let IndyCar fans know that Versus was fully committed to a quality broadcast. When they broadcast their first race from St. Petersburg in 2009, we saw first hand that this commitment was not just lip-service. ABC/ESPN was famous for beginning an IndyCar race broadcast with cars already on the pace lap and ending it just seconds after the checkered-flag. Versus guaranteed a three-hour window for races, with a lengthy pre-race and post-race show. It didn’t take long for most fans to prefer the Versus package over ABC, even though the channel lacked name recognition and offered little opportunity to grow new fans.

Well, talk about being in the right place at the right time. The little channel that Tony George locked the series into for ten years suddenly had a bright future. Less than two years after their initial IndyCar broadcast, Comcast bought a majority stake in NBC Universal in February of 2011. On January 1, 2012 Versus was re-branded as NBC Sports Network. In the span of just a few years, the channel had gone from OLN to Versus to NBC Sports Network. When you have the NBC Peacock as part of your brand – you suddenly gain instant credibility.

The IndyCar broadcasts on NBCSN continued to evolve to what we now enjoy today. Is each broadcast perfect? No, but I have yet to see the perfect TV sports broadcast and I’ve watched a lot of sports over the past several decades.

So, while we are complaining about the perceived high cost of the NBC Sports Gold package or how Leigh Diffey delivers his broadcast an octave or two higher than you would like – think about what might have been.

Comcast could have continued to operate Versus as strictly a niche-sport channel – showing the NHL interspersed with broadcast of the Tour de France, the Americas Cup, the Boston Marathon and the Iditarod. Consequently, the sport would have fallen further into oblivion even compared to where it already was.

When Tony George entered into that ten-year agreement with Versus in 2008, he nor anyone else had any idea that the little unknown network would somehow morph into the NBC Sports family and become the second-most powerful dedicated sports channel in the industry behind ESPN. Things have certainly come a long way since that first broadcast in 2009 that featured Jenkins, Arute, Robbie Buhl, Robbie Floyd, Jon Beekhuis and Lindy Thackston. Jon Beekhuis is currently the lone holdover from that original telecast.

We all take being affiliated with NBC for granted today. But if not for a random stroke of luck – just imagine what IndyCar broadcasts might look like today – or where we might find them. The current deal expires following the 2021 season. It certainly doesn’t hurt IndyCar that another stroke of good luck has occurred before those negotiations have begun – Roger Penske now owns the series. That brings a whole new bargaining chip to the table.

George Phillips

9 Responses to “A Random Stroke of Luck”

  1. Yes, here in the UK & and based on last year, we get qualifying and the race in HD for the whole season on SKY F1. Subscription channel. With the exception of the 500 they never promote IndyCar though, the programmes don’t even have any start credits, ad break screens and there are no ads for the series nor repeats [although you can get the race again ‘on demand’]. The commentary is 100% US but I think there is a UK studio crew for the 500. All in all, I’m pleased that we have the coverage, there are some things that could be better but I’ll take it.

    • Oliver Wells Says:

      Absolutely agree. I’m London based and only too pleased we get the coverage. Hey, after a boring F1 race it cheers me up on a Sunday evening!

  2. I miss SPEED channel so much. NBC/NBCSN does a wonderful job of carrying that torch though and their IndyCar broadcast team is my current favorite. They just need a new Wind Tunnel with Mr. Miller and Kevin Lee.

  3. Let’s put Canada at the top of Penske’s list.

    Titans are playing well. Good luck next week.

  4. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    Yes thanks to to the Titans for beating the evil serial cheating Patriots.

  5. Non-mainstream NBC races are available in Canada on a tape delayed basis (days) commercial free in either Portuguese or Japanese on Youtube.

    That sort of works for road courses but on ovals you get lost by lap 3.

    Any port in a storm.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    While I do very much believe that NBC’s presence and the NBCSN rebranding have raised the prestige profile of the network, Indycar drew ratings comparable (and sometimes better) under the Versus branding as they have under the NBCSN brand. Perhaps that is simply a product of further media fragmentation and one could possibly argue that the NBCSN brand has stemmed ratings losses. The ability cross-promote with network NBC has probably helped the sports that enjoy coverage on both networks.

    I would say that NBCSN has built their brand on niche sports, just slightly less niche than much of what Versus was known for. Their top properties in non-Olympic years remain NHL Stanley Cup Playoff games and NASCAR Cup races. These are the only two things they broadcast that consistently outdraw their Indycar races (though Tour de France, regular season NHL, and Premier League soccer also do from time-to-time) or attract 1 million+ viewers.

    Comcast was actually a little bolder on major sports under the Versus branding, I would argue, pursuing (but losing) the NFL’s Thursday Night Football and acquiring broadcast rights to major college football games in the late 2000’s as the power conferences looked to move away from regional sports networks. Since the end of the Versus brand, NBCSN has gone from carrying Big 12, Pac 12, and Mountain West football to carrying only the Southern-Grambling rivalry game… losing Ivy League, Colonial, and lesser Notre Dame home matchups along the way.

  7. I have been very happy with NBCSN and Gold. I do miss Speed and think ESPN will never be at that caliber for racing or for other sports. I keep waiting for Disney to sell it off.

    Congrats to the Titans and to the team’s #1 fan. Wish both well next weekend. I want an exciting game, please.

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