A Crucial IndyCar Storyline for 2020

First of all, I want to thank everyone who expressed their concern for us after the deadly tornado that ripped through Nashville in the early hours of Tuesday morning. Several of you sent messages of concern for our safety through Facebook, Twitter and e-mail. I hope that I responded to each one of you, letting you know that we were fine. We suffered no damage at our house, and we both actually slept through the tornado that hit about 1:00 am on Tuesday.

We live on the western edge of Nashville. The tornado apparently touched down about five miles east of us, and headed due-east as it took aim at downtown Nashville and then East Nashville. As I write this, twenty-five are confirmed dead across Middle Tennessee and that is certain to rise. After seeing the devastation as I drove to work on Tuesday morning, it occurred to me just how lucky Susan and I are to come away completely unscathed from this disaster. Keep those less fortunate in your prayers, as they struggle to get through this. Now, on to a more enjoyable topic…

With the NTT IndyCar Series season ready to get underway in less than a week and a half, there are lots of topics on the minds of fans. Will we get used to the looks of the new aero screen? How will the aero screen affect the car’s handling? Will Colton Herta continue the success he experienced in his rookie year? What about Santino Ferrucci? Will Alexander Rossi finally put together a championship season? Are we seeing the beginning of the end of Will Power’s career?

Those are all topics that will be revisited throughout the entire 2020 season.

However, there is one very important topic that is flying under everyone’s radar that will affect how we fans experience IndyCar in the not-so-distant future – the new TV contract.

Many fans will respond with “Wait, didn’t we just go through TV contract negotiations? How can it be time to go through that again?”

Time flies when you’re having fun. It’s hard to believe that contract negotiations were going on during the 2017 season and the results of those negotiations were announced in March of 2018, just about three weeks shy of two years ago right now. That was when we learned that NBC would be the exclusive home for IndyCar for the next three years, beginning with the 2019 season.

While we’ve only experienced one full season with NBC as the exclusive TV partner, the framework is already being formed for how the negotiations will go. I have an idea that by next March, we will have an announcement of who will be broadcasting IndyCar races in 2022 and beyond.

Was it wise to have only a three-year deal? Probably, but that’s assuming that IndyCar had a choice. The previous deal with Versus (which later became NBCSN) was ridiculously long at ten years; but three years seems a little short – at least at first glance. But with the way technology is advancing, three years may have been advantageous for both sides.

Love it or hate it (and I love it), NBC Sports Gold was a game changer during the previous negotiations. Some fans griped about it; and I even know of one former fan that pretty much left the sport when he was told he had to pay to watch practice. But I think most fans complaints came before they truly understood what they would be getting for their $50 (it’s going up to $55 this year). I think once fans saw that they were getting production levels for practice that was equal to Race Day, most were fine with it. While I’d prefer to keep the $55 in my pocket, I think it is money well spent.

I have an idea the revenue generated from the IndyCar Pass on NBC Sports Gold still doesn’t cover the extra production costs, but it probably at least helps to offset it some.

For those that didn’t mind shelling out a little extra money at the start of the season, the NBC Gold was an added enhancement that fans had never been offered before. While I try to sneak a peek at Friday practices on race weekends, most of the time I have duties for my day job that prevent me from being able to do that. It’s nice knowing that I can go home on a Friday night and watch both practice sessions through my NBC Gold subscription. I may be wrong, but I’m not sure I had that immediate replay access when the practice sessions were shown via You Tube or IndyCar.com.

NBC now has a full season as the sole broadcast partner for the NTT IndyCar Series as well as the Indianapolis 500 under its belt. I’m sure they learned quite a bit and will make whatever tweaks they deem necessary in Year Two. But they have one factor to deal with this time around that they didn’t the last time – Roger Penske.

Of all the ways we’ve all discussed how Roger Penske can benefit IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500; I think the negotiations for the new TV deal will be his biggest strength. We’ve already seen that he is bringing on new sponsorship partners for this year’s Indianapolis 500. I suspect he will have a bevy of new sponsors lined up ready to spend money on NBC for a new TV deal.

But don’t count on Roger Penske to volunteer to throw all this money at NBC. He is savvy enough that he will try to entice other networks – networks that may not have previously looked IndyCar’s way – to get involved in the bidding. Last time around, I’m not sure how much competition NBC had. I think ABC/ESPN made a half-hearted effort to retain what they had, but I don’t think they put up much of a fight when IndyCar indicated that they wanted to sign with only one network. ESPN’s coverage had grown unpopular with fans and most were hoping that NBC would get the nod. A few sang a different tune when NBC Gold was announced, but I think most IndyCar fans were quite happy with NBC’s first effort as the exclusive television partner.

Just because fans seemed happy doesn’t mean that Roger Penske will roll over and grant them an extension. I believe he will play hardball and do what is best for the series, which just happens to be his new property. If that means stick with NBC, so be it. If that means moving to another network, he’ll gladly do that also. I think Penske will do whatever it takes to get new networks involved in the bidding process.

What will that mean for IndyCar fans? It means a broadcast that will continue to improve over the years, instead of becoming stagnant like things had with ABC/ESPN. Who knows, ESPN may have a renewed interest in the whole series, if Roger Penske’s involvement means more revenue dollars. When ESPN is fully committed to something, their promotion and production value is second to none. The problem was, they did not seem very committed over the last fifteen years or so of their contract. If they can truly get behind the series and give it the promotion across their platform, their reach is stronger than NBCSN’s

But knowing what we all currently know, I’d prefer NBC to remain the exclusive broadcast partner of the NTT IndyCar Series. They have done an excellent job over the years, and last year in particular. Some aren’t crazy about Leigh Diffey, but as long as he keeps his screaming in-check – I’m fine with him. Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy have really developed a good chemistry in the booth. Kevin Lee is an excellent pit-reporter who is also very capable of subbing in the booth. Their other pit reporters that rotate in and out, including Kelli Stavast, Marty Snider and Jon Beekhuis are also very good – but I think Jon Beekhuis should be a regular for every race weekend. Robin Miller is in a class of his own on the broadcast.

For a handful of races, driver James Hinchcliffe will be joining the broadcasts in 2020 as he sits idle for most of this IndyCar season. He’ll bring a good mixture of up-to-date driver insight, as well as his unique sense of humor. This was a good move by NBC and shows the kind of thinking on their part as to why they should continue as the broadcast partner.

Whoever gets the new contract for 2022, what new technology wrinkles will be brought to the table? As cord-cutting continues to erode the revenue for cable companies, traditional networks are working overtime to develop new forms of cash-flow. NBC Sports Gold was just the beginning. Fans who thought they were going to teach NBC a lesson by boycotting NBC Sports Gold, just cheated themselves out of a season of watching live practice sessions and live qualifying with no commercials. If another network gets the new contract, free practice sessions will not return to You Tube. There will be some other fee-based technology offered and it may not be near as good as NBC Sports Gold.

Over-the-Top (OTT) Direct-to-Consumer broadcasts are the way of the future, and that future is practically here. The $55 that fans balk at paying, amounts to about $4.50 per month over the calendar year. If you want to base it over the seven-month IndyCar season, that’s still less than $8 per month. That’s about the cost of a cheap lunch during a workday. Brown-bag it once a month and there’s your subscription.

Hopefully, IndyCar ratings will continue to improve over the course of the season. There’s a lot to be said for that because NASCAR’s ratings have been declining for years. While IndyCar still lags behind NASCAR in total viewers, IndyCar is still trending in the right direction. If that continues through 2020, then NBC will want to hang onto the IndyCar rights package. If not, it could be a difficult negotiation period – even for someone like Roger Penske.

George Phillips

8 Responses to “A Crucial IndyCar Storyline for 2020”

  1. A couple years ago there was a Marshall Pruett podcast interview with Diffey. It was fantastic and I highly recommend giving it a listen, I think it will give a more positive opinion of him. He’s been a motorsport fan his whole life, he’s commentated on just about every form of racing you can imagine, he’s a true student of the sport and his passion (and yelling) is as genuine as they come. He’s my favorite current racing commentator by a wide margin.

    The podcast can be found here.


  2. NBC getting the full season and putting more IndyCar races on over-the-air NBC is probably going to be good for IndyCar

  3. Leslie Bissell Says:

    So glad you and Susan are safe! I love NBC Sports Gold!!!

  4. S0CSeven Says:

    ………. and Canadians get to see 14 of 17 races this year. It isn’t perfect yet but not bad. Thanks Roger.

  5. Glad you are ok George. I was thinking about you a lot yesterday. If you are ever yearning for the ABC/ESPN Jack Arute (sp?) days, IndyCar has old races on IndyCar.com. I don’t miss those days.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    Very glad to hear that you and Susan are ok, George. Prayers for those in Tennessee who were impacted by the storm.

    I would be surprised if Indycar signed with anyone but NBC for the next television contract, but I would not be shocked. I will be curious to see if we hear of any interested from a non-traditional broadcaster such as a streaming service. While live sports streaming does indeed exist now, it is largely in addition to more traditional broadcasts. No streaming service has yet made holding exclusive rights to certain sports broadcasts a pillar of their business, but that could very well change soon.

    I expect, even with deeper-pocketed Penske owning the series, that maximizing rights fees will continue to be Indycar’s priority in television contract negotiations.

  7. I believe NBC will know a week after the Indy 500 if they want to resign with Indycar series .

  8. madtad1 Says:

    Will the NBC Gold be available outside the US this year?

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