It Could Be a Lot Worse

Early Monday morning, Adam Stern of The Sports Business Journal reported that NBC Sports and IndyCar were close to renewing their deal for NBC to continue broadcasting IndyCar races and the Indianapolis 500. The timing was a little ironic, given that NBC was just coming off of a weekend where just about every fan was ticked off for one reason or another.

Last weekend was the first time I’ve had any problem with NBC. When the current TV deal was being negotiated in early 2018, fans were more than willing to campaign for NBC to get the full contract as they wanted to push ESPN out the door. Once NBC stepped into the role of the exclusive television partner, the exact same fans that had been singing their praises seemed to turn on NBC.

Other than last weekend’s complete debacle, where the start of Saturday’s race was completely missed in favor of a lacrosse match, the post-race was promised to be on one outlet and wasn’t and the French Open forced two-thirds of Sunday’s telecast to be shifted to CNBC – I’ve really been very pleased with NBC’s coverage of the series.

Being on over-the-air network is always a double-edged sword. Broadcast windows are so tight that the big network is going to have to make a tough business decision, if things don’t go as planned. Unfortunately, there are a lot more fans of Grand Slam Tennis than IndyCar, so network executives made the call based on who draws the biggest ratings. It’s not that NBC hates IndyCar, it’s strictly how can the network make the most money.

The lacrosse thing? That’s another matter.

So the timing of a story that IndyCar and NBC might continue their relationship may be a little interesting, but I’m not surprised. I’m not always prone to bragging, but if you go back and read anything I’ve written about a potential TV partner, I’ve always wrapped it up with saying that I still think when it is all said and done – NBC will still be broadcasting IndyCar races and the Indianapolis 500 for years to come.

Of the four traditional outlets, ABC/ESPN had made it clear they were not interested – and I don’t think there was any real interest in going back to them. It would have been similar to getting back together with an old girlfriend after a nasty and extended break-up. It would sound workable at first, but it wouldn’t take long for both sides to remember why the relationship didn’t work in the first place.

FOX has NASCAR filling up their weekends for the first half of the season and MLB Playoffs and the NFL filling up their fall weekends. I’m not sure they were ever in the mix.

Many pointed to CBS, but that didn’t excite me. While I like their coverage of football and college basketball, I did not like the prospect of many or most races being relegated to the CBS Sports Network. Most consider ESPN, NBCSN and FS1 to be the top cable sports networks. If you go way down the food chain, you’ll find the CBS Sports Network. It’s terrible! There is such a huge drop-off from CBS Sports to CBS Sports Network, it’s hard to believe they are owned by the same company. Last week, CBS put an end to any speculation when they flat-out said they had no interest in IndyCar or the Indianapolis 500. Ouch!

That leaves NBC, unless we want to go to You Tube, Hulu or MAVTV. With more and more cord-cutters leaving cable, the digital world is a mess. Some say pay streaming apps are the future, while others claim that free streaming through You Tube is the way to go. Truth be known, no one knows what television viewing will look like five years from now. Things have changed so much in the past few years that anyone claiming they know where things are headed is lying.

That’s why the expiring NBC deal was for only three years. It allowed flexibility for both parties to adjust and conform to the technology three years down the road.

Televised sports are also evolving at an alarming rate. No longer can program directors make long-term decisions based on historical data. For years, sports viewing habits stayed the same and most sports programming did as well. But what was true in 2018 is not always relevant in 2021. For the most part, televised sports has been a losing proposition, unless you are the NFL or the SEC. That’s why the TV ratings number that last month’s Indianapolis 500 generated was so significant. It drew the highest number of viewers it had drawn in the past five years. Not too many sports entities or sporting events can currently make that claim.

But let’s be honest, as long as network television continues this model of filling Saturdays and Sundays with sports programming – networks need sports properties. FOX and CBS have their Sundays filled with NFL programming in the fall, as well as college football and basketball. CBS has a heavy golf calendar also. FOX has NASCAR and baseball also. ESPN has college football and basketball, Formula One that they pay nothing for, Monday Night Football, Major League Baseball, the NBA and they’ve just picked up the NHL for the first time in about fifteen years.

What exactly does NBC have? They have IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500 exclusively. They also have NASCAR for the second half of the season. They have Sunday Night Football and Notre Dame Football for home games only. NBC has the Triple Crown of horse racing. Of course they also have the Olympics, which calls for all hands on deck for two weeks out of every two years. They have lost the NHL to ESPN. NBC probably doesn’t want to admit it, especially in a contract year – but they probably need IndyCar too. Without IndyCar, their sports inventory is a little sparse.

Then there is the pandemic to take into account. When the three year contract was agreed upon, starting with the 2019 season – no one knew that Year Two was going to be in the midst of a pandemic, when anything we knew or felt certain about was tossed out the window. I’m sure both parties figured they would have a good read on how the relationship had fared by this time, but how can you judge how anything went in the midst of the pandemic, when schedules changed almost weekly?

While feathers may be a bit ruffled at the moment on both sides, I think this makes the most sense. IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500 need a traditional broadcast partner, because right now – that is still the way to reach the most people. Folks grumble about being switched to CNBC or watching practice on Peacock, but at least those outlets are available. I think the day could be coming where the Indianapolis 500 is still carried on the big network, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the rest of the series was moved over to Peacock someday. It won’t be next year, but that day will come, probably sooner than you think. Honestly, I’m fine with that. I prefer watching live qualifying on Peacock because there are no commercials.

Contrary to most people, especially this past weekend – I actually like NBC’s coverage. I don’t hate Leigh Diffey like a lot of people do. He could dial the shouting down a notch or two, but I have no real problems with him. I’m also a fan of Paul Tracy in the booth. Tracy is an accomplished racer with thirty-one IndyCar wins to his credit and a championship. PT’s thirty-one wins is almost as many IndyCar races as Townsend Bell has entered. Bell has raced in thirty-nine IndyCar races from 2001 to 2016, without even a podium. Yet, Bell is the one who comes off as the smartest guy in the room.

Is their coverage perfect, no – but it’s the best we’ve seen since the Paul Page, Bobby Unser and Sam Posey days. Memories seem short these days. It seems not many remember Marty Reid, Scott Goodyear and Eddie Cheever. Some of you probably winced when you heard that NBC and IndyCar are closing in on renewing their deal. Just remember – it could be a lot worse.

George Phillips

17 Responses to “It Could Be a Lot Worse”

  1. I really like NBC for INDYCAR.

  2. Oliver W Says:

    Yes, be careful what you wish for as it could be a lot worse.

    I think Tracy is getting better and I enjoy his off the wall comments.

    Much better than one of the pit lane reporters who always asks “ tell us your emotions when….” Dreadful in my opinion. I reckon the pit lane reporters are pretty average as they always seem to come across as if it’s there first Indycar race.

    Totally agree that TBell thinks he has won the 500 or won something at least.
    I am a great fan of Leigh Diffey. Comes across as a nice guy, very enthusiastic and knows his stuff.

    For me a bit more technical comment at times and less “ the first rule is not to take your team out “ how many times do we hear that !

    The most important thing I believe is to get every race onto network NBC and invest in the delivery. Indycar is most definitely creating the content now.

    • B Carter Says:

      I like PTreacy as well. he brings insight and color to the broadcast. I have always felt Leigh Diffey is somewhat of an imposter though.

      He seems to have a superficial knowledge of any of the events he is covering- from formula one to indycar to track and field. Its like he read the cliff notes on auto racing and never read the book let alone walked the walk. I doubt he has ever walked a pit lane and talked to a race engineer or mechanic. Or turned a wheel in anger on a track ( but has read inspiring accounts of it in books) .

      I find myself talking to myself saying “Really? Did he just say that?” He tried to create drama where there is none, is out to lunch with most of his analysis and in general, doesnt understand the mental aspects of racing.

      Somehow, he has pulled the wool over NBC’s eyes and is their golden boy for the moment. I am so thankful ESPN has competent, knowledgable commentators with there F! coverage now. I shutter to think what the Olympic broacast is going to be like with this gentleman who sounds like a little “ankle biter ” dog yapping at the mailman.

      • F1’s broadcast staff is not from ESPN, but from Sky Sports. And I agree with you that all of them are very good. Wish David Croft would reduce his screaming at the start of the races though.

  3. Tony Geinzer Says:

    I’d feel that with the Penske Era, staying the course is the Law. I’d think the Reid-Goodyear-Cheever Team went a Long Way toward not being on ABC and I’d still scoff openly when NBC says “Home of the Indianapolis 500”. I’d think they’d need to try to at least throw their hat in the ring over Atlanta, Charlotte, and Darlington, but that is another matter totally.

  4. George, pardon me while I dip into your personal life a bit, but I have read this blog enough to know you somewhat despite having not met in person.

    ABC is like your ex wife, there were some good times but you mostly want to forget it and you aren’t going back. NBC is like Susan, the what-could-have-been that you thankfully got another chance to right any wrongs with. NBC was good to Indycar in the 80’s and they are good to them now as well.

    It’s frustrating, things that happened this weekend, the tennis guys could have done better at communicating the network switch, for sure, I hope it’s better if that happens again. The networks are somewhat to blame for stacking these events that tend to run long but it’s also on the leagues to be better about their timing, and sometimes that is not an option.

    I am not young enough though to have not lived the horrible 1 week delay of sports I love. As an NHRA fan I remember the 2am replay 8 days later of a drag race, where they skipped the whole first round. The good old days of VCR and timer recording. I have lived all that, others just haven’t or have forgotten; or just want to complain.

    I also have to add, everyone who loves streaming, well, what you don’t see is the fact that these cable companies that you are cutting, well, they still control your internet. Just wait until they start capping your data! You will be begging to tape the cord back together and get your cable back! It’s something the streamers really like to forget or be oblivious to.

    Hopefully I didn’t get too personal there with my analogy, George, but it seemed fitting.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    Not seeing the start of a show due to a lacrosse match running long was a gag SCTV used to use when joining sketches “in progress”. SCTV’s initial American TV home was… NBC, go figure.

    If NBC is still going to be paying Indycar, then it is probably a good deal for the series. Indycar gets both money and the guaranteed reach into many millions of homes that I’m sure sponsors demand.

    While Indycar’s TV ratings are not worth bragging about, the series is not without some appeal to TV partners. Live sports continue to draw live (read: commercial-watching) viewers at greater rates and numbers than most other types of programming do. Indycar, like most professional sports, also has a bench of sponsors who are contracted to (or are at least quite likely to) buy ad time during broadcasts, meaning a TV partner knows going into the deal that at least some of their investment will be recouped before they even have to lift a finger to sell ad time. Frankly, I think both of these things will keep all Indycar races on OTA and/or cable TV rather than streaming for some time… they may actually be more apt to produce ad revenue than non-sports programming that draws higher ratings.

  6. Quite happy to see the relationship continue with NBC. I too prefer watching qualifying on Peacock. I wish they’d broadcast the live races on Peacock as well, so I wouldn’t have to see Limu Emu and all those other bad commercials.

    Regarding something you mentioned about last weekend…..yes, we all can agree a Grand Slam tennis championship is a bigger draw than a motorsports event, but this got me wondering about the lacrosse. I really hate to even think about this, but is it possible in this day and age that lacrosse is a bigger draw for NBC than an IndyCar race as well? How many people, on average, watch a typical IndyCar race live on television? 900 thousand? There’s probably a million people who watch lacrosse right? I’m of an age where I grew up on basketball, baseball, and football, but it’s my understanding lacrosse is one of the fastest growing sports in America. I cringe when I read or hear folks refer to IndyCar as a niche sport, but honestly….that’s what it is.

    • billytheskink Says:

      No, lacrosse is not a bigger draw for NBC than Indycar. I cannot find Saturday’s lacrosse rating on NBC (likely because it was not very large), but the 2020 championship game of the same professional lacrosse league that was playing on Saturday drew 340,000 viewers on NBC (not NBCSN, the big network) and it appears this league has only once topped 400,000 viewers on NBC. Indycar draws 900,000 to 1 million viewers on average for non-Indy 500 races on NBC, or more than twice the top recorded lacrosse ratings for the network. My guess as to why NBC kept lacrosse on instead of cutting to Indycar on Saturday is that the lacrosse league buys its time from NBC and is allowed to run over time in certain circumstances under their contact.

      Most sports are niche sports, really, even many traditionally popular ones. Last Sunday’s coverage of the French Open that ran over into much of Indycar’s time slot outdrew Indycar, of course, but at 1.9 million viewers it was basically to Indycar what Indycar is to lacrosse.

    • I subscribed to Peacock to get as much coverage as I could since we haven’t had cable for years. The frustrating part is that Peacock does not replay the races if they were broadcast on NBC. So if I miss the live coverage, I have to watch the race with ‘highlights’. With NBCSports Gold I could at least watch the races an hour or so after coverage ended.

      • Doug W. Says:

        Tony – check again – I just looked on my PeacockTV and I see all the races, including the DGP, in *season 26* of Indycar. Barber, StPete, Texas 1/2, GMR GP, DGP 1/2 – what is missing is the ‘500’ which is off by itself not in the *season*. The DGP races are 2 hours each according to the app.

        I would like to see PeacockTV show races live – even if with commercials like when you watch an NBC race on the NBCSports App. That would let people who do not have Cable TV watch NBCSN races by subscribing to PeacockTV.

  7. Yannick Says:

    Good to see consistency with the upcoming TV contract.

    It’s been a while since I’ve seen a full race live on a stream here from my location in Europe, but NBC knows how to do it, ever since that Barber race when Sebastien Bourdais drove into the Top 10 powered by a Lotus/Judd engine.

  8. “I prefer watching live qualifying on Peacock because there are no commercials.”
    no commercials for now.
    “Truth be known, no one knows what television viewing will look like five years from now.”
    well, we agree.
    my anticipated timeline
    is much shorter, though.

  9. I am relieved that NBC is still interested in IndyCar. I hate to admit to this group, but I don’t always get to watch races quite live. Sunday was a prime example. At least I caught it about 20 laps in and found the race on CNBC. What no one has mentioned is that both races were replayed on NBCSN on Monday afternoon. I taped it and will watch the first 20 laps I missed on Sunday. Also if I remember correctly, NBC stayed with us even with the long delay due to Felix’s accident on Saturday. It moved Olympic diving to another channel until we were done. I appreciated it.

    Navigating Peacock isn’t always fun. I loved Gold, as we had our own channel. I’ve also noticed a delay in adding the upcoming race weekend. So if I am trying to plan ahead early in the week and add all sessions to my watch-list, I have to sometime wait a couple of days. Not a big deal, just frustrating.

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