Despite TV Ratings, IndyCar Is On The Right Track

Normally, I wouldn’t respond to posts on another blog but I couldn’t help but note an oversight of facts in an Awful Announcing post about IndyCar’s ratings on the NBC Sports Network. While noting that IndyCar’s ratings are down by 27% on NBCSN and 17% on ABC compared to the 2011 season, author Joe Lucia suggests IndyCar’s management needs to consider big changes heading into the 2013 season to right the course.

There’s one big problem with that suggestion: IndyCar’s brass has already made it the best North American racing series on-track.

First, let’s start with the numbers. Sports Media Watch reports that IndyCar viewership on NBC Sports Network is down 110,000 viewers (or 27% of viewers) per race from the 2011 season. ABC, IndyCar’s network broadcaster, saw its viewership drop 17% year-on-year. There’s no arguing that IndyCar is in rough shape if it it’s losing viewers. However, there’s more to it than Lucia’s two reasons why IndyCar is hemorrhaging viewers.

His first reason for the viewership drop is the loss of Danica Patrick. I can’t argue with him that Danica draws eyeballs among both male and female fans. We can argue all day as to how much of an effect her looks, the 2003 FHM shoot (which led to her first national TV appearance on Speed’s Wind Tunnel) and 2008 & 2009 SI Swimsuit issue shoots increased her popularity and marketability but that’s a topic for another day.

Lucia’s next point is one that leaves me scratching my head. Lucia writes:

Another reason for IndyCar’s struggles this year could be tied to the tragic death of Dan Wheldon in the final race of the 2011 season. Wheldon’s death cast a shadow over the entire sport, and may have disenfranchised fans after last season’s final race in Las Vegas.

IndyCar has lost tons of fans to NASCAR over the last couple decades…

I would suggest that Wheldon’s death is part of the cause of ABC’s ratings decline but not because fans were “disenfranchised.” The race had a Nielsen rating of 1.6 which was second-highest rated IndyCar race of the season. This was despite the fact that the race only completely 11 laps under green before being abandoned. Obviously, the casual viewers who tuned in to see that someone died didn’t stick around this season. That may sound callous but we’re a society with a short attention span and have a tendency to tune into big events that people are talking about. The ratings would seem to back up my assumption.

The reason why I included the line about NASCAR is that NASCAR’s popularity skyrocketed in the immediate aftermath of Dale Earnhardt’s death on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 live on Fox. While Lucia suggests IndyCar fans were disenfranchised by Wheldon’s death and it cast a doubt over the sport, NASCAR’s growth despite of (or perhaps as a result of) Earnhardt’s death would contradict Lucia’s assumption.

The other issue with the NASCAR line is that Lucia assumes that American motorsports viewership is a zero-sum game. That is to say that “losing fans to NASCAR” implies that you can watch either NASCAR or IndyCar but not both. I’ve regularly watched IndyCar (and sided with CART/Champ Car during the split which shows my love for lost causes) since 1995 and NASCAR since 2003. I’m not required to watch only one or the other except for the rare occasion that the two series are running head-to-head and IndyCar often schedules its races to avoid direct competition with NASCAR.

Similar to IndyCar, NASCAR’s viewership is down since its early 2000s ratings peak. Those viewers have not come back to IndyCar. I’m sure if you compare this week’s network primetime TV ratings to next week’s, there will be more viewers this week than next as more people tune into the premieres of new shows. What follows is a typical decline in viewership as ratings normalize. That doesn’t mean that the people who didn’t tune in for the second episode of, say, The Mindy Project are watching something else on network TV at that time. It just might mean they’re not watching TV at all at that time.

[As an aside, I’d like to once again bring up that the Nielsen ratings system is flawed. While this is typically the argument of fans of TV shows on the bubble, the same logic can be applied to sports. With only 25,000 Nielsen households nationwide, it’s hard to argue that the Nielsen system is a perfectly accurate measure of who is watching what on TV. As such, IndyCar viewership could be down 27% in Nielsen households but only down 10% in the other 116,000,000 non-Nielsen households. We’d never be certain of the accuracy of that last statement but the problem with the Nielsen system is accuracy.]

However, the line in his post that I have the greatest problem with is when Lucia writes:

A drop of over a quarter of your television viewership is staggering and the brass is going to need to seriously consider some big changes for the 2013 season to draw some viewers back in to open wheel racing.

The thing is that IndyCar has been making changes to bring back viewers. If anything, the 2012 season has been more of a transitional year for IndyCar than the 2008 unification season. (Perhaps all the changes are why fans have tuned out.) The series introduced a new chassis (the Dallara DW12), a new engine formula (from a naturally aspirated V8 to a turbocharged V6) and two new engine manufacturers joining Honda along with an updated set of rules administered by new chief steward Beaux Barfield.

The result of these changes is a vastly improved on-track product. The new car and rules has levelled the playing field after a number of seasons of Ganassi and Penske dominance and increased passing through the field. In terms of action and passing throughout the field, this might be the best IRL/IndyCar season ever. (I’m not including the AAA/USAC/CART/Champ Car years in that assessment. It’s just the Tony George series that I’m talking about.) Even NASCAR has been making changes to the Sprint Cup Series cars in order to promote passing. If NASCAR thinks that racing and passing is important to its popularity, clearly IndyCar has beaten them to the punch and are on top of American motorsport in terms of racing action.

Most importantly, the on-track action does translate to the TV broadcast. NBC Sports Network is often praised for showing battles and passing throughout the field. Despite this, NBCSN’s ratings are dropping faster than ABC’s. Among cynical American open-wheel fans, ABC is referred to Always Bad Coverage for their dull announcing crew and lack of coverage of racing that’s not at the front of the field or involving a big name.

While the on-track changes are definitely a step in the right direction, the series is working on improving things off-track. IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard has committed to increasing the season length from 15 to 19 races for 2013. He’s already added an October race in Houston but lost the Edmonton race. In addition, Bernard is rumoured to have held discussions with 17 permanent race facilities (both ovals and road courses) in America, three promoters for street races (in Fort Lauderdale, Quebec City and Providence) and a number of race track outside of America. Expanding the schedule will mean lengthening the season (which ended in September this year) to October (which was the ending month for the 2011 season) which will result a shorter off-season for casual fans to lose interest in the series.

This isn’t to say that IndyCar’s current circumstances were perfect. Randy Bernard has to get his own house in order for the series to be taken seriously. Over the last two years, Bernard has been rumoured to have targeted for a mutiny by owners. In 2011, owners were rumoured to want Bernard fired by the Board of Directors and have former IndyCar boss Tony George take over. This season, there was a rumour that team owners would by the Indy Racing League (the IndyCar sanctioning body) from Hulman and Co. and run the series themselves. Team owners running the series worked out really well when CART was formed.

While the series has seen an American winning the championship, the resurgence of old favourites Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan, and the emergence of new stars like Simon Pagenaud and James Hinchcliffe, when the biggest story of the season is a rumour coup attempt, it would be understandable difficult for casual fans to take the series seriously. Bernard has to get the owners back on his side to make this look like a professional enough organization for the fans to watch. All he has to do is look at the backlash over the NFL’s replacement referee debacle for proof.

However, the biggest problem that IndyCar must deal with to reduce falling ratings is the current TV deal. While the series does have five races on network TV on ABC, those races are on a network that has a dreadfully dull play-by-play duo and a tendency to focus on the leaders and big name drivers. If no one actually sees the racing and ABC does nothing to promote new stars, it’s hard to grow a sport.

NBC Sports Network’s coverage of IndyCar is essentially the exact opposite of ABC’s. NBCSN’s coverage is spectacular and covers action throughout the field. The announce crew is lively and knowledgeable. The problem is that while every household has network TV (i.e. ABC), there is a running gag among sports fans that they can’t find NBCSN on the dial. If NBCSN is buried on the dial, sports fans are likely to have found something on the channel guide long before finding IndyCar on NBCSN.

The problem is that IndyCar is locked into a 10-year contract with NBCSN starting with the 2009 season. The 2013 season will be the fifth season under the current TV deal. Without buying out the contract, there isn’t much IndyCar can do about no one watching NBCSN. Until NBC starts getting people tuning in to their Sports Network, there isn’t much they can do grow NBC Sports Network. They can get NBC to advertise IndyCar races on the network’s weekend sports coverage but a switch of races to NBC proper would be immediately blocked by ABC. Getting ABC to play nice and note that upcoming IndyCar races are on NBCSN instead of a generic “there’s an IndyCar race in two weeks so check your local listings” would help drive eyeballs to races on NBCSN. Until NBC Sports Network starts growing (apart from NHL viewership), it’ll be hard to IndyCar to gain any traction with the viewing audience.

While there are definitely areas for IndyCar to focus on to increase viewers, they’re definitely doing a good job of making the “big changes” Lucia wants the series to make. The series already boasts the best racing action in North America. The spectacle is back in IndyCar racing. The building blocks for growth are there. Now if only people could find them on the dial.

In response to: IndyCar’s popularity wanes during 2012 season (Awful Announcing)


3 thoughts on “Despite TV Ratings, IndyCar Is On The Right Track

  1. Well I said last time I wouldnt comment (making fun) again on these low ratings but heres my thoughts maybe WHY? Where I live here in Phoenix I have to pay EXTRA to get the top package on Dish network (the 250) just to get the NBC sports network and quite frankly it isnt worth it for the price. I been paying around $50 a month for yrs and Iam happy with that but have to pay $20 more to an upgraded package to view NBC sports, so maybe thats why lots of others arent watching the network as they simply dont want to pay extra for it or dont figure its worth it either or they cant aford it–simple really? However if this is the best for NBC sports one has to wonder about the future of that network for sure?


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