Once again, reluctantly, I seem to be on opposite sides of a debate that is of some importance to the sport as a whole and INDYCAR in particular. That is to say, the recent announcement that NASCAR has signed a deal with NBC Sports to broadcast races on the network. To me, this announcement is, for the most part, wait for it….good news.
Many in the pundit world are already subscribing to the idea that this development means a tighter noose around Indy Cars’ neck and further fuel for the continuing decline of Indy Car popularity and audience clout. But I would argue, rightly or wrongly, but at least consistently, those pundits are mistaken or at the least, not entirely correct! There is a contrary, if minority, storyline.
Here’s my first thought when I read the news. If NASCAR signing with NBC Sports is not viewed as a “noose around the neck” of NASCAR, why is it a noose around INDYCAR’s? Surely you can’t have one without the other? There have been comments about how NASCAR will dominate the viewing and push aside INDYCAR? You mean NASCAR can get viewers out of NBC Sports and INDYCAR can’t? That, it seems, is at the heart of my argument. NASCAR has fans (although worryingly for NASCAR, fewer of them). Fans watch races on TV. Until INDYCAR can reignite its fan base as well as mint new ones, its TV ratings will continue to languish. Yes, I concur that if INDYCAR is telecast on a commercial network, the ratings may be modestly better, but they will be largely a relative “failure” compared to other like-programming on the same network. Hardly the way to build a success story. If INDYCAR had the fans they had in the 1990s, going head to head, or at least in parallel with NASCAR, would not be nearly the challenge it is seen as today.
And now, just when INDYCAR may be on the cusp of a productive development, many are calling for INDYCAR to run, not walk, to an alternative network because NASCAR will eat them alive if they are to share the same network broadcast schedule. That may indeed be the case in the short term, but future growth is dependent upon getting back on track, not trying to re-educate its audience on where to find its lone, distant signal. “Can you find me now?” Television networks are interested in one thing – viewers. Who is watching what and how many. It is ultimately up to INDYCAR to assure that they get their fair share of fans watching their races on TV. If they do, NBC Sports will show them all the attention they need to get. If the viewers watch NASCAR, and NASCAR only, then INDYCAR will be (still) seen as largely irrelevant to the network brass trying to seize as large a slice of the viewing pie as possible.
For years now, INDYCAR has indeed suffered to a degree by being on NBC Sports, or VERSUS. But not in the way typically regarded as the reason for weak ratings. The reason INDYCAR suffered on Versus was because INDYCAR was pretty much the lone wolf of motorsport programming, overall, an undesirable element. INDYCAR was in many ways, off the radar screens of the audience most likely to view the telecasts, IE: race fans. They were too busy watching racing on the dominant racing outlets of Speed Channel and to a growing lesser degree ESPN. As expected, NBC Sports has been building their programming with motorsport programming, and with the demise of Speed Channel as a solely racing outlet, NBC Sports is now positioned to be a likely viewing choice for motorsport enthusiasts, as the dominant home of INDYCAR, F1 and now, some NASCAR. NBC Sports is not the first network to build their audience on the backs of motorsport fans. ESPN, in the early days, unable to secure major sports programming rights, filled their schedule with motor racing. The move was successful and the rest, as they say, is history. Now, strategically, NBC Sports will be a target network for race fans to find their favorite sport and hopefully, at least for NBC Sports, watch the broadcasts. And INDYCAR will benefit by being an important part of the whole, rather than withering on an off target network with little relevance for the motorsport enthusiast. That’s like pushing a rope, a difficult way to build an audience of viewers. First they must find you, and then they must remember to tune in. With NBC Sports increasingly a motorsports powerhouse, the audience will logically and repeatedly know where and even when to tune in. And that, dear reader, is a good thing for INDYCAR – if they can see fit to take advantage of it!
With this announcement, it’s my seemingly minority contrary viewpoint that INDYCAR should focus its energies on finding, building and reinforcing its fan base. It literally all depends on it. Making an ill advised move of changing networks (even if they could), precisely at the time when they shouldn’t would further lengthen the drive to regain lost ground. My advice to INDYCAR is stick with the program. You’ve paid the price to be the pioneer on NBC Sports (Versus), now is the time to build upon a growing momentum coming your way.