Will The IRL Follow Other “Old” Sports?

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I actually watched some of the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament this week. I couldn’t remember the last time I had watched any tennis for more than five minutes at one time. I got to thinking how popular tennis used to be in the seventies and eighties and what an obscure sport it has become. The same thing applies to boxing. Then a question dawned on me…has IndyCar racing pretty much followed the path of these two gigantic sports from the past?

The Borg-McEnroe matches at Wimbledon in the late seventies and early eighties were classic in every aspect of the word. Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and Boris Becker were all common names in the sporting world. Chris Evert, Tracy Austin and Martina Navratilova garnered as much attention on the women’s side. Professional tennis received as much hype as any other sport in the late seventies.

Boxing was another extremely popular sport of the seventies. Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier had fights around the globe that was shown only on closed circuit television. Most people wanting to see the “Thrilla in Manila” had to pay to go to a movie theater that was showing the closed circuit telecast. He also had epic bouts with George Foreman that engrossed the sports-following public. Like IndyCar racing, boxing also had a long rich history in this country throughout most of the twentieth century. By the eighties, there were different factions of boxing posturing to gain control of the sport. The different sanctioning bodies formed a virtual alphabet soup of ruling organizations. Boxing was splintered into the WBA, the WBC, the IBF, the WBO and the IBO. Most casual fans were confused as to what was what and basically lost interest. Sound familiar?

Today, except for the most ardent boxing fans – boxing has been reduced to a slimy footnote that is covered only by slick-haired goombahs out of Las Vegas. I consider myself a fairly well versed sports fan, but I don’t even give boxing a second look. When flipping around, if I land on a boxing match – it’s as if I can’t change the channel fast enough.

I can’t say the same for tennis. I found that I actually enjoyed watching the tennis, but I don’t think it was enough to make me start following the sport again, but it was enjoyable to watch for a little while.

My question is…has IndyCar racing gone the same way as tennis and boxing? Boxing probably peaked in the early seventies. Tennis probably peaked in the early eighties. Is IndyCar just in a lull while it tries to find its way through the split and then the growing pains of unification – or has it seen its peak and is now destined to wallow in obscurity?

Earlier this week, a reader left a comment on a post that the wane in popularity began with the first split – the CART/USAC split in the fall of 1978. There is some merit to that theory. Many of those CART seasons in the early eighties were boring and mismanaged. But CART did have its “glory” days which, in my opinion, took place I the early to mid-nineties. Even in those days, CART certainly had its shortcomings. Still, one must always wonder what might have happened had the CART/IRL split never taken place.

Probably the worst damage that was done by the split in 1996 was the amount of confusion that prevailed over open-wheel racing. Except for the hard-core fans, most casual fans who may have been cultivated into future hard-core fans – had no idea of what the split was about nor did they perceive any differences between the two series – much the same way with the different sanctioning bodies in boxing. All that was certain was that no one understood which drivers would be in which race.

The same held true for sponsors and potential sponsors. In the early stages of the split, CART had the big-name teams and drivers – but most importantly, they had the big-name sponsors. Corporations were willing to wait a couple of years for the two series to work out their differences. Ultimately, the sponsors wanted to be at the Indianapolis 500. When that didn’t happen after a few years, corporations forced their teams to participate at Indy or to move to the IRL altogether.

Unfortunately, on the other side of the racing picture – NASCAR was exploding. Some longtime open-wheel sponsors decided to focus their marketing dollars on NASCAR. Fans were flocking to watch stock cars in droves while the two open-wheel sides waged their battles in front of fewer and fewer fans. As open-wheel racing faded more into obscurity, it was obvious that one side would ultimately lose. Both sides had made significant blunders along the way, but in the end – it was the series that had the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in its portfolio.

Unification of what was left of the two series finally took place in 2008 – but were there enough fans left to notice or care? The dwindling car count, the shrinking sponsorship budgets and miniscule television ratings suggests not. What is left of a fan base consists of hard-core Indy 500 fans like myself that will watch anything having to do with that race; bitter CART/Champ Car fans who feel as if they “lost” and are being slighted and the curious Danica fans who are as likely to go away as quickly as they showed up.

So the question remains…will IndyCar racing ever emerge from the current doldrums and reassert itself as a relative entity among the elite sports that evoke Monday morning water-cooler conversations; or is IndyCar destined to barely survive as a niche sport that can only boast of its storied history rather than what the future holds? If it is following the path of tennis and boxing, I’m afraid the latter may be the case.

George Phillips

* – Please Note: There will be no blog on Saturday or Sunday of this weekend. I’ll return on Monday Sep 14.

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11 Responses to “Will The IRL Follow Other “Old” Sports?”

  1. I think Nascar is more attractive to sponsors–not only because of audience size–but because they have bigger billboards.

    I think that open-wheel racing is not competing with Nascar anymore, they’re competing with bowling and curling and billards.

    • I agree with you; big, rolling billboards that viewers can easily watch all the way around a race track (excepting Watkings Glen and Sonoma) — and many more devoted viewers who’re devoted to their chosen heroes and to close competition …

  2. I believe that if Indycar attempts to stay the course and hope for a gradual increase in interest, the results will not be pretty.  We’ve seen that the current strategy is resulting in a decline in viewership.  As a result, it is very difficult to believe that we will see anything other than a continued erosion of interest unless the series takes some bold actions.
     
    The problem, as I see it, is that it is financially prohibitive for Indycar to follow the path of Tennis or Boxing.  If you want to hold a tennis event, all you need are courts and nets.  If you want to hold a Boxing event, all you need is a ring and a couple of guys with gloves.  Beyond that, the cost of holding the event is a function of fan interest.  Tennis and Boxing can handle a lack of interest by paying less and using smaller venues… Indycar doesn’t have that luxury because cutting costs only serves to accelerate the loss of interest.  The series is on the ragged edge of financial solvency for the majority of the teams and races.  There is only one truly profitable race in the season and the rest of the events are subsidized by the cash flow generated in May. 
     
    There is a chance to turn the tide, but it honestly appears that nobody in a power position has the vision to make it happen.  Right now the popular belief is that bringing Nascar crossovers to the 500 is the shot in the arm that the series needs.  The problem is that a shot in the arm doesn’t do any good when your foot is caught in a bear trap.  The Nascar effect won’t carry over to the rest of the season and that is the IRL’s ailment right now.   The vast majority of the funding for each team’s annual budget is derived from the 500.  The majority of sponsorship funds are a result of sponsorship interest in the 500 itself.  Likewise, the funding for the TEAM program is entirely 500 dependent.  The Nascar shot in the arm might dull the financial pain that is caused by the rest of the season, but it isn’t going to do anything about the infection that the cost of running the entire season has created.  This season’s Versus ratings are only going to make the financial burden of the season worse in the next year.
     
    There is also a widespread delusion that a new car/engine formula is going to make things better.  There are two problems with this.  First, the series has to make it through at least two more seasons before it can become a reality (every day that goes by makes 2012 less realistic).  Second, interest will have eroded so much further by that point that cost controls will force them to create a product that is even less interesting to the masses.  The result of the new formula will likely push the sport further into niche status. 
     
    So my long winded answer to your question is that short of a radical change in strategic approach, the series will continue to slide into obscurity… to a point.  It’s future will look more like Arena Football than tennis.  We can only hope that somebody with a real vision can be given the chance to leverage the great assets of Indy to a better future.  

    • very good analysis & comment
      “If you want to hold a tennis event, all you need are courts and nets. If you want to hold a Boxing event, all you need is a ring and a couple of guys with gloves.”
      Our two open-wheel racing series spent 900 million dollars to become as popular and relevant to Americans as Arena football, and found (by some television viewers) on Versus.
      Thanks, Tony George! Thanks ESPN! ~shameful~

  3. Tim Nothhelfer Says:

    I think the time for adjustments and improvements is over….IndyCar must re-invent itself with relevant technology that has real world applications drawing manufacturer involvement.

    • Would love to see IndyCar reinvent itself thusly.
      I loved the diversity and technology in various classes of ALMS racing. Then what did the France family do to split sports cars, years after Tony George split IndyCar racing? AUGH!

  4. George,

    Great analogy comparing Auto Racing and Tennis. In general, the Economic model for racing is very different than most stick and ball sports. Sponsorship funds the sport. To a certain extent, this was also the case in Tennis. The slide in Tennis’ popularity in the U.S., is as much demographic as anything. Tennis was a huge sport for people to play recreationally (like Bowling and Golf). In the 70’s Tennis was bigger than golf as a ratings draw, (bowling was already on the decline) and the sponsorship money pored in. Having a big name pro associated with your sporting goods line ensured high sales. Much like it does today in Golf (That’s why Nike sponsors Tiger, and created an entire line of golf accessories out of thin air) For a person in 1980, it would have been tough to predict the decline in Tennis. In fact, looking back Tennis, with it’s overlap of entertainment and sport, through such “celebrity-athletes” as Connors, McEnroe, and Chris Everett, seemed well positioned to capitalize on the trend of Celebrity-Sports-Infotainment. So what happened?

    As America’s celebrity Tennis Stars aged, so did Americans. Tennis is not a sport for 40, 50 and 60 year olds. It’s tough on the body. Tennis lost the youth market to other entertainment/celebrity driven stick and ball sports. It fell out of “cool”, and became a niche sport followed only by the diehards. The same fate has befallen Open Wheel racing (but not NASCAR) for similar reasons. As A.J., Mario, the Unsers, etc. aged, the sport lost its mass appeal. The split set things back, and opened the door for NASCAR to steal away sponsorship dollars, and leverage it’s own generation of mass appeal “celebrity-athlete”.

    Aside from Racing and Tennis, the only other big time sport that relies on sponsorship is Golf. In the case of Golf, the overhead operating costs are much lower, so they are much better positioned for the inevitable decline that will accompany the changing demographics. And it will decline. America is becoming younger, and more diverse as baby boomers age. Sports that tap into this are on the rise, while sports that traditionally appeal to “old white guys” are on the downslope. Tiger Woods has helped slow the decline, but unless something causes Hispanics take up golf in big numbers, decline is inevitable. The sport is already losing steam. It’s suffers from the same fate as Tennis, and Racing. It is sponsorship driven, and sponsors need / want mass appeal celebrities to move their products. They only have one Tiger. Their Economic model is balancing on his back, like Tennis’ did with Connors and McEnroe. When he’s gone, he will be tough to replace.

    So what does any of this mean for IndyCar? Well, it ain’t a sunny picture. As you mentioned earlier this week, the sport will survive Danica’s leaving it eventually. But I think this analogy with Tennis helps us understand why some people are hyperventilating about that possibility. IndyCar never managed to replace the loss of the mass appeal stars from the 70’s & 80’s. The split resulted in a lost generation. Hardcore fans like us don’t understand why some people get so hung up on the “celebrity” side of the sport, and wonder why they complain about the driver personalities of guys like Briscoe & Dixon. We are the niche fans though, that like Tennis niche fans, will watch the sport for the love of the sport whether the stars are from North America, Australia, new Zealand, England, France or Brazil. Sponsors want / need more than we alone can provide. They need the casual fan, and the ratings numbers, that the mass appeal, American celebrity-athlete can bring to the TV. They need the McEnroe-Danica-Tiger Woods-Dale Jr. to get the return on their investment. That’s the business reality of sponsorship driven sports, and for the hardcore fan who cares about “what really matters” that will always be a bitter pill to swallow.

    • ~good analyses and commentary~
      I love this weblog!

    • Two things to keep in mind. Fan interest is a prerequisite for sponsorship money. Tennis, Golf and Auto Racing are not reliant on sponsorship, they are reliant on fans. Fan interest is the energy that brings sponsorship to the table. It is insanity that league officials are spending more time than ever trying to attract a new title sponsor.

      Second… the biggest misconception is that celebrity attracts casual fans. The reality is that celebrity is only exists when a you have a critical mass of existing fans that focuses it’s attention on one or two individuals. Celebrities do not often attract new attention, and it is even more rare that they attract sustainable attention. Instead they cause a greater component of the existing attention to be focused on them and away from other participants.

      The fundamental issue the IRL has is a lack of fan interest in the total product. When they try to fix this problem by finding sponsorship money or creating celebrity, they are accomplishing nothing.

      Continuing to pursue a performance limited spec. series will only result in the additional declines in fan interest. That will result in less celebrity and less sponsorship money.

  5. Something Tom said made me start thinking about how most sports have that element of, “I could do that” to them. Like when Tiger showed up on the scene, thousands of people (especially the very young) flew to the golf course to become “the next Tiger Woods.” That is an aspect that can’t really be duplicated in IndyCar.

    So perhaps because we can’t participate physically in the sport it is even more important to make the sport accessible and relevant to the fan. I’m not sure how to accomplish that, but it is something to think about. As a relatively new fan, I have to say that I spent a great deal of this season saying, “what are they talking about?” during telecasts. As the season wore on, I think Versus did a much better job explaining aspects of the sport, plus I found other ways to learn…like this blog and all of you other die-hards. But how many people will seek out blogs and other fans to teach them?

    Perhaps IndyCar needs to find new and interesting ways to make the sport more accessible to the millions who don’t know a thing about cars. I found quickly that you don’t have to understand all of that stuff to truly enjoy and love racing. Do other people know that? Or are they intimidated by the often-reported complexity of these cars?

  6. The problem as i see it is “time”. There has been so much hype surrounding Danica over the last couple of years and I think many were expecting a great American Champion and it has become a promise unfulfilled.

    However, the one thing that the Patrick-factor might have achieved is to build interest in the youth market; while Danica’s leaving won’t kill the sport, those that run the series failed to act accordingly in 2005.
    The possibility to build a new generation of drivers should have followed, but the reality is that on Versus, the new generation may not see the IRL and any momentum is thus lost.

    If the IRL really wants to succeed, more attention needs to be paid to the youth systems (such as karting, Mazda, Atlantics, Lights, etc…) for this is where the Patrick-factor should have led to.
    At no point should anyone have ever considered trying to reinvigourate the series on the back of Danica and the series may end up paying for it in the future.

    The loss of media attention for the sport may eventually result in future champions getting side-lined to Stock Cars, Sports Cars or maybe even fall out of the sport altogether – and that would be a much bigger loss to the series than Danica leaving…

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