The Changing Face Of Sports

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The sports landscape is currently changing faster than we can keep up with it. By the time you read this, it’s quite likely that more dominos will have fallen in the deathwatch of what’s left of the Big-12 Conference. The first shoe fell Thursday, when the University of Colorado announced they were leaving for the supposed greener pastures of the Pac-10. Then on Friday, Nebraska accepted an invitation to join the Big Ten Conference. Tomorrow could bring the final blow as the biggest prize in the conference expansion derby – the University of Texas – decides their own future, as well as the fate of the Big-12. If Texas bolts and takes one or more sister schools from the state of Texas, the Big-12 will, more than likely, cease to exist. So what does this have to do with the IZOD IndyCar Series, you might ask? Plenty.

What actually started this whole mess was when the Big Ten decided they should pursue Notre Dame in order to get their league up to twelve schools, so that they could host a conference championship game – which has proven to be a cash cow for other conferences. To date, Notre Dame has done nothing – but it got other conferences to become proactive and strengthen their position against whatever the Big Ten did. The Big-12 suffered from not having a TV network of any kind in place. Plus, unlike most conferences which distributed bowl and TV revenues equally among its member schools – Texas got a bigger share than others, leaving a sour taste in the mouths of the other eleven schools. This lack of harmony and TV coverage left the Big-12 extremely vulnerable for their members bolting.

There are many lessons to be learned here. First and foremost, don’t ever under-estimate the power of a strong TV contract. Second – don’t ever take your business partners for granted. In today’s economic climate, money trumps any loyalties and traditions.

The fallout from conference realignment will be felt for years. As geography books are re-written to explain that Colorado and possibly Texas somehow have a presence on the Pacific coast, other changes will occur as well. Most importantly is the amount of TV coverage that will be devoted to games that involve these new alliances. ABC/ESPN are directly involved since they have tie-ins to all three conferences involved. Does that affect the IZOD IndyCar Series? Not directly, since their coverage of our series is finished by early July. But it could affect their NASCAR coverage. As NASCAR’s ratings continue to fall along with IndyCar’s, ABC/ESPN could decide to eventually dump auto racing altogether.

Although some may be ecstatic at that prospect, that would certainly not be in the best interest of the IZOD IndyCar Series. As much as we all gripe about ESPN’s coverage of the series – it’s better than not having a network TV presence at all. For the NHL Stanley Cup Finals; some fans saw it as a positive that Versus had the ability to pull a little over a 3.0 rating, while others interpreted the number as troubling that a championship series between two top markets would bring such a low number.

Regardless of the outstanding job that the Versus crew does with their on-air product, what good does it ultimately do if no one is watching? Until a deal can be struck for IZOD IndyCar Series races to be on one of the main over-the-air networks, we’d better be glad to they are on ESPN, where they at least have some presence.

Case in point – last Wednesday, if you were to go to ESPN.com and check the headlines, you would have seen no signs that the potentially deciding game of the NHL Playoffs was to be played that night. I’m not much of a hockey fan, but I did notice the lack of a story in their headlines. But since the NHL has no connection with ESPN, there was nary a mention of the championship game.

Now I realize that the NHL doesn’t carry the same clout as the NFL, Major League Baseball or the NBA, which coincidentally are all ESPN properties. What I did find a little hypocritical about ESPN.com was that although you could find nothing about the Stanley Cup Playoffs while perusing their headlines – you would have to be blind to miss countless articles about FIFA World Cup Soccer. I understand that Soccer is a growing sport in the US, but are there really more World Cup fans in this country than hockey? Maybe so, but without doing lengthy research – my gut tells me probably not. For those that might think I’m narrow-minded (I can’t imagine), I did actually watch some of the World Cup match between England and the US. Trying to figure out the game and its appeal was bad enough – but what in the world was the deal with those horns constantly buzzing? It sounded like South Africa was under attack from killer bees. Anyway…the fact that ESPN is broadcasting the World Cup means that it gets the publicity, while the NHL is virtually ignored.

For the hard-core sports fan in the know, this destroys the credibility of ESPN.com and removes it from the list of sports news sites and makes it nothing more than a hype-machine of its family of networks. But for the casual sports fan that most sports leagues crave, including the IZOD IndyCar Series – this point is missed, as they rely on ESPN.com as their only source for sports news. ESPN.com didn’t become the most traveled website by accident. It is perceived as the ultimate news source for sports by many. That is why it is so vital for the IZOD IndyCar Series to have at least some presence there.

Last week, a co-worker and I did a presentation for a new client. They are a company that happens to be involved in sports marketing on a national level, although they are based in the Nashville area. One of their founders is British. Have you ever noticed that a British accent just makes some people sound much more competent? Whether he actually was or not – he sure sounded like he was on top of his game. Anyway…as we wrapped up talking business, I asked him if he followed IndyCar racing. He acknowledged that he did and was aware of the IZOD sponsorship. He said that aligning themselves with IZOD and parent company Phillips-Van Heusen was probably the single most important thing that the series could have done. He said the series now has instant credibility within marketing circles, while they were almost laughable before. This could end up paying bigger dividends than anyone could have imagined before. The IZOD IndyCar Series may be able to leverage the deep pockets and marketing prowess of Phillips-Van Heusen in promoting the series. That possibility didn’t exist a year ago.

So how will the ongoing story of the shift in College Football affect the IZOD IndyCar Series (and make no mistake – this is all about football. If basketball played much of a role in this, Kansas would have more of a say in its future)? Quite honestly, it’s too hard to tell. There are still many moving pieces and there may be many more schools to move, before the dust settles. There are only so many properties that ESPN has room for in their portfolio. The cost of televising college football is about to go up drastically. These schools aren’t moving just for a change of scenery. They expect to get compensated heavily for doing this.

Something may have to go from the ESPN catalog. If that something is the IZOD IndyCar Series, then they need to figure out a plan B and quickly. Thank goodness for the current leadership of Randy Bernard and IZOD. Every day, I become more and more impressed with what Randy Bernard brings to the table. Without him and IZOD running things, I’m not sure there would have been a plan B. Now, if one is needed anytime soon – I’m confident one will be found.

George Phillips

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11 Responses to “The Changing Face Of Sports”

  1. George,

    Great article. The conference re-alignment had me thinking about TV contracts, and sports broadcasting in a larger perspective too. It is all about the $$. Living in Minnesota I’m pretty close to the Big Ten. Back in 2008 when the conference decided to launch it’s own cable network, a lot of the locals were scoffing at them. (The BTN is a joint venture of the Big 10 Conference-51% and Fox Sports 49% interest).

    The Big Ten played some real hardball with Comcast, insisting that they be included on the basic cable package, not on the Premium Sports package. For about 6 months there was no movement, until finally Comcast agreed. At the time, I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. So what if the Big Ten had a network for showing 10 year old football games, and women’s softball. Who cares right?

    Imagine my shock when it was recently announced that the Big Ten Network is making $186 Million from the BTN and it’s other TV deals. That amounts to almost $17 Million PER SCHOOL! And this for a conference without a title game. These numbers are astounding to me.

    So, back to your question, “What does this have to do with racing?”. Well, my first thought was focused on NASCAR, not IndyCar. The big question being “Why hasn’t NASCAR started their own Cable Network, ala the Big Ten, MLB Network, NFL Network? With 4 racing series under their umbrella, 30+ weekends of racing each year, 40+ years of races on tape, plus all the other content that they seem to generate to fill up hours of broadcasting time each week, it seems like a no brainer. Surely the France family has looked at this as a potential option? If I were them I’d be working hard with either Fox or ESPN/ABC to start a 51/49 partnership to make it happen. If the Big Ten can strong arm Comcast into getting on basic cable, surely NASCAR can. From a business perspective, wouldn’t owning both the Product and the Distribution channel for selling it, be a huge boon to their business model?

    Oh yeah, as far as IndyCar goes, I’m afraid they are still just a little boat on a big ocean. They aren’t in the position of determining their own fate. As you point out, they have to pick the right partners (Izod vs. Vs.) to be successful. Will Comcast succeed in their plan to make their VS.-NBC Sports combo competitive with ABC-ESPN? A lot of IndyCar’s success is riding on it.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    The University of Texas… they’ve killed one conference and are about to kill another; I wonder if the PAC-10 thinks they really have the muscle to keep them inline…

    Whatever happens in conference realignment, I’m not so sure it would clog ESPN’s airwaves more than they are currently clogged. If a proposed PAC-10 (+2 or +6) network goes through, that could/would take games from ESPN. As would FOX/FSN looking to strengthen their relationship with the PAC-10 (and the Big 12-2, if by some slim chance it survives).

  3. Just letting you know, that was a good, well-thought article (per usual) – but I’ve been ignoring the Indycar websites & blogs for days. College Football (Big Ten!) is my favorite sport by far, so even though I’m a crazy racing fan, I’m much more concerned about what happens to the 10-team Big12 and the 12-team Big Ten. hah!

  4. I’m lost. I’m not really sure what the thesis here is. But part of it depends on how cynical you are to start. Every morning I watch the local TV news because I want the traffic report. If I’m watching the CBS station, I’m sure to get the info on what happened on Survivor and Big Brother. The ABC affiliate makes sure I heard about what’s going on with Dancing with the Stars. NBC is all about The Apprentice. And so on. Same with movie openings. NBC gets a lot of extra coverage of Universal’s stuff. Fox gets 20th. ABC covers Disney, and so on.

    I just tune it out. There’s so little “news” in the news anymore.

    • Oilpressure Says:

      The point is that with the changing landscape in sports, ABC/ESPN may decide that the IZOD IndyCar Series is no longer an attractive property if the rights fees for college football goes up dramatically. While we may celebrate no more Marty Reid or Scott Goodyear; the drop in exposure from ESPN.com and their entire family of networks would make it even harder to lure the coveted “casual” fan. If that happens, the league had better be ready with an alternate plan.

      Why did it take me 1300 words to say that earlier, when I just summed it up in one succinct paragraph? Hmmm….

      • Okay, but I’d counter that the ABC/ESPN exposure is negligable at best. Part of it is due to them, partly to Indycar’s weird packaging. Indycar’s only on ABC a handful of times. Even before VS entered the picture, it was bounced between ABC, ESPN and ESPN2. And if god forbid it ran long, it would get kicked from it’s current channel to conclude somewhere else, and you may-or-may-not find it. Combine that with being on sometimes Sunday, sometimes Saturday, occasionally Friday, sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon, sometimes at night, sometimes on consecutive weeks, often on alternating weeks, sometimes with a month of nothing in-between, and I don’t know how anyone expects to grab and hold new fans. One of football’s great assets is that you can quickly get into the schedule. Same with Nascar. Even basketball has a certain consistency. But Indycar is more akin to trying to watch track-and-field events on tv.

        I don’t think ABC is the future any more than I think the IMS radio network is. They need a consistent schedule and a place to find it. Consistency will help people who want it find it, and hopefully establish habits.

  5. If the rights fees for football go up, then maybe someone (network or cable channel) would be left without football. And they may need alternative programming. I don’t think either way that college football will effect Indycar that much.

    I do think more and more that 2012 will be a defining point in the history of open-wheel. For better or worse…

  6. It’s looking more and more like Texas will keep itself partnered with the Big 12-minus-two. While I don’t know how this would necessarily effect auto racing (Nationwide Series on ESPN can’t possibly have much steam left in it), I can point out this one thing: Texas joining the PAC-whatever would’ve brought a gigantic alumni base into a conference that has a (admittedly small) TV contract with…VERSUS! That would’ve put some major eyes on IndyCar advertisements and might’ve helped sell some races…alas, it’s not meant to be.

    You’re right about ESPN, though…we are fortunate to have at least some coverage from them because that’s the only coverage we’re gonna get that the mainstream might see at this point. We all know Randy Bernard has his ear to the ground and hears the rumblings…perhaps there will be some off-season meetings in Bristol over how IndyCar’s shows are produced. I know ESPN has it in them, as some of the stuff they’re doing at the World Cup (certain technical glitches aside) has been completely spectacular. Find a video of their World Cup opening video and put it up next to that ridiculous 500 open and you’ll see what I mean.

  7. Bob White Says:

    Sorry, but ESPN is not going to drop NASCAR.

    NASCAR’s ratings, while a bit down, are still really strong. They regularly beat the other sports competition each weekend.

    Will their next TV contract be smaller dollar-wise? Absolutely. The last TV contract was a terrible one for both FOX, ESPN and TNT.

    But if people think there isn’t going to major competition for a entity (Cup) that gets consistant 3.5 to 4.5 ratings each week and another entity (Nationwide) who gets solid mid 1’s to low 2’s each week, they are not being smart.

    And how about that F1 overnight rating on FOX? A .9? Wow. For the “world’s best drivers” in the “world’s best series”? That is a rating that Craftsman Trucks would likely get on FOX.

    What does it prove? They ain’t many formula car/road racing fans in America. Probably many of the .9 watching on Sunday also are watching Indy Cars as well. Its just a very small group of folks and the chances of ever growing that by following a Euro-centric model in America, is suicide. Which most of the other failed formula-car series that have already went tits-up found out.

    • How many promos did Fox run in the run up to their F1 coverage, though? I actually ask this out of complete ignorance, because I basically never watch Fox. I have a hard time imagining that they put nearly as much effort into touting their F1 coverage as they do for NASCAR, but that of course makes sense, given NASCAR’s domestic audience and Fox’s longstanding presence in that sport. Anyway, I actually think that the F1 number might have been low this weekend, because a lot of folks (this was almost the case for me) might not have known that this week’s race was on Fox instead of Speed. I’ll be very curious to see what the ratings look like for Valencia and Britain, because I think those’ll be more indicative of what an actual American F1 audience might look like.

      I’m actually somewhat surprised that the F1 rating was that high, so maybe I’ve been underestimating the crowd that watches F1 in the States for quite some time. I think George puts up a great point, though, that any major network that wants to push a certain product (World Cup, for instance) is going to get a big number for that product unless it proves to be an utter dog (I’m thinking of the XFL here). I’ll be labeled a hopeless rube for this, but I actually think that if ABC/ESPN put in a fraction of the sort of effort into promoting upcoming IndyCar races that they’ve put into the World Cup, we’d see substantially better numbers than 0.6s. People (not me, though) complain about there being no stories to talk about in the IndyCar series. Can anybody tell me more than 2-3 storylines for the World Cup off the top of their head? If non-US team soccer games can get good ratings (Serbia/Ghana got over 5.5 million viewers; Algeria/Slovenia got nearly 4.0 million), then why wouldn’t IndyCar races get at least 1.0s with a real promotional push from ABC/ESPN?

      OK, complaining about foreign drivers and boring street races starts….now.

  8. billytheskink Says:

    It appears that a FOX TV contract saved the Big 12-2 at the 11th hour.

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