The Good Side Of The Versus Deal
As we head into the first race week of the Izod IndyCar Series season for 2010, there are many questions to be answered. Unfortunately, there are probably more questions pertaining to issues off the track, than on it. One of the key issues that burdens the Indy Racing League is the double-edged sword of its TV contract with Versus. But for this week, I don’t want to dampen the excitement that the beginning of a new season brings. So rather than getting into what is a serious issue of what the league should do about its long term contract with a network most people can’t find or don’t have, this week I’d rather focus on what’s good about the league and about the Versus on-air product. Chris Estrada has written an excellent article about the dilemma that the IRL faces with Versus. Read it here.
Versus began life as the Outdoor Life Network (OLN) in 1995. At that time, OLN focused almost exclusively on hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities. In 2004, OLN distinguished itself by airing extensive coverage of the Tour de France, which garnered universal praise for its quantity of coverage, as well as quality.
In 2005, OLN attempted to re-brand itself by airing more extreme style sports. They acquired the rights to the Gravity Games and pretty much gave itself a facelift to shed its image as a hunting network.
After the National Hockey League ended its lockout in 2005, ESPN passed on a deal to continue broadcasting NHL games – so they curiously turned to OLN and signed a three year deal. Many saw this as a huge step-down for the NHL. Although the on-air product and coverage was excellent, it reinforced the public perception that hockey is a niche sport.
In 2006, OLN changed its name to Versus to strengthen the image of a competitive sports network instead of a hunting and fishing channel. That same year, Versus debuted their coverage of College Football. In 2007, Versus expanded their coverage to College Basketball as well.
For many years, IndyCar fans had grown tired of the treatment they received from ABC/ESPN. Some ABC affiliates had chosen to air telethons over showing CART/IRL races. ESPN viewers were subjected to coverage beginning as the green flag waved, while road & street course races were forced into becoming a timed event if it became obvious the race would be going past the allotted window. If events were delayed by rain or even worse – if a more important event such as Ladies Golf ran too long – the races were shifted to ESPN Classic, which many of us don’t get. Unless there were very few cautions, a post-race interview with anyone other than the winner was almost unheard of.
Once ESPN secured NASCAR events, they made it painfully obvious that the IndyCar Series was a very low priority for them. In August of 2008, it was announced that the Izod IndyCar Series had signed a ten-year agreement with Versus for the fledgling network to carry at least thirteen events each year. ABC/ESPN would still carry the Indianapolis 500 along with a handful of select races in the early part of the season so as not to conflict with their NASCAR package, which starts in late July.
Many IndyCar fans, myself included, were stunned that the IRL would cast their lot with a struggling network. Many predicted that it would be a death knell for the league, which was starving for viewers anyway. Others said to give it time, that if they could do for racing what they had done for the Tour de France and for hockey – it would well be worth it.
As it turns out, they were both right. The coverage has been outstanding. On race weekends, Versus is a hardcore IndyCar fan’s dream. They feature a live qualifying show on each of the races they cover, which quickly spoiled me last year. Last year, when ABC had a race and didn’t have a qualifying show the day before, it created a large void. Versus also guarantees a three-hour race window for all of their races, which allows ample time for features before the race as well as interviews with many participants after the race.
Their overall production is second to none. They did a wise thing mixing in familiar on-air veterans along with bringing in new and fresh faces. Bob Jenkins is the consummate pro. He is a very recognizable face and voice among IndyCar fans. He also realizes that he is not the star of the show and neither are his co-workers. Jenkins is savvy enough to realize that his role is to relay what is happening on the track while yielding the opinions to his cohorts in the booth – Robbie Buhl and Jon Beekhuis.
Buhl and Beekhuis both bring very interesting perspectives. Buhl is a former driver, race winner and a current car owner. Beekhuis is a former driver from about twenty years ago, but brings a great deal of technical knowledge. He has an uncanny ability to relate the technical aspects of racing to a level that most of us can understand.
In the pit area, veteran Jack Arute has a different role from what he did at ABC. He is atop a stage near the pits and basically analyzes pit and race strategy. Last year, he split duties with ABC and Versus. This year, he is casting his lot solely with Versus. For the first time since the mid-eighties, Jack Arute will not have a broadcast presence on race day at the Indianapolis 500.
The pits are covered by newcomers Robbie Floyd and Lindy Thackston. Floyd has a strong broadcasting background and was solid from his first outing at St. Petersburg. Lindy Thackston had already covered ALMS. She also had Hoosier ties as she grew up in Indiana, was a Purdue grad and was a 2001 Indianapolis 500 princess. She quickly established herself as “one of us” with her racing knowledge and is very good about interacting with us mere mortals on Twitter. The only negative I can pin on Lindy is her apparent lack of judgment in character, as she seems to be good friends with Roy Hobbson. Maybe she just feels sorry for him.
The only problem with the Versus coverage is that nobody but we hardcore fans get to see it. Even that is no longer the case, as DirecTV has stopped offering Versus to their subscribers. The last two races of the 2009 season were not seen by DirecTV customers, as they discontinued carrying the channel on Sep 1.
Obviously, this is an issue that needs to be resolved quickly. Even if it is solved, there is still the public perception that Versus is nothing more than an ESPN-wannabee that will never rise above carrying anything besides niche sports such as BMX races, bull-riding and other obscure extreme sports. But that’s a different subject to be covered here at another time.
With the first qualifying show just a few days away, I’ll choose to celebrate the beginning of another season in the Izod IndyCar Series. Rather than focus on the myriad of problems facing the league and the limited exposure they get through Versus, I’ll sit back and savor the outstanding coverage that Versus will be bringing us from Brazil. Enjoy it, because the coverage for St. Petersburg will be on ABC two weeks later.