A Win-Win Situation
Last week, we got word that Formula One and SPEED, an affiliate of FOX, were parting ways. What had been suspected was confirmed over the weekend – that Formula One would be moving to NBC and the NBC Sports Network for 2013. NBC will carry four races, including the Canadian Grand Prix in June and the final three races in November – while the remainder will be shown on NBCSN.
Shortly after the rumor mill started spinning, I saw a mixed reaction from fans on Twitter. While some saw this as a positive move for the IZOD IndyCar Series, there was the predictable gnashing of teeth from others who saw this as another nail in the IndyCar coffin. While I can see where there might be some legitimate concerns from IndyCar fans – overall, I see this as a good thing for IndyCar.
IndyCar and CEO Randy Bernard are not even halfway through the ten-year contract with NBCSN that former and possibly future IndyCar boss Tony George saddled them with. While the onscreen production has been very good, the ratings started out abysmal and have declined since. There have been many theories tossed about as to how this could be. There is no simple answer nor is there a quick fix. But one of the many factors that continue to plague the television ratings is that people simply don’t know if they have NBCSN, and if they do – where is it on their dial?
Remember when this package started back in 2009, it was on a channel with a strange name – Versus, which had been re-named from the Outdoor Life Channel. The only reason I had heard of Versus was because it carried the NHL after the last lockout, mainly because ESPN had already declined and they needed a home quickly. Versus was the sports outlet for Comcast. Like ESPN in their infancy, Versus carried obscure sports that few had heard of (or had much interest in). I’m not much of a hockey fan, but living in a town with an NHL franchise, I did hear about the excellent job that Versus did with hockey.
What Versus did with hockey, they did with IndyCar. They gave each race a three-hour window to insure a long pre-race show as well as enough time for a decent post-race show. Their broadcast team treated the races as if it was their honor to telecast them. They gave qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 top-priority, since ABC would be getting the race. The only disappointment I saw was the lack of mid-week or offseason programming that we were expecting. Kevin Lee, Lindy Thackston and Robin Miller were given a once-a-week show that aired on Tuesday afternoons that lasted for only four weeks in the month of May, before it was cancelled.
Beginning this past January, Versus was re-branded as the NBC Sports Network. It has been hoped that the NBC moniker will give the channel more credibility and help viewers identify the channel. It was also hoped that ratings would increase for IndyCar races due to cross-promotion between NBC Sports and their fledgling sports channel. It didn’t materialize.
Everyone is now taking on the behemoth that ESPN has become. Why not? Walk into any restaurant or bar in this country and you will find at least one television permanently tuned to ESPN. Go to a sports bar and dozens of TV’s are hooked to any one of the ESPN family of networks. Along with NBCSN, there is also an even more obscure sports channel offered by CBS cleverly named CBS Sports Network. FOX has had the regional FOX Sports Net networks for years, but they are now in the process of launching a major sports network. It is rumored that it may launch using the channels currently utilized by SPEED. That way they wouldn’t have to build it from the ground up. They would simply re-launch SPEED from square-one and use the existing outlets already in place on cable systems. It’s a shrewd move on their part, but racing fans could suffer. That is also rumored why FOX and SPEED allowed themselves to be outbid by NBC for the US rights to Formula One.
So, how can this new deal help IndyCar? This may be a stretch on my part, but the answer is visibility. What does IndyCar need more than anything? New fans. Not the Danica Patrick fan that will leave as quickly as they showed up. No, I mean new racing fans. Four F1 races on NBC means eyes – lots of eyes. The European slant and the futuristic cars of Formula One appeal to young fans much more than NASCAR – this according to my twenty-three year old son. Surely, NBC will use the F1 races as a platform to promote IndyCar.
In addition to that, there are four F1 races on NBCSN on the same day they are to carry IndyCar later in the day. That will mean an even more natural lead-in. I just don’t see how having Formula One on the same family of networks will hurt IndyCar.
The biggest question I can think of is what will become of Bob Varsha? His voice has become synonymous with Formula one over the years. With Bob Jenkins retiring, his name has already been mentioned as a possible replacement. Before this announcement, I never would have thought that he would make the move from F1 to IndyCar. Now, however, he could become the voice of open-wheel racing. NBC will still utilize the world feed, as SPEED did. The broadcasters were rarely at the race. Instead, they were huddled in a studio in Charlotte, NC watching monitors and doing commentary. Varsha could probably handle the workload of doing both – even if it meant broadcasting an F1 race from a remote studio from the site of that afternoon’s IndyCar race – and then broadcast the IndyCar race. I’m sure he appreciates me volunteering how much work he can handle.
But fans of the IZOD IndyCar Series shouldn’t fret with the increased race coverage at NBCSN. More racing means more exposure. Everybody wins.