How Should IndyCar Improve The TV Ratings?
By the time Trackside aired on Tuesday night, the overnight TV ratings for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg had been released. They were not good. In fact, they were abysmal. The race earned a 0.6 rating. That’s not even good for a cable telecast, but this race was carried over network television. That translates to 685,000 viewers nationwide, which is not going to make advertisers salivate. For comparison’s sake – the NASCAR race from Martinsville on FOX generated a 3.8 rating, which corresponded to 4.34 million viewers. Keep in mind, that NASCAR is lamenting the fact that the Martinsville race suffered a 5% drop in viewers compared to last year’s race.
As our friend Pressdog might say – cue the hand-wringing.
Tuesday night, there was an e-mail that Kevin Lee read over the air. I’m paraphrasing, but it was the same tired old argument that we’ve been hearing for years: “No one is going to tune in to watch foreign drivers that you’ve never heard of, driving on road courses. What IndyCar needs is American drivers running on ovals, because that’s what the public wants to see.” Really? Hmmm…
Kevin Lee had a very quick and truthful response – the old IRL was based mostly on American drivers and running nothing but ovals for their first nine seasons in existence. Those ratings were abysmal as well. The only difference is that there were not as many entertainment choices then as there are now – and they were still bad. Truth be told, I’d be willing to bet that many more people have heard of foreign drivers Will Power, Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan; than they had Racin Gardner, Jim Guthrie or Dr. Jack Miller – the racing dentist.
Granted, twenty years ago – there were more Americans in the CART field than on the grid of a typical Verizon IndyCar Series race. With eleven Americans having full-time rides in 1994, there were only five Americans in Sunday’s race. While it’s important to have an American presence in an American-based series, I don’t buy the notion that this is why the American public is not watching.
While there were six more Americans twenty years ago as compared to today, the majority of drivers were still foreign. The difference is, the drivers – both American and foreign – were bigger stars. Foreign names like Emerson Fittipaldi, Nigel Mansell jump out at you, but other foreign names carried bigger star-power than some of the names today, such as Scott Goodyear (Canadian), Paul Tracy (Canadian), Raul Boesel (Brazilian).
The American names jumped out as well. Mario Andretti, Michael Andretti, Bobby Rahal, Al Unser, Jr. are names synonymous with American open-wheel racing. We were also just a couple of years removed from the retirements of AJ Foyt, Rick Mears, Johnny Rutherford (who finally officially retired in 1994), Tom Sneva and Gordon Johncock.
The five Americans in Sunday’s race were Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Charlie Kimball and Josef Newgarden. Those are names that resonate with us, the hard-cores; but none are what I would consider household names among casual fans – yet most casual fans can probably name Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Jeff Gordon. However, Hunter-Reay has amassed more wins (9) since 2008, Earnhardt (3) or Gordon (7). Yet, who is considered the bigger stars?
Comparing the two eras from 1994 to 2014 is comparing apples to oranges. You can’t do it. It’s worth noting that twenty years ago, CART and NASCAR had virtually identical TV ratings. What happened? It’s easy to blame it on The Split, but it’s more complicated than that. Drivers came up in different ways, the economic environment is different and most importantly – audiences tastes have changed. People in my age group grew up idolizing fast cars and those that drove them. Today, a fast car is looked upon as something evil that does damage to the planet. Cars are looked upon as appliances, much like a dishwasher – nothing at all sexy, but it serves a purpose.
Today’s viewers have different ideas when it comes to entertainment. Across the board, sports programming have taken a dramatic downturn – except for possibly the NFL. Baseball, basketball, college football, hockey, motor racing are all showing declines – partly because they’ve reached a saturation point and partly because many younger Americans don’t care about sports. Sports is something their parents watched. I would venture a guess that the majority of those in their twenties don’t even have cable – nor do they want it. Most of their viewing habits now involve online programming, which rarely includes sports.
My twenty-four year old son grew up going to races and playing stick-and-ball sports. He now has zero interest in either. For a while, I considered it a phase. Now I see that’s the way he is. He is not alone. Susan’s twenty year-old son, who still lives with us, has no interest in sports, nor does he even want a cable jack in his room. All of his viewing is online and that does not seem at all unusual for his age-group.
While there are many that fret over foreign drivers and road racing, my guess is that those are the most vocal are probably closer to my age than the up and coming generation that will actually determine the long-term viability of the Verizon IndyCar Series. Personally, I much prefer ovals to road racing, but I do enjoy watching and appreciate road racing – I would just like a more balanced schedule. As for the foreign drivers, I actually find it more appealing that the sport has an international flavor and think that they bring more credibility to the series.
So what is the answer to last week’s horrible ratings? Stay the present course, that’s what. Open-wheel racing didn’t go into the tank overnight and it won’t be salvaged overnight. Although, Sunday’s race was going up against the NASCAR race, the Elite Eight and other programming – it is still a bad number. There will always be sport conflicts and other choices for viewers. Blaming the number on the NCAA Tournament is an excuse. Viewers need a reason to want to watch IndyCar races, regardless of what’s showing on another channel. It will be a long process turning this thing around. IndyCar fans should prepare for a season of embarrassing TV ratings. But I do think it will eventually turn around – just not as fast as we want it to.
Give credit to both TV partners. Bringing Allen Bestwick on board made a huge difference in their broadcast on Sunday. NBCSN isn’t standing still either. They’ve added Paul Tracy to the booth for six of their races, beginning next week at Long Beach. The television broadcasts should always strive to improve, but that’s not the long-term answer. Neither is manufactured drama, whether it is promoting rivalries that don’t exist or messing up a points system that had worked so well.
The answer is a full-fledged effort in marketing. I’m not talking about just throwing more money at the problem. It needs to be a fully thought-out marketing campaign that could take a couple of years to roll out. Throwing anything out there quickly results in embarrassing attempts like "I am Indy". The series has been woefully lacking in marketing for years. Those that think that marketing makes no difference are living in dreamland. How do you think that ESPN built a brand around poker or the X-Games? Through marketing. You can have the best product in the world, but if you don’t know how to market it – no one will buy it. With changing tastes in the audience, you need a top-notch marketing plan laced with creativity to make this product attractive to the younger audience. Like it or not, that’s the audience we need for the future. I don’t care for a lot of the changes being made to the sport, but I’d rather see the sport change than to go away.
I cut Mark Miles and company very little slack over the past year. It seemed as if he and the board of Hulman and Company were content to just sit back and hope that things happened. Lately, we’ve seen strong evidence that a lot has been going on behind the scenes. Now that Miles has his team of CJ O’Donnell as Chief Marketing Officer and Jay Frye as Chief Revenue Officer – I am much more optimistic.
When I say stay the course, it is easier said than done. I know, I know – the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, yet expecting different results. But top executives haven’t stayed around the IndyCar offices very long in the past. For various reasons, there has been a revolving door, making it very hard to build any continuity or momentum. I now fully believe that Mark Miles has a plan. He didn’t rise to his position by being clueless. Hopefully, he will put a stop to the revolving door and allow the executive team the time it will take to execute the plan.