Is The New IndyCar TV Deal Nearly Done?

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OK, maybe that headline was a little misleading. But I couldn’t come up with anything else to describe this article in the short space allotted. Truth be told, it could be nearly done or it may be months from now. No one really knows, and I certainly have no clue. But logic would say that it’s probably not too much longer before we know the details of the new contract.

It’s been almost ten years since the Verizon IndyCar Series had a new TV package. The last time it was considered a disaster that Tony George had negotiated, but it ended up working out pretty well.

Previously, all of the races had been on ABC/ESPN. IndyCar fans were frustrated with them as a partner because the perception was that they got no love from ESPN. If the programming prior to any IndyCar race went long, the race start was shifted to either ESPN News or ESPN Classic. If the IndyCar race went long, the end of the race got moved to another channel. It seemed that the IndyCar race never got precedence over any of their other programming. IndyCar always seemed to get bumped in favor of golf, women’s bowling or poker.

Dissatisfied fans were told to be glad that ESPN had another outlet to shift their races to. Other networks may not have such an option. Selfishly, that was a problem because my cable system doesn’t carry ESPN Classic. I was forced to find the radio broadcast online to hear the end of a race that was sent over to ESPN Classic.

When IndyCar fans learned that Tony George had locked up a deal with Versus for most of the races for ten years, they were outraged. What was Versus? Does my cable system even carry it? Those were some of the questions. Versus was the old Outdoor Life Channel (OLN) that carried mostly hunting and fishing programming, and was owned by Comcast. When they picked up the NHL after their strike, they changed the name to Versus, to indicate competition. Most people had never heard of Versus and didn’t seem to have the wherewithal to find it on their system.

And what in the world was Tony George thinking about by signing a ten-year agreement? We were going to be on this tiny no-name channel that no one had heard of for a decade. We were afraid it could be the death knell for IndyCar if we couldn’t get out of the deal.

To our surprise, this little channel that most had never heard of; had superior coverage to that provided by ABC/ESPN, who was down to only five races per year. While ABC/ESPN offered up the insufferable Marty Reid along with Scott Goodyear; Versus was led by the popular Bob Jenkins alongside Robbie Buhl and Jon Beekhuis. In the pits was Jack Arute (who did double-duty with ABC/ESPN), Robbie Floyd and Lindy Thackston.

Most fans, including myself, quickly learned to appreciate the Versus production. The crew seemed to do a much better job than ABC/ESPN, but most importantly – Versus seemed very happy to have IndyCar on their channel. They built in lengthy pre-and post-race shows, and the announcing crew during the races was excellent. It didn’t take long to get to the point that we circled the Versus races on the schedule, because we knew that IndyCar would be given top-priority and not bounced around.

Versus also gave full-coverage to Indianapolis 500 Qualifying. While ABC still had the race, Versus devoted six hours of programming per day during qualifying.

So what was the downside to Versus? If die-hard IndyCar fans were going to have trouble finding the races, how on earth would the casual fan? Walk into any sports bar in the US and the main TV is most likely tuned to ESPN or one of its affiliates. Sure, it’ll be CBS, TruTV, TNT or TBS during the upcoming NCAA tournament; but on any given off-weekend in the summer – ESPN will be the default channel. When I sit down at home, the first thing I do is pick up the remote and go to channel 1205, which is ESPN HD. I work my way from there, but I automatically default to ESPN strictly out of habit.

But IndyCar fans hit a stroke of luck a few years into the lengthy contract. Comcast bought NBC in 2011 and Versus was re-branded and re-launched as the NBC Sports Network on Jan 2, 2012. Suddenly, the new NBCSN had clout and instant credibility. Coincidentally, it was suddenly only two channels up from ESPN and the next one after ESPN2 on my Comcast system.

One wondered if the IndyCar coverage would suffer now that NBCSN was part of NBC. It didn’t. In fact, it improved. Robin Miller and Kevin Lee had already joined the team in 2011. Former driver Paul Tracy would follow, along with Townsend Bell. Bob Jenkins retired to take care of his ailing wife, who sadly passed away soon afterwards. F1 announcer Leigh Diffee was brought over to handle the IndyCar duties also. But the current contract with ABC/ESPN states that they have exclusive over-the-air rights, meaning the non-ABC races must air on cable on NBCSN, and not on “big” over-the-air NBC.

ABC/ESPN has added Eddie Cheever to all of the broadcasts and mercifully replaced Marty Reid with Allen Bestwick. Recently they have handled the opener at St. Petersburg, then go away until the Month of May. They now do the IndyCar GP, Qualifying and the Indianapolis 500. One week later, they do the double-header at Belle Isle and that’s it for the season.

It will all change for 2019. How it does is anyone’s guess. The broadcasting landscape and the viewing habits of consumers has drastically changed since the last contract was negotiated in 2008.

IndyCar CEO Mark Miles is in the midst of final negotiations for the next IndyCar TV deal. This is probably the most important act Miles has faced in his tenure as CEO. He has made it quite clear that he would prefer one partner for all of the IndyCar linear (or traditional) broadcasts. That way, viewers know which channel each race will be on and there is more consistency. In the nineties, when you heard Paul Page, you had a pretty good idea you had tuned into an IndyCar race.

Miles has also made it clear that he would prefer a much shorter contract than the one Tony George signed ten years ago. It worked out that Versus became NBCSN, but it could have just as easily gone the other way. This was no strategic move. IndyCar got lucky. In this digital world, technology changes so quickly that ten years is an eternity.

This is where things get complicated and I show my age. I’m also getting dangerously close to discussing something that I know little about. Miles has been using terms like OTT or over-the-top has me confused. My understanding is the OTT is an internet streaming package that does not involve a multi-system operator like Comcast or DirecTV. Instead, it can be streamed directly through a service like Netflix or Amazon Prime Video.

As consumers continue to “cut the cord” from traditional cable, sports entities are going to have to explore new avenues for their content. Miles admits that the digital age has not progressed as quickly as many had thought, but it is advancing nonetheless. A couple of years ago, the NFL Thursday Night package was available through Twitter. If I’m not mistaken, it was a huge disappointment.

I know I’m old, but even when I was young I resisted change. I am still a Comcast subscriber and have no real desire to cut the cord. The only real advantage I see to cutting the cord is to save money. I guess I’m lucky that Susan and I can somewhat afford a hefty cable bill, or at least justify it. She loves her movie channels and I like my sports. Yes, we subscribe to Amazon, Netflix and Hulu along with the You Tube app; but the vast majority of our viewing is still through traditional cable.

My generation doesn’t really care to watch movies or sports through a phone or iPad. We like the giant HD screens that are prevalent today. Maybe it’s because my generation grew up on blurry black & white TV’s when there were only three channels available to us. Our generation doesn’t take these screens for granted.

But my generation is slowly dying off. In twenty years, I’ll be pushing eighty – if I’m still alive. It’s not about what my generation wants. It’s what the twenty-five year-olds of today want. They are the current and future consumers and they have made it clear they prefer to get their content on the go – no matter how tiny the screen. So, all sports entities need to be thinking of the streaming aspect and not just what consumers get through their cable box. That’s why Mark Miles is smart to be looking at the over-the-top rights for the next TV deal.

We may be headed there, but we’re not there yet. The majority of viewers in 2018 still enjoy watching races in their den on a big TV. So while the streaming rights may be about the future, the linear rights are about the present.

I don’t know who is at the negotiating table. My guess is that it’s ESPN and NBC. If anyone else is involved, it’s been kept a secret. ESPN currently has the world feed for Formula One and five races with IndyCar. That’s their motorsport portfolio. NBC lost Formula One to ESPN after last season, but they have the second half of the NASCAR season along with two-thirds of the IndyCar season. ABC/ESPN has also had the broadcast rights to the Indianapolis 500 since 1965, for whatever that’s worth.

I’ll be honest – I have no idea how it’s going to go. I know ESPN would like to keep the Indianapolis 500, but I’m not sure they have any interest at all in the other races. NBCSN seems to appreciate the programming opportunities that IndyCar offers them, and I’m sure they covet the Indianapolis 500. They would have to really sweeten the pot for IndyCar to get the whole thing, but given ESPN’s recent financial woes – they just might get it. But who knows?

Who would I like to see get it? NBC. They have the better programming windows, they provide qualifying shows and sometimes even air live practice sessions. Their counterparts at ESPN do the races in a shorter window and that’s it. I also like the on-air talent at NBC better. Allen Bestwick is a pro and does a good job, but Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy are far better than Scott Goodyear and Eddie Cheever in my opinion. I’d also much rather hear from Kevin Lee in the pits than Rick DeBruhl; and Robin Miller’s presence on the NBCSN telecast is priceless.

I also have a hard time forgetting how IndyCar was shuffled around among the different outlets on ESPN. Will that change with the new contract? Would IndyCar get the bigger broadcast windows and ancillary programming throughout the race weekend? Then again, would IndyCar get that with NBC under the terms of the new contract? Also, NBC would have to put some races on big NBC, besides the Indianapolis 500.

There are a lot of questions for Mark Miles to get answered, but as a fan – I want to see some major improvements from ESPN if they get the deal.

One thing is certain, however – IndyCar has much better bargaining power than they did during the last negotiating period a decade ago. They’re ratings are of the few in sports that are on the rise. Sponsorship seems to be increasing and car count is rising. Mark Miles has a whole lot more to work with than Tony George did in 2008. I hope we fans can benefit.

George Phillips

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14 Responses to “Is The New IndyCar TV Deal Nearly Done?”

  1. By retaining Cheever and Goodyear ABC has shown they have no interest in improving their IndyCar presentation this coming year or in the future. I hope Miles chooses another partner

  2. BrandonW77 Says:

    Streaming does not mean you’re watching it on your phone or tablet. I stream lots of stuff (including IndyCar practices) and watch it all on my big tv in my living room thanks to built-in apps on my tv or my AppleTV or Chromecast.

  3. Dave from Mukwonago Says:

    George, I’m surprised you’re advocating for the Indy 500 to be on another network than ABC where it has been from the start. That’s a whole lot change and breaking tradition. However, I agree with you the NBCSN broadcast is way better.

  4. Considering the on-going cost-cutting measures taking place across the board at ESPN, I’d be surprised if they’re even in the conversation with Miles. I assume he’s talking to NBC and FOX. My vote would be NBC, plus additional online offerings. I miss the days of watching actual broadcasts of practice from Indy on rpm today/tonight. I’d be happy with something similar to that online during May. I’d like it even better on NBCSN, but I know nobody’s going to offer up two weeks of daily coverage for one race anymore.

  5. I can’t afford the big cable bill so I’ve not watched a race unless it was on ABC for half of the contract. I don’t have a lot of hope for a major network at this point. If someone who would like to watch all the races can’t, what hope does a potential newbie have?

  6. Still have never seen the finish of the 1996 Las Vegas 500k thanks to ABC, UGH!

    I do say, things like above and also thinking of IRL races that were on TNN or even worse, only on affiliates of CBS or FOX Sports in 1997 or 1998, it could be worse! We still get to see all of the races. I just hope whatever happens, it’s an improvement.

  7. From a standpoint of who provides the best coverage, the winner should be NBC/NBCSN. That said, Fox has very little going on from the time their end of NASCAR concludes until the NFL season begins, so it’s possible they might be as good a fit. One proviso about Fox, however, is that I DO NOT want Gus Johnson calling the 500 or any other IndyCar race. His bombastic style is suited to basketball, but not much else,

    As for ABC/ESPN, I also think Allen Bestwick is a true professional and a major upgrade from Marty Reid, but the rest of the booth is snoresville. I don’t know how many times I’ve mocked Cheever for his incessant, “You are focused on getting through that first corner,” at Indy, but it is an annual occurrence. Cheever DOES have a dry wit, however, and perhaps if paired with someone more animated (like Paul Tracy,) he would improve.

  8. I am so pleased you are commenting on this topic, George. The discussion from the two part interview Marshall Pruett conducted with Mark Miles has bugged me all weekend. I hate admitting to being old school, but so what. I have to agree with you all that Miles is looking to the future and let’s face it, it is not many of us. I now have two new vocabulary words–linear broadcasts and over-the-top. The top of what I haven’t figured out quite yet.

    I appreciate the history of IndyCar broadcasts. I truly didn’t know about OLN carrying the series until finding it by accident one race day. It was like discovering gold! It was even on race day in the senior living complex where my mother lived one Sunday I visited. And who was watching the race–two mature women. (smile) I joined them.

    It would kill me to lose the NBC crew. They click and give us a great show. My hope would be that the 500 would appear on the main peacock channel starting next year. And at least a few races too. The series needs the support of the broadcast network to bring in new fans and funnel them to NBCSN for the other races. That is my vote. No Fox please either. I am still bitter about losing Speed Channel.

  9. “It will all change for 2019. How it does is anyone’s guess.”

    we agree with Bob F.
    “I can’t afford the big cable bill…”

    we cut the cord after Spectrum doubled our cable bill.
    we do streaming now. took about a month to get it right.
    full HD and saving +$2000/year.
    my opinion…take ten days to get your streaming “right”
    and once you’re satisfied, cancel cable/satellite.

  10. I appreciate the history of the IndyCar broadcasts, George. We just happened on OLN one race day and kept coming back. Luckily for all of us the channel was bought by NBC.

    I would like NBC to win a contract for the whole season and do not mind if it is only for 2-3 years. I will be linear for a while and will see what the OTT world brings.

  11. I got rid of cable a few years ago when races and other events became available on YouTube the next day for free. I have no desire to go back to cable. There is frequently live streaming of races. My preference would be to have a major network pick up all the races in addition to the Indy500. Most of all, I hope Mr. Miles can bring some money to the IndyCar series with a new TV package. The current purses are pathetic!

  12. why ABC can’t/won’t find better analysts than Eddie Cheever and Scott Goodyear.

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