The world of IndyCar racing has had a great first half of a season. There's been Tony Kanaan's emotionally charged win at Indy, Helio's chase for a championship, and lately, "The Scott Dixon Show." There's been the rebirth of Pocono, a track BUILT for IndyCars, and two "double headers."
What's happening off the track, however, has the potential to be a long term game changer.
TelevisionNBC's purchase of the back half of the Sprint Cup season (and virtually all things NASCAR, meaning Nationwide, and assorted other odds and ends,) means that come 2015, NBC will become THE network for motorsports. It also means a considerable number of variables as this move relates to IndyCar. At this point, any outcome of this move is going to be speculative at best, and more likely SWAG (Substantially a Wild Ass Guess.) Nonetheless, we do know a few things.
First of all, the TV ratings for IndyCar are awful. There are a lot of possible explanations for this, but not one of them has anything to do with the quality of the product that is airing on NBCSN or ABC. With the advent of the DW-12, we've seen a huge improvement in the competitive nature of the racing on road and street circuits. And really, how do you match 68 passes for the lead at Indy this year? Parity, at least in the first part of the year has been the rule rather than the exception, and until Dixie started his current rampage, the "Big Two" really had not done very much. At the very least, the "Big Two" has morphed into the "Big Three," but even with that, other teams have made huge strides with their programs.
On the NBCSN side, Leigh Diffey has been an adequate replacement for Bob Jenkins in the anchor chair, although Diffey's first "love" is F-1. With both F-1 and IndyCar on the docket at NBCSN, when there has been conflict, Diffey has called F-1, leaving (insert replacement here) to call the IndyCar races. I don't think I will upset too many IndyCar fans in suggesting that the NBC folks should be grooming Kevin Lee to take over that chair. Short term, he should be filling in when Diffey is doing F-1; long term, I think Kevin could be the TV "face" of IndyCar for years to come. I can't think of too many people who are more knowledgeable about IndyCar current, while respecting the long held traditions. Let's face it: Kevin Lee is "everyman." He's not a screamer, he's not into making the broadcast all about him, but he's consistently well prepared and he knows his stuff.
Maybe because they were the "new kid on the block," NBCSN has more than fulfilled its obligation as a partner to the IndyCar series,
As NBC steps boldly into NASCAR, however, you have to wonder where IndyCar will fall in the pecking order. In announcing their deal, NBC acknowledged that several Cup races will be on NBCSN, as well as most of the Nationwide series races and other ancillary races. That fills a LOT of prime air time. See ya' later, Bill Dance and have a nice day, Jimmy Houston; So much for the former "fishing channel." F-1, because most of it is multiple time zones away, isn't nearly as much of a factor, but, as things stand now, there will be at least two F-1 races in North America to consider.
And, it isn't just other racing entities that are on NBC's horizons. The NBC is also picking up the English Premier League in soccer. While F-1 is not so much to worry about because of their scheduling and the time difference, the Premier League dominates the weekend, much as the NFL does here. Between live and tape delay matches, they are going to have a rather large footprint on the broadcast schedule. Considering that soccer, "the beautiful game," is the most popular sport world wide, it is easy to see that finding a slot for ratings-challenged IndyCar in the schedule could well be a problem for the peacock family.
Then, there's the other 800 lb. gorilla in the room, the one wearing the Disney mouse ears. With Nationwide and Cup going the way of the peacock, ABC/ESPN is going to have to replace a large pile of programming. After Labor Day, this is no problem, since ABC/ESPN has a huge stake in college football and once "College Game Day" starts at 10 am, it's easy to see NCAA football running all the way up to and including the 11 pm hour. That does leave Sundays open, but who wants to go head to head with the NFL anyway. As a fan of both, I can tell you that once the NFL starts, my DVR usage for IndyCar increases dramatically. It's no wonder that Mark Miles has expressed a desire to start and end the IndyCar season earlier. I very much believe in the old baseball adage, "Hit 'em where they ain't," and honestly, the sports agenda is a whole lot less crowded in February and March than in September and October.
Personally, I'd love to see some sort of IndyCar activity on the "off" weekend between the NFL Conference Championships and the Super Bowl. Maybe that's the time for a second race in Brazil, or even a return to Surfer's Paradise. Or, how about Phoenix? In so doing, you get out front of NASCAR. It's a totally "lost" weekend sports wise, aside from the (ahem) Pro Bowl. Even if you take a short sabbatical of 2-3 weeks after that, you're getting in front of eyes when they are not under the influence of other sports. Put it on the "big" NBC (or ABC) and promote the living Hell out of it.
There are some who believe that IndyCar should go "all in" with ABC/ESPN after NASCAR moves on to NBC. One of the most telling quotes I've heard to this came in a tweet to "Trackside," which said, "I want IndyCar to be on a network, not a fishing channel." (I'm wondering if the source of that tweet still calls IndyCar "the IRL.") Trust me, once all this new programming kicks in, NBCSN will no longer be a "fishing channel." Initially, I thought this was an idea that deserved some consideration. The more I've thought about it, though, the less I like that alternative. First, I've had issues with ABC's presentation of IndyCar. Anyone who knows me knows that I am less-than-fond of Marty Reid and adding Scott Goodyear to the equation is like adding a handful of Nembutal to your normal nightly dosage of Ambien. Good night, sleep tight. Eddie Cheever, who initially showed a dry wit and humor, seems to have fallen into this trance as well.
Additionally, Disney has shown me very little in concern for the overall health of the series beyond their coverage of the Indianapolis 500. Sure, they have 4 other races on their docket now, but they have shown almost no proclivity to promote the series, in spite of their huge stake in the 500. Any future dealings with Disney should address that relationship, since any further dealings with the House of Mouse will probably involve the whole IndyCar season, rather than 5 or 6 races. Again, however, how much IndyCar can request/demand of a broadcast partner when the ratings are so bad is questionable.
Finally, there's one other consideration where TV relates to attendance, and it's something that I had not even thought about until Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee brought it up on "Trackside." That is, that NASCAR gives its tracks a piece of the TV pie, while IndyCar does not. Consequently, most of the tracks NASCAR visits are virtually guaranteed a profit by virtue of the TV money before they even open the gates. (I'll go into this a little deeper when I get into the "$100 Million" segment, but this difference also plays on the next segment about attendance, in that the Brickyard has live local TV which the 500 does not. This undoubtedly has an effect on the live gate when you consider that the Brickyard 400 drew a local TV rating of 13.7.)
AttendanceI'm not giving away any state secrets when I say that attendance at IndyCar events, with the exception of Indianapolis, is a challenge. Contrary to popular opinion, this is not exclusive to IndyCar. Look at the crowd (or lack thereof,) at IMS last weekend for the Brickyard 400. Sure, 75-80,000 people is probably somewhere in the top 10 for American motorsports attendance, but in a facility with 240,000 (or thereabouts) permanent seats, it LOOKS empty. Daytona has the same problem, which is why they are reducing the number of seats for sale.(More on Daytona later.) In accordance with the upgrade of IMS to make the Speedway compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, some of that is going to happen.
Some of the mindless morons who have nothing better to do than denigrate everything IndyCar blame the whole attendance fiasco on Tony George. They speak in hushed and glowing terms of the pre-1995 CART series as the ultimate in open wheel racing. Two problems with this incessant bleating: IF it was all Tony George, then why does NASCAR have the same problem at their signature track? And, why does the Indianapolis 500 continue to draw in excess of 300,000 to 16th and Georgetown, while the Brickyard 400 draws MAYBE a third of that over the whole Brickyard weekend?
And this goes way deeper than just motorsports. The NBA has attendance issues, as does the NHL. Maybe not to the extreme of IndyCar, but noteworthy nonetheless. Even the almighty NFL is working on ways to make a better experience of attending games, some stadiums even adding a Red Zone Channel feature to their message boards. Some teams routinely buy their remaining single game tix to keep their games on TV.
I've touched on these issues several times over the last few years.
Among (but not limited to) the changes between the "good old days" and now, consider the following. First, almost every home now has HDTV. Where it once was a struggle to read the numbers on the jersey, the viewer now gets a full frontal view of each individual blade of (mostly fake) grass. Along with the techno advances, there is no shortage of alternatives to watch. In the "golden" year of 1995, for example, I had cable TV and maybe 60 channels. The NFL was one or two 1 pm games, one game at 4 pm, and prime time on Monday Night Football. Now, I have DirecTv and more than 300 channels, and virtually EVERY NFL game, every Thursday, Sunday, and Monday. Point is, there are way more choices for entertainment. (And we didn't even talk about the internet and wireless, which will probably dominate over the NEXT 18 years.)
While the TV option has improved dramatically, live sports have done their level best to keep up. They build more, better, bigger, brighter, newer stadia, (often on the backs of the taxpayers, but that's a whole 'NOTHER story.) The upshot of all this? Well, if you regularly attend live sports, you know. It. Costs. More. LOTS More. In this respect, a ticket to the 500 was a bargain, at least until the most recent price increase. Even at the former bargain price of a ticket, by the time you add in meals, hotels, spending cash, gas, souvenirs, and incidentals, you're pretty solidly into a $1000 weekend if you're going to Indy from somewhere other than central Indiana. With the economy the way it is, the number of people who have the disposable income to allow for this type of expenditure is dwindling.
I attended every 500 from 1971 until 1987 with two exceptions: 1972 when I was in college in Atlanta, and 1986 when work intervened. During those years, I lived in either Indiana or Ohio plus my parents had a home in Anderson, Indiana, about an hour and a half from IMS. I can say that there is NOTHING like being there, particularly during the pre-race ceremonies. Once I moved to South Carolina in 1990, it became prohibitive in terms of time, travel and job. After I experienced the race on live TV, it became hard to justify the expense in time, travel, and money to do a trip to see a race where, even from the best seat money could buy, you were only going to see half the track or less. (In fairness, I have never sat in the Penthouse seats on race day.)
Once you added in the convenience of an extended bar and food menu, a comfortable recliner, and a restroom that was a short distance from said recliner (and did not STINK,) it became a no brainer. And that was BEFORE I had HDTV.
I did renew my acquaintance with IMS in 2011 and saw some of the changes that had taken place in more recent years. The details of most of that visit are documented in blog posts from 2011, but to give you the short version, IMS is not a particularly friendly place for older people. (And, I am sure that some of that will be helped by the ADA changes that are forthcoming.) There's a great deal of walking, stair climbing, standing, and jostling with other humans in varying states of sobriety. I took these things for granted in my twenties and thirties. Now, in my late 50's, not so much.
The point to all this personal input is this: If someone who is a much a fan of sports in general and IndyCar in particular as I am can stay away, how do venues offer enough to get the average fan? Or a NEW one? (And THAT, dear reader, is where the $100 Million comes in.)
$100 MillionBack in February, I wrote a piece entitled "A Sad Day for the Speedway." In it, I lamented the fact that the Speedway folks had applied for $100 Million in state funds to upgrade the facility. Since that time, that process has come to fruition and I have changed my mind. Part of that is the fact that the city has been held hostage twice (once by the Pacers for the Fieldhouse and once by the Colts for Lucas Oil Stadium) and neither one of those franchises has as long a history or contributed anything like the economic impact of the Speedway.
So now, with an augmented checkbook available, how should the $100 million be spent.
As I noted earlier, IMS has to keep the folks who enforce the ADA happy, first and foremost. This should include making the facility more friendly to older fans as well as those with disabilities. If it's MY checkbook, that comes first. Next on my list would be some serious upgrades in terms of facilities and particularly restrooms. You can call me a snob if you wish, but if my wife doesn't have a reasonably clean restroom, she's not coming back, and (by extension) neither am I. True, the Speedway has come a long way from the dirt floored troughs in the infield of the '70's, but still...
Considering that there are a lot of us who are not as young and spry as we used to be, could there be some way of developing a shuttle or tram system to get folks from the main entrance on 16th Street to their assigned seating areas? There are acres of busses that bring race fans to the main gate; Once they get there, however, they're unceremoniously dumped out and have to walk as much as a mile and a half, carrying coolers, purses, and whatever personal belongings they've brought to the race and then repeat the process afterward. Implementation of some sort of transit system could also help the huge backlog that security faced at this year's 500.
The video boards, once a bellwether of technology, need to be replaced, as does the PA system which probably dates back to the mid 1980's.
I don't know what the exact dimensions are for seats at IMS, but they sure seem smaller to me than in my younger days. Since you're not going to sell every seat in the place anymore, how about taking a couple of seats off of each row and make the remaining ones a little wider? Longer term, I think the Speedway should adopt a gradual replacement of bleacher style seating. Start with the higher priced areas and make these changes on a gradual, yearly basis. THIS is the type of thinking that made Tony Hulman (and to a lesser extend his grandson, Tony George) such an outstanding steward of the facility. During my years of attending the 500, it was pretty much standard that there would be some replacement or upgrade of some type almost every year.
In order to protect the future income stream from the Brickyard 400, there needs to be some study of what can be done to get more folks excited about the summer weekend. IMS NEEDS NASCAR, probably more than NASCAR needs IMS. The income from the Brickyard 400 helps to fund IndyCar and pay for other improvements in the physical plant. My perception of the problems with the NASCAR race are several. First, when you have racing in July, Indy is likely to be hot and humid. Would it be preferable to have the race later in the year? Of course, but NASCAR is not likely to rearrange their "Chase" to include the Brickyard 400 in the season's final 10 races. (Nor am I real certain the Colts would like that very much, and to be completely honest, the NFL is the toughest kid on the block.)
I think it is safe to say that elimination of live local TV for the Brickyard might help. When you consider that the Brickyard 400 drew a 13.7 rating in Indy, it's not hard to imagine that at least some of those people would be attending if the race was not on live TV. NASCAR's TV deals, however, might be a problem. I can't imagine a lot of their sponsors being too thrilled with losing a top 15 market for their advertising dollars.
The weather that we saw this past weekend was probably the optimum for what you can get in July and still, attendance was not what anyone had hoped, particularly for the Nationwide race on Saturday and the sports car events on Friday. That made a lot of people wonder whether adding lights would help attendance very much. And, as it pertains to TV ratings, the numbers show that NASCAR races on Saturday night don't do as well as the Sunday daytime events.
Lights, as a percentage of the $100 million "pie" would eat up $20 million or 20% of those funds MINIMUM. So, before we write that check, we had better know two things: 1. How long will it take to defray that cost? and 2. Will it actually help attendance long term? If you can't answer "yes" to the second, you have almost no hope of achieving the first.
The plusses to adding lights to IMS are several. You can run the Brickyard 400 at night, ensuring that you're not broiling your fan base on sun-baked aluminum. You can add some hours to your sports car event, maybe making it a bigger "draw." You can extend hours for your signature event, the 500, if Indiana weather dictates (and we can all remember more than a few years when it has dictated.) You can use the IMS grounds for other events (such as concerts,) to provide additional income streams. For that matter, some have suggested that a second IndyCar oval race could be held at night, though that might risk stealing some of the thunder of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
On the other hand, the cost is HUGE. There are serious security concerns. Sure, Speedway handles night time traffic outside the track the night before the 500, but I've often questioned what it would be like to let loose 80-100,000 race fans (or more) all leaving IMS at 11 pm or after, in widely varying states of sobriety. As far as the racing is concerned, Curt Cavin pointed out that because of the cooler temps, the tires would grip better. That in and of itself says that it may not help the racing become any more competitive.
My gut tells me that more competitive racing would likely put more butts in seats. Face it, the last few Brickyard races have been snooze fests. Kevin Lee said something on "Trackside" this week with which I absolutely agree: Bring back the apron (in some form or another.) You want to see new track records for IndyCar? Bring back the old apron, and you'll have them next year. You want more racing space for NASCAR so there's more passing? Same answer.
We have a reasonable expectation that lights for the Speedway would cost at least $20 million and it's not certain that the addition and expenditure is going to solve the bigger issue. (Nor is it certain that the investment of that size can be recouped in a timely manner.) I can think of an awful lot of "fixes" that can be accomplished by spending that $20 million on other projects. For that matter, you could reconfigure the bottom of the racing surface and add some sort of apron for probably 10% of that $20 million and now you've helped BOTH your significant events become more exciting.
Since the ouster of Tony George from the IMS hierarchy, there has been a sense that the "bean counters" were now in charge. As a result, some of the things that fans maybe took for granted have been allowed to slide. The funding is now in place to make IMS the "Grand Cathedral of Speed" that the hundred plus year old facility should be. Those funds should be spent wisely with an eye toward making the experience of EVERY fan that comes through the gates an unforgettable experience.