Conversations about IMSA and the growth of its WeatherTech SportsCar Championship have followed a similar pattern since the series was launched in 2014. Even now, in its fifth season, those conversations come to an end with the same conclusion: The cars are cool, fast, and diverse; the tracks on the schedule are amazing; and now, with big names like Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya, Team Penske, and Team Joest involved to draw interest, everything is on an upward swing… except for its TV ratings.
With its upcoming move from FOX Sports to NBC Sports in 2019, IMSA has taken a big step towards addressing those ratings; they’ve been the one lingering problem that has kept the WeatherTech Championship from reaching its full potential.
It’s worth stating right up front that I worked for FOX for eight years at the former SPEED Channel, have been a sporadic contributor to its endurance racing broadcasts, and have deep ties to the men and women who produce and present its IMSA content. The problem of low ratings has, as I’ve seen it, been unrelated to the people putting on the show.
As a company, FOX’s interest in endurance racing has continually diminished since it turned SPEED into FOX Sports 1 in 2013. And with the option of using its widely unavailable FOX Sports 2 channel for whatever’s fallen out of favor, IMSA has seen far too many hours of its racing dispatched to FS2’s purgatory.
The Nielsen numbers haven’t been bad on FS1, and with its brief appearances on big FOX, the WeatherTech Championship has occasionally handed its teams, their sponsors, and the numerous auto manufacturers involved in the series something positive to report. But with the ongoing use of FS2, which often generates ratings too low to mention – below a 0.1 – those sponsors and manufacturers have had an increasingly hard time justifying their investment in the series. And that’s where the NBC Sports deal offers hope.
The Verizon IndyCar Series has been a model of all that’s possible with NBC Sports, and with its full-time move to NBC/NBCSN in 2019, further increases in its Nielsen ratings are expected. To be fair, IndyCar’s numbers on NBCSN have not been insanely high, but as an example of a series and broadcast partner working in tandem, IndyCar has been one of few racing properties to deliver a genuine growth in audience size.
Well aware of IndyCar’s ratings story, IMSA’s manufacturers and teams have been begging the series’ leadership for relief. As part of NBC Sports’ consolidated motorsports programming with IndyCar and NASCAR, IMSA’s new six-year deal to place the WeatherTech Championship on NBC and NBCSN is a massive victory for every brand involved with the series.
“They’ve got a terrific portfolio, and I completely agree,” said IMSA CEO Ed Bennett. “The NBC Sports Group, they’re passionate about motorsports, and they’re a promotional powerhouse. We think they’re going to do tremendous things to further develop IMSA’s fan base, awareness, audience, popularity – all of the above.
“NBC Sports Group, is much more keen to have an advanced marketing and cross-promotion strategy within their different properties, so they’re going to be doing things to promote, tune in to promote building a fan base. They’re going to be doing things on their own because they want to grow the audience. They believe in the property. They’re passionate about it.
“Honestly, it was a really good process. I think we really talked to all the major broadcast players that could be available for a partnership, and we were fortunate to have multiple options and ultimately came to the conclusion that this was the best place for IMSA and for our stakeholders. We thought that would generate the most value from a distribution, from a marketing promotion and all that should ultimately equal consumption and ratings. We think we’re going to have the best outcome, of everything that was available, with this partnership with NBC Sports Group.”
Live streaming through mobile apps, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other online destinations has become an increasingly important part of every series’ broadcasting strategy. With its new partner, the NBC Sports App will feature heavily in IMSA’s future, especially for the endurance races that last between six and 24 hours.
“I think it’s the modern media distribution model,” Bennett said. “Obviously, linear is still primary, but digital is growing like crazy, and you’ve got to have a good digital strategy and digital partner. Our standard [2h40m] races, you would expect them to be uninterrupted on linear and digital. When we get to the longer races, on the digital side, to be able to say that it’s uninterrupted regardless of any shifting that may occur on linear, is great.”
With the nine hours of airtime secured for the WeatherTech Championship on NBC’s big network, IMSA is looking at a usage plan that would provide more frequent rating bumps to its Nielsen numbers.
“You’d probably want three hours for the Rolex 24 At Daytona, three hours for the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, and you’d probably want three hours against Petit Le Mans at the end of the year,” he said. “Start with a big show and close out the season the same way. Then, obviously, NBCSN will play a big role and our digital offering is there uninterrupted, seamless to consumers, all season.”
The last area of interest for me at this stage comes with the exceptional talent involved with IMSA’s current broadcasts. NBC Sports will definitely need to hire more hosts, pit reporters and production staff for its new sports car property, and if we’re lucky, some of the experts we’ve come to know at FOX will continue presenting the series in 2019 and beyond.
“The honest answer is we’ve had very preliminary conversations, and we’ve got, thankfully, enough time to work through all that the right and professional way,” Bennett said. “We want to have the best possible mix of talent that can be on the broadcast and tell the story, and I think there will be opportunities, whether it’s people that are currently very familiar with the property or people that may have been in the past. I just think that it’s probably going to be a mix. I don’t know where it will land in the final decision, but it’s been preliminarily discussed.”
IMSA, IndyCar and NASCAR will soon be under one broadcast roof. Of the three, I can’t wait to see how NBC Sports’ passion for racing takes the WeatherTech Championship to a level it has always dreamed of, but never known.