PRUETT: The war ahead for air time

PRUETT: The war ahead for air time

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: The war ahead for air time


A fun new distraction has emerged during the early days of racing’s COVID-19 shutdown.

With the slate cleared for IndyCar through March and April, and IMSA’s year sidelined though the majority of May, predicting the replacement race dates for events like Barber Motorsports Park, Circuit of The Americas, and Mid-Ohio has consumed a decent amount of time.

Driven by IndyCar’s desired return to action in May at the Indianapolis Grand Prix, followed immediately by the Indy 500, identifying free weekends over summer to place the postponed events — or after the season finale on September 20 in Monterey — has made for interesting reading on social media.

The same is true for NASCAR, and the Road to Indy, as both organizations seek to run a full schedule, albeit a compact one, where a sizable amount of racing will be packed into a tight timeframe.

All four series have one thing in common, which means the first and most important scheduling phone calls they can make is to their shared broadcaster, NBC Sports.

NBC’s portion of the NASCAR calendar will add to what figures to be a huge pool of sports events vying for space on its networks. Image courtesy of NBC Sports Group

IndyCar, IMSA, and the RTI live full-time on NBC, NBCSN, or NBC Gold, and when NASCAR reaches the June 21 race at Chicagoland, it moves from FOX to the peacock network for the remainder of the season. Once it’s time to find new homes for the original race dates lost to the coronavirus, NBC, rather than the series, will hold the decision-making power over when and where it can accommodate those make-up events.

The affected racing series and their teams are already worried sick about delivering value for their sponsors in these newly-compromised times; the only salvation to offer is the strong likelihood of quality viewership once racing fans can tune in to watch their favorite series return from hiatus. With TV as king, the aforementioned series wouldn’t think of naming new dates for Barber and the rest until NBC gives the green light for coverage.

Viewed from a wider perspective, NBC Sports will have more than its racing series to reschedule for broadcast.

Postponed golf, tennis, hockey, track and field, and soccer events will also need new homes on the make-up calendar, and bear in mind that the NFL season begins in September where NBC has a slice of the football pie, and the Summer Olympics to air. Depending on the increasing number of delayed sporting contests for NBC to juggle later in 2020, we’re looking at a lot of hungry mouths to feed and only so much quality food to offer.

As much as we love racing, it’s far from a secret that in the ratings pecking order, stick-and-ball sports are the high-value assets to air in the finer slots. NASCAR will eat — we know that much — but where will the series who draw smaller audiences land on the rescheduling depth chart? Farther down than the IndyCars and IMSAs would like, unfortunately.

Circling free weekends and building the perfect post-virus calendar is a great way to pass time, but until we know how many races have fallen off the the schedule, it’s impossible to guess what NBC can offer, and when.

The last item to consider for now is rapidly becoming a necessity for NBC’s broadcast partners.

IndyCar has a couple of March-April races to book and run later in the year; IMSA and NASCAR are in the same boat and, as of today, the volume of postponed races for NBC to process and place on a future broadcast schedule is manageable. But what if there’s a sudden spike of delayed events to handle?

It’s a pressing topic being debated inside those series at this moment. Is slow-walking the process of postponing the next few races, done to help project calm and confidence to their sponsors and fans, the right mindset? Or would taking a more aggressive approach to the inevitable delays coming in May and June, and announcing those postponements now, improve their odds of being first in line to secure better TV dates later in the year?

Waiting to the last minute to postpone has its merits, but for those who show up late to NBC, table scraps might be all that’s left to offer.

NBC fought to get Indy, but in just its second year on the peacock network, familiar date equity is in jeopardy. Image by Scott LePage/LAT

The biggest elephant in the room is the Indy 500. The crown jewel of North American motorsports deserves the best broadcast package possible, but based on every credible projection available, it would take a coronavirus-killing miracle for the pandemic to be suppressed and large-scale gatherings to be permitted by race day on May 24.

It feels as if some have mistaken the series’ pause through the end of April as an indicator that all will be clear by May. It won’t. Let’s be clear on that front. And I’m told there’s no chance it will be run without the usual 300,000-plus fans in attendance.

In the last 48 hours, Formula 1 postponed its legendary Monaco Grand Prix — held, like the Indy 500, on May 24 — and the world-renowned 24 Hours of Le Mans has been pushed back to September 19-20 by its sanctioning body. With racing’s ‘Triple Crown’ of great events, only the Indy 500 stands firm on its original weekend. For now. If IndyCar want to lock a premium broadcast date in place for ‘The Greatest Spectacle In Racing,’ there’s a strong argument to be made on pulling the postponement trigger sooner than later.

For many of us, racing is our oxygen. We need it to resume, and as quickly as possible. It’s hard, though, to see how that happens before we get to the summer months, at the earliest, which would present a nightmarish scenario for NBC to manage with dozens of extra events to cram into a shrinking broadcast window.

Be prepared to clear your DVRs and burn through your mobile data plans when racing resumes. And for once, I doubt we’ll be complaining about suffering through long offseasons. At the moment, things are far from awesome with all the racing that has fallen prey to the COVID-19 virus, but once we reach the other side, man, I’m not sure how we’re going to keep up with the flurry of action.