The confirmation that NBC Sports Network is going away after 2021 was hardly shocking. It had been rumored for months. But the immediate reaction of gloom and doom is hardly justified, especially when you examine the facts, think about the past three years, and try to gauge the future of IndyCar on television.
While fans, teams and sponsors will always be grateful to Roger Penske for keeping IndyCar on track in 2020, they should be equally appreciative of NBC’s efforts to keep the series relevant since becoming its exclusive partner in 2018. Never has IndyCar or the Indianapolis 500 received the non-stop promotion or exposure that NBC and NBCSN provided.
NBC picked up the option for 2021 and we should all pray it wants to continue into the future, but it’s not like IndyCar has a lot of leverage or offers a great bargain. Sure, the racing is great, but a quick glance at the 2020 ratings almost makes you wonder why anyone would want to keep spending money on what has become a very niche sport.
In 12 races (six on NBC and six on NBCSN) last season, the average audience was 664,000, not counting the Friday race on USA (223,000) and the Indy 500, held in August that had a record low rating of 2.29 (3.7 million). NBC races averaged 891,000 and NBCSN 432,000. By comparison, NBC’s most expensive motorsports property, NASCAR, averaged 3.2 million in its eight network races and 2.5 million overall when the 19 races on network and cable were totaled.
Yet IndyCar had the same number of network races as NASCAR and will increase that number to nine in 2021, which is almost as hard to believe as having 22-24 cars at every race. To think NBC cleared space for nine races in the face of such abysmal ratings would seem to be a good indicator of its continued commitment to trying to raise IndyCar’s profile.
And that makes all the hand-wringing about losing NBCSN and shifting to the USA Network or Peacock streaming almost comical. It’s simply part of the process in keeping current with the ever-changing ways in which we watch sports, or movies or anything else.
USA is second only to ESPN with 86 million households (NBCSN had 80 million) and the Peacock streaming service is already at 21 million and evidently NBC intends to show some NASCAR, NHL and Premier League soccer on both of those outlets this year. Eventually, if NBC continues with IndyCar past 2021, practice, qualifying and maybe a few races will wind up there as well.
Based on demand, if NBC re-ups for 2022 and puts IndyCar on network three or four times and the rest on USA, it wouldn’t be unrealistic and assuming USA would help promote, why wouldn’t it be as good an option since it appeals to a larger and more diverse audience that might stumble onto an IndyCar race and watch?
I’ve already received a bunch of letters saying that IndyCar needs to drop NBC and go to ESPN or FOX. Guess what? ESPN doesn’t want IndyCar, and if it did, you might be lucky to be on ESPN Plus. FOX had zero interest last time I checked. It’s committed to Cup and trucks. And you’ve paid for NBCSN for years, so what’s the big deal about paying for USA (basic cable) or $5 a month for Peacock? We all have to pay people, it’s just a matter of your priorities.
NASCAR’s massive contract with NBC doesn’t expire until 2024 and you can bet that it’s going to be renegotiated for a reduced sum, but stock cars are still the big dog while IndyCar, IMSA and Supercross fight for the table scraps of rights fees.
It’s possible R.P. might have to explore a deal similar to IMSA, which is owned by NASCAR and takes care of the transmission, audio, cameras and production at all sports car races. The Captain owns IMS Productions, which has the trucks and technology to produce race telecasts, so that might be one way to keep NBC in play if it were having second thoughts. When he helped start CART in 1979, R.P. struck a deal with NBC and its sports boss, Don Ohlmeyer, to televise the races and it was a time buy, in which the network sold air time to CART. That eventually morphed into a partnership with Ohlmeyer Productions and lasted several years.
“With Roger running things, he could rethink the whole thing and maybe it’s time to start with a clean sheet of paper,” said Paul Page, the longtime IndyCar play-by-play man and IMS voice of Indianapolis.
IndyCar might have to go to time buys to keep a presence on national television because it’s difficult to see CBS, ABC, ESPN or FOX having any interest in anything except the Indy 500. But nobody knows what television is going to look like in five years. We may be watching everything on our cell phones or piping all programming through our internet system onto our TVs. When Kevin Kalkhoven suggested that maybe Champ Car just stream all its races on the internet back in 2004 we all laughed, but now that’s much more of a viable idea.
Sponsors still seem to demand television exposure, so hopefully NBC will keep motorsports in its rotation down the road and keep giving IndyCar a public platform. It’s IndyCar’s best chance – if not its only one.