TV move: Genius or desperation?

January 26, 2009
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versusMy reaction to last year’s announcement that the Indy Racing League was parting ways with ESPN for lesser known cable channel, Versus, was the same as a lot of the readers of this blog. I was skeptical. After talking to numerous sources within and close to the league, I became convinced that IRL honchos had no choice. I was being told that ESPN—despite having one more year on its deal with the IRL—was threatening not to air some of the 2009 races. IRL officials have denied that.

If you would have asked me last year, I might have told you that the IRL walked the plank with respect to its TV deal. Now, I’m not so sure. First, it should be noted that Versus is owned by Comcast, which I think could make a pretty solid partner. I know, Versus (formerly Outdoor Life Network) is known to some as a hillbilly huntin’ and fishin’ network. Well, I must point out that first, some of those shows attract a pretty loyal following that is not completely incongruous with motorsports. Secondly, Comcast officials are hell-bent on making Versus a more mainstream sports channel. They’re adding hockey, motorsports, and college football and basketball to their line-up at break-neck speeds.

And they intend to make the IRL a pillar of that effort. That’s a far cry from the step-child status the open-wheel series had at ESPN. When was the last time ESPN or ABC (or any network for that matter) promoted the IRL a full 10 weeks before the season started? Versus, started airing on-air promos for the IRL during the NHL all-star game Sunday. Not only that, there were cut-away shots to IRL Chairman Tony George during the game, and on at least two occasions during the game Versus’ TV commentators raved about the series and upcoming season for one minute or so each time. While the NHL all-star game is no blockbuster, it does draw a TV audience or more than 1 million in the U.S. and Canada. And while NHL hockey means very little in this market, it is huge in places like Detroit, New York, Boston, Montreal and Vancouver. Those are not insignificant markets for the IRL.

Another factor that should bolster the IRL’s brand is the comeback of Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong. That happenstance was pure luck on the IRL's part. Since Versus carries comprehensive coverage of bicycle racing, that should give the network, and by association, the IRL another bump. I know cycling is not a big sport here, but it sure is in places like California, Colorado, Washington and New York. Again, not insignificant markets for the IRL. With hockey and cycling fans tuning into the network in growing numbers, that gives the series pretty strong exposure on both coasts and north of the border.

George wasn’t just sitting at Sunday’s NHL game for a few cameo shots, though that kind of exposure sure doesn’t hurt. The NHL all-star game is renowned for its corporate entertainment scene. Montreal rolled out the red carpet for this event the way Indianapolis does for an NCAA Final Four. Versus made sure that George got the full benefit of cross promotions with the biggest names in the corporate NHL world. Again, I ask, when is the last time ESPN/ABC did anything like that for the series? The answer is simple. Never. IRL critics will say that’s because the series is garbage. I’m not here to argue the current state of the series.

Has the IRL made its share of mistakes? Yes. Has Tony George hurt open-wheel racing on some level? Probably. Does the state of the series’ fan following need work? Absolutely. But reality, especially in the world of sports and entertainment, often starts with perception. And Versus, at least has a vested interest and is going to put some muscle into changing that perception.
  • Thanks for the coverage and update, Anthony. Sometimes, it takes risk to reap rewards, and this seems to be a clear cut case of doing just that on behalf of the IRL. Certainly, we will hear from those that will scorn and despise.

    My oldest son is a Major in the Marine Corps and is a dedicated outdoorsman and avid hunter. He watches Versus frequently. For those that would offer disdain, his family is exactly the type of fan that the IRL wants to reach.
  • I heard the same spiel from the NHL on signing with Versus. We will be their #1 priority, blah blah blah. ESPN probably told them to take a hike. They'd rather show poker anyway. It's a lot cheaper to produce. I don't even watch Sports Center any more. ESPN is irrelevant to me.
  • Anthony - you're a tool. I like that you write a blog, but do some research before you waste internet space. IRL wanted to negotiate out of the ESPN deal. ESPN granted them the ability to do so because they didn't think they'd get any responses. ESPN had the right to match any offer. They couldn't. They'd rather send Ed Werner to Valley Ranch to see what T.O. was smoking before the Cowboy's game. If anyone was kicked to the curb, it was ESPN. Right, wrong, or indifferent. Don't just speculate. And as hindsight is 20/ turns out to be a great move. In today's economy, do you think the IRL would have gotten a penny for airing their races had they waited until the end of the current 2009 ESPN contract? Instead, they get a 10 year deal with an emerging property in Versus that is already engaged. Sit on the sidelines and speculate the worst...that's what people like you do. I for one am happy that IRL will be getting 3 hours of raceday coverage, 1 hour qualifying coverage and a consistent re-air slot on Monday's. Check out VERSUS...they keep growing in every important demo. Good for IndyCar. I'll be watching!
  • I, too was happy with the Versus deal from the start. I am hoping that the broadcast is similar to Speed's F1 coverage, which covers the entire grid before the race. I'd much rather watch this then the final few holes of some golf match.

    I could care less if so many cable companies don't carry Versus. I have it on my AT&T package, so I'm happy.
  • Hey Heit, it's Ed Werder, you idiot. And you've got a half dozen other inaccuracies or contradictions in your comment. If you're going to crack on someone for not getting it straight, at least you can get it straight yourself.
  • Wow, here we go with the name calling again. Can we all just call a truce to this practice, agree to disagree and just get along with our differences of opinion. After all, none of us are the experts that we may think we are (hear that Da Hooey?), but it's ok to impose our thoughts upon others. Let's just be a little kinder, ok? I'm willing to give it a try!
  • Is Versus on Dish Network?
  • Versus is Channel 151 on Dish Network. But you have to buy an upgraded package (America's top 250) to get it. It costs $54.99 per month. You have to pay $10 additional per month to get it in high-definition.
  • Tim:

    It is on Dish - America's Top 250
  • IRL critics will say that’s because the series is garbage.
    :wave: :lol: Spot on.

    none of us are the experts that we may think we are
    What makes you so sure? From what you post, it's clear that you are no expert.

    Harrelson appears to be making things up as well, as was already pointed out.

    As for the reVersus deal, yes, they'll have more coverage, and the network will actually promote it, but I don't think it will help when the product is what it is. I could be wrong, but I'm usually not. :)

    And ABC/ESPN did do some limited cross promotion, whenever they would be broadcasting a football game from Indianapolis, they would do shots of the pigoda and mention the fi-hunnerd coverage.

    The 'league' itself never seemed to be interested in spending any money on ads for itself other than in-race stuff, or back when they had the notorious Bob Reif infomercials they would air them in dollar-a-holler times. I guess they keep waiting for that magical title sponsor to come along and do that for them.

    What all of that adds up to is - FTG does not care about anything but his control psychosis and his cheap lame imitation fi-hunnerd. The dismal atmosphere the 'league' has trudged about with since its unfortunate inception is there with good reason.
  • As TG said at that time of the signing, VS will give us better visibility across the board than ESPN would. ESPN is starting to become to sports what MTV is to music. Almost non stop news, talk shows, game shows, and ok, an occasional game thrown in.

    Many years ago, a small cable station went on the air to show 24 hour sports. They felt that the major networks did not provide enough coverage. People made fun of them and said it would never work. That station became ESPN. Not to long ago, a small cable network went on the air to show motorsports because they felt that the major networks nor ESPN were covering it well. People did not believe that it would last, well that became Speed. So I am kind of enjoying the naysayers going after Versus. They make fun of them carrying NHL and Tour de France and other such events. It is much better than ESPN carrying strong man competitions and Australian rules football like they did early on.
  • Stan,

    I never said nor professed to be an expert as you like to portend yourself to be. I just have an opinion and a desire that things will improve which I hold hope for. I choose to see the glass as half full. You, on the other hand, have thrown the glass away. If you were in person, I might see your lips move, but all I would hear is blah, blah, blah.

    So sorry you are so bitter. How about cutting the rest of us some slack rather than the names you and your buddies like to throw out all the time.

    Here's one looking forward to something positive on Versus.
  • I am hoping that the broadcast is similar to Speed’s F1 coverage, which covers the entire grid before the race.

    OH, that would be rich! And starting last today is Special Ed Carpenter. Ed how did you get your start in racing? How many wins do you have? Why are there so many more drivers who won races AND championships in USAC and never got a sniff from the EARL? LMAO...
  • My goodness some vile comments here. I guess it's too much to expect civility and credibilty on so many internet posts.

    I wish the IRL the best of luck -- I'm a fan, but I fear it is a niche league in a niche sport that is just a blip on the total sports-entertainment spectrum. New York, Boston, LA, Miami? It's pretty much a yawner.

    I cannot imagine it will ever find much of an audience on Versus, which is already a needle in the cable and satellite way to catch surfers and casual fans. So much for them.

    Anyone watch the NHL All-Star game on Versus this weekend? Class? Anyone? Buehler? Beuhler?
  • Da Hooey is an expert. You know it. :lol:

    BOT: Reversus is NOT their first choice, that is logical in anyone's view. Face it, not many care anymore, and evidently many of the fans will not come along kicking and screaming as Tony professed. Its also clear that the 5 year plan (again professed by Tony) to be bigger than F1 AND NASCAR has failed, like so many of Tony's plans before.

    Facts, just the FACTS. :)
  • Yes, there are a lot of guys who won races and championships in USAC who aren't getting sniffed by the IRL. Ed was fortunate. USAC, on general terms, isn't the right formula to go to the IRL. USAC is better suited for NASCAR, while Formula Atlantic and Indy Lights cost too much for most of the USAC owners to do a season.

    There was a small window in the beginning of the IRL where one could get into an IRL car for cheap and hope for the best (a paid ride after a year) but that went away as the costs went up again.

    Again, I don't care if it is Carpenter, Bernoldi, or Fisher...I like to see what all the teams are doing.
  • I wish the IRL the best of luck -- I'm a fan, but I fear it is a niche league in a niche sport that is just a blip on the total sports-entertainment spectrum. New York, Boston, LA, Miami, San Fran? Major markets all, where the IRL is pretty much a non-entity to begin with.

    I cannot imagine the series will ever find much of an audience on Versus, already a needle in the cable and satellite haystack. No way they'll catch surfers and casual fans.

    Anyone watch the NHL All-Star game on Versus this weekend? Class? Anyone? Buehler? Beuhler?
  • you can't complain when a club racing circuit gets its own TV network

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