The only place you can’t watch the Indy 500 on live TV? Indy

  • Comments
  • Print

Jim Bleeke, a lawyer in Indianapolis, has a tradition. Each year, he attends the Indianapolis 500—some three hours of racing, plus pre-race festivities and the hours it takes to commute to and from downtown. Then, he and his family return home, cookout or gather with friends—and watch the race on TV.

“My wife is like, ‘We were just there,'” he says. “‘Why are we watching it again?'”

That evening viewing, though, is a ritual in central Indiana, and the only way to watch the race on TV there. For decades, the race has not been broadcast live on local TV, in an effort to encourage residents to attend. For locals, going to the race or listening on the radio—or both—and then watching the evening replay have become part of the fabric of the Indy 500, as much a tradition as the winner chugging a gallon of milk at the finish line.

Travel anywhere in the area on race day and you can hear the call emanating from radios, on boats, at the lake, at cookouts. And at night, those same families gather around the TV. Bleeke recalled going to a wedding one year where the race, on tape delay of course, was on at the bar. Guests still congregated to watch it, even though many of them had been at the track.

The practice is a relic of a bygone era. For large parts of the 20th century, teams and leagues protected ticket sales by not showing home games in local markets. The NFL only just recently removed its hometown blackout rule that required a team to sell out in order to air the game on local TV. Major League Baseball has blackout issues in some areas related to TV contracts with cable companies. Both have been major headaches for fans.

But in Indianapolis, the blackout is just part of the scenery.

“It comes up every year,” said Doug Boles, president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “A handful of people ask about it, a story gets written and that’s it.”

This year, the conversation—it’s hard to call it a debate—has been rekindled on some online message boards and sports talk radio. That’s because for the last two years, the race was available to locals on NBC’s streaming service, Peacock. But the network now has the technology to broadcast the race nationwide but prevent it from reaching the Indianapolis area. It has done so at the speedway’s request.

For Boles, protecting the sanctity of the spectacle is at the heart of the blackout. The Indy 500 is advertised as the largest single-day sporting event in the country, drawing more than 300,000 fans each year. If the race were to be broadcast in Indianapolis, the crowd could shrink, ultimately undoing perhaps the race’s best selling point.

“What makes us special is our size,” Boles said. “On Indy 500 Sunday, over 300,000 people show up here. To keep that electricity going, you have to have a full venue. It’s not about revenue. It’s about the perception that a full venue presents.”

Bob Kravitz, a longtime local sports columnist at The Indianapolis Star and now at the Athletic, agreed.

“When you don’t have a big TV contract and one event that has to sustain you for the whole year, I can accept the argument that you need the blackout,” he said. “I think it’s about keeping the speedway solvent, keeping IndyCar solvent. Outside of Indianapolis, no one gives a crap about Indycar.”

The Indy 500 was first broadcast on TV in 1949. It was seen live in Indianapolis that year but not again until the 100th running of the race, in 2016. For a while, there was no national broadcast; in the 60s and 70s, it was available with a ticket to a movie theater. In 1965, ABC’s Wide World of Sports began broadcasting the race live but wouldn’t show it in Central Indiana until later in the summer.

Hoosiers tell stories of vacationing in Louisville for the weekend to watch it on TV. Others recalled hearing of local bars that found ways to use their satellite dishes to crack the signal. The bars quietly spread the word to patrons that they’d have a live feed of the broadcast, but they couldn’t advertise too loudly. One Indianapolis bartender, who declined to give her name, told the Post this week that while the bar is slow on race day, there are still people who come in asking for it to be turned on the TV.

In 1986, the race was first shown on tape delay on the evening of race day; it was broadcast live for the first time in decades for the 100th anniversary because the speedway announced it sold all available tickets. But the track does not release an official capacity, or official attendance figures, because it sells seemingly an endless supply of general admission infield tickets. When NBC acquired the broadcast rights in 2019, the network asked about lifting the blackout, but the speedway held firm. (In 2020 and 2021, the race was also shown locally due to the pandemic.)

Indianapolis is a small TV market, but NBC would not mind the extra viewers. In 2016, the year the race was at full capacity and broadcast in town, total viewership nationally was 6.9 million versus 6.4 million the previous year. The local rating in Indianapolis jumped from an average of 12.3 the previous three years to a 33.6. The city’s average viewership went from 138,00 in 2015 to 361,000 viewers in 2016.

Kravitz thought a pay-per-view model might be fair and wondered about a segment of the local population that can’t afford a ticket to the race or can’t handle what can be a grueling day at the track. But, ultimately, no one seems all that upset. Gregg Doyel, a columnist for the Star, wrote several years ago that the track’s greed was driving the blackout, only to change his mind this year and write in favor of it, in order to preserve the mystique of the race and economic benefits that come with it.

The other argument for TV is reaching more fans, and potentially new ones. But Bleeke is convinced the best way to make a race fan is to get someone, no matter their age, to the speedway. “The military goes down the straightaway, the introduction of the drivers, the playing of ‘Back Home in Indiana’, ‘God Bless America’ and the flyover. For me, that is s special as anything. Our entire group tears up every year. Three hundred thousand people go silent and there’s just a bugle playing taps.”

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.

7 thoughts on “The only place you can’t watch the Indy 500 on live TV? Indy

  1. Another year with a 500 Blackout. It’s no longer a local event. It is the largest single day sporting event in the world. Why can’t the Speedway’s sales and marketing team sell the race out. And who knows what a sellout is , since attendance is never published . Talk about a lack of transparency. And for years, the 500 was the only revenue stream. Now with the Brickyard and other races, it just seems a little greedy. If I were able to watch it live, it might excite me to go next year. It’s 2023. It’s time for change

  2. It’s SPECTACULAR to me that people think the crowd would shrink if it were on TV. People fly from all over the world to attend the race, and we wouldn’t drive a few miles?! Absurdist nonsense.

    Just air the thing.

  3. As a diehard fan and a person who physically cannot attend due to arthritic issues, it would be great to be able to watch the excitement of the 500 live, but the reasons for keeping it closed locally is understood, but it would be great to be able to see it live for those of us who can no longer navigate the crowds and issues of attending in person. Just hearing of all the improvements that Roger Penske has done and the excitement of being there is heartwarming to an old Gold or Yellow Shirt guy. I am in Commercial Real Estate would enjoy seeing the changes and improvements as being dedicated to such a great asset is so important to the uses of many of our existing real estate assets.

  4. Do a little better job on research. ABC did not broadcast the race live ANYWHERE until 1986. From 1965-1970, highlights were shown nationally on Wide World of Sports, usually the next weekend. From 1971-1985 an EDITED tape delay was broadcast in prime time throughout the country.

  5. Can’t sell out because most people local don’t care anything about it and never have we just hear some of you yap about it…or it would always be sold out!