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Sports Business

IRL TV deal raises questions

August 7, 2008
KEYWORDS Sports Business
The deal the Indy Racing League got from Versus cable channel to air its races starting next season, is so good, league officials said during a conference call today, it prompted them to abandon the remaining year they had to air the entire IRL schedule on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2.

Instead, ABC has agreed to air the Indianapolis 500 and four other IRL races next year. Versus, a channel which reaches 23 million fewer U.S. households than ESPN, will broadcast at least 13 races next year.

Though IRL and ABC officials wouldn’t comment on financial terms of the deal, industry experts said that the ABC/ESPN portion of the deal is a rights fee deal which next year will pay the league close to the $10 million it was guaranteed through the old contract, but much less in subsequent years. IRL officials jumped to Versus after ABC/ESPN officials threatened not to run some of the series’ races next year even if the IRL held them to the contract, racing industry experts said.

Officials for Versus, which is owned by cable giant Comcast, declined to say if their 10-year deal with the IRL is a rights fee or revenue sharing deal. “I think at the end of the day, the IRL is going to be paid in a fair way,” said Marc Fein, executive vice president of programming, production and business operations for Versus.

ABC made their interest clear from the start. “The Indy 500 and Indianapolis Motor Speedway are very unique and very special,” said Scott Guglielmino, ESPN vice president of programming and acquisitions.

Versus is best known for broadcasting the Tour de France and National Hockey League. Some of the network’s staples include cage fighting, bull riding and hunting and fishing shows.

As part of its IRL deal, Versus officials promised to run expanded IRL coverage, including qualifications and pre- and post-race shows that will showcase the league’s racing and help expose driver personalities. Versus also will begin airing some of the IRL’s feeder series’ races. IRL officials said they like what Versus has done for the NHL.

One item that IRL officials said that still needs ironing out is the league’s international TV distribution. ESPN has handled that up to this year, but it’s unclear who will handle global distribution going forward.
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