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Sports Business

Sponsors have close eye on IndyCar TV ratings

March 22, 2010
KEYWORDS Sports Business

The Honda Grand Prix at St. Petersburg is a big test for the Izod IndyCar Series. And I’m not talking about driver standings.

The race airs this Sunday on ABC, with the green flag dropping at 3:30 p.m. It’s prime time to earn a solid TV rating. A mark below 1.0 would be a big blow.

The season opener in Brazil earned a .4 rating, according to New York-based Nielsen Media Research. That equates to 440,000 TV households across the U.S. Not terrible for the open-wheel series. In fact, it’s the third highest rated race ever on Versus, which is starting its second year of a 10-year deal with the series.

It’s certainly better than the series finale last year.

The 2009 Homestead-Miami race Oct. 10 scored a .15 national rating, meaning 171,000 TV households tuned in nationwide, according to Nielsen.

That kind of rating will no longer suffice for sponsors, who this year are demanding more. The magic number (at least for a starting point) is 1.0. Sponsors I’ve talked to this year said 1 million U.S. TV households (not viewers, TV households) is a must if they’re to justify their investment.

That’s especially true if the race is on network television, as is the case Sunday.

“Sponsors are willing to be patient, especially given the relatively new deal with Versus,” said Zak Brown, president of locally based Just Marketing International, which represents sponsors in NASCAR, Formula One and the IndyCar Series. “But that patience isn’t unlimited.”

Sponsors are keenly aware Versus’ average viewership for last year’s race coverage (315,000 per race for 12 races) dropped 59.5 percent from what ESPN and ESPN2 delivered (778,000) in 2008.

ABC, in 2009, also saw viewership drop 3 percent (2.64 million viewer per race for five races) from 2008, when it averaged 2.73 million viewers over seven races.

For the 17 races on Versus and ABC, average viewership per race in 2009 was 1.16 million, a 28 percent decrease from 2008’s 1.62 million average over 18 races.

IndyCar sponsors are not in the mood to stomach another season of such ratings. They’ve told me they’ll be a bit more patient with Versus, but they expect bigger numbers now on ABC telecasts.

It’s difficult to tell what IndyCar officials are doing to pump up marketing for this Sunday’s event, but ESPN and ABC began on-air ads well in advance of the event. And Izod is doing its part to promote IndyCar.

Unfortunately for series officials, the timing of this race isn’t the greatest. Gaining a large TV audience Sunday may have as much to do with the quality of the NCAA basketball tournament game airing as whether the likes of Graham Rahal and Danica Patrick are running well.

A March Madness nail-biter could torpedo IndyCar TV ratings. At least the DirecTV fiasco has been ironed out.

In any event, sponsors are tired of excuses. It’s time, they’re telling me, for performance.

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