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Sports Business

IndyCar boss Randy Bernard gaining confidence in Versus

May 19, 2010
KEYWORDS Sports Business

It’s May in Indianapolis.

So where’s new IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard?

New York, of course. Well, that’s where he’s been the last two days.

And what took him to New York when you think he’d be soaking up the atmosphere at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway?

Discussions with TV executives at Versus, and a quick meet-and-greet with ESPN folks.

It’s just as well. There hasn’t been much to soak up here the last couple days besides rain, and most agree that paramount to the series’ success is getting its TV rating up. Way up!

Though the IndyCar Series has seen its ratings bump up during this—its second—season with Versus, those Nielsen numbers are still well below the 1.0 to 1.5 that sponsors and potential sponsors are clamoring for. A 1.0 Nielsen rating means 1.1 million households are tuned in nationwide.

So how did Bernard’s meetings with Versus executives go?

“I have more confidence today than I did last week,” Bernard told me yesterday as his flight was preparing to depart from New York back to Indianapolis.

Bernard admits he departed for his trip to New York with a skeptical eye on the Versus relationship.

“Am I pleased with our ratings? No,” he said.

But Bernard added that after talking with Versus officials and seeing what the Comcast-owned cable channel did to increase National Hockey League ratings this year, he is beginning to believe that Versus is the right partner for the open-wheel race series.

Versus and NHL have been crowing recently about double-digit percentage TV rating increases this year over last on games airing on the cable channel. It should be noted that NHL ratings on NBC also are up this year.

When I asked if Versus was the sole reason NHL ratings increased this year, Bernard chuckled, and said, “They’re taking credit for it.”

“I’m pleased with our TV partners,” Bernard added. “It’s clear to me, Versus is doing something right with the growing NHL ratings.”

It’s good Bernard is pleased with Versus. Because when I asked him if there is an opt-out clause for the IndyCar Series in it’s deal with Versus, Bernard said he wasn’t 100 percent sure, but he didn’t think so. That would mean the IndyCar Series and Versus are locked together for eight more years after this one. Even if the ratings, for some reason, completely bottom out.

That might not sit too well with a number of team executives and sponsors.

“The TV contract is something that needs to change,” Penske Racing Tim Cindric told IBJ this morning. “We need to try to get on a network with a larger viewing audience. That’s the bottom line. For our sponsors we have to do anything we can to drive ratings.”

Cindric’s team is in an interesting position, trying to replace the long-time Marlboro sponsorship on two of its cars. Cindric added that a stronger TV package is one of the most critical elements in moving the needle on sponsorship sales.

“A stronger TV package is something all [IndyCar Series] teams need,” Cindric said. “The series has some momentum and we have a guy in Randy who understands marketing, so it’s time to make it happen.”

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