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Sports Business

IndyCar's new TV deal done with eye on global markets

August 11, 2011
KEYWORDS Sports Business

After finalizing an extension with ABC on Wednesday, the IndyCar Series has its television deals sewn up through 2018.

Dead are the rumors that NBC—whose sister station, Versus—airs two-thirds of the series’ races on cable TV, will become IndyCar's new network partner.

The ABC agreement is no small deal. Sources close to the open-wheel series told me the deal that expires at the end of 2012 is worth $4 million to $5 million annually.

Sources within the series are saying the new ABC deal, which runs from 2013-18, is worth more than the current deal. That’s a nice windfall for a sports property that has struggled with its viewership numbers. (Versus currently pays $3 million to $5 million annually, a well-placed source said, and its deal also expires after 2018.)

But there are still some issues IndyCar and ABC officials must address.

The complaints about the quality of the ABC race broadcasts are far too numerous. There are complaints about lacking pre- and post-race coverage, poor on-air talent and barbs about the network’s camera work. The series’ most hardcore fans seem the least pleased that ABC has extended its domestic deal.

There’s also a hue and cry about the treatment the series gets from ESPN, ABC’s sister station. There are no shortage of racing fans and even motorsports journalists who complain about ESPN’s lack of coverage of the series. Personally, I think ESPN should determine what segments it airs on its sports news programs based on news value, not what’s running on its sister station. But that’s a topic for another time.

What’s lost in all of this is that IndyCar’s partnership with ABC isn’t just about the domestic market. Far from it. And it has even less to do with the fact that ABC has aired the Indianapolis 500 since 1965, and a lot more to do with IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard’s future vision for the series.

If you read this blog, it’s no secret that Bernard has his eyes on international markets. Already, he’s planning races in South America, China and Europe. He’s hoping for a European invasion by 2016.

Clearly, he thinks there’s a place in the worldwide marketplace for IndyCar. What’s not clear is whether Bernard thinks IndyCar will exist as a cheaper alternative to Formula One, the world’s most popular and lucrative racing series, or if he plans to take it on for global supremacy. Cue the dramatic music.

What is clear is that ABC—through ESPN—is offering more global exposure for the series than NBC and its sister station, Versus, could or would.

Even though domestically, ABC will only air five races annually, ESPN will retain international syndication rights for all IndyCar Series races.

The series may have its roots in ABC’s Wide World of Sports, where the Indy 500 debuted on TV, but its future is clearly in the hands of ESPN, the self-proclaimed worldwide leader in sports.

The trick for Bernard will be to pursue that lucrative international audience without leaving the series' domestic followers in the dust.

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