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Sports Business

Local TV blackout key to Brickyard 400 survival

July 31, 2013
KEYWORDS Sports Business

The first step to boosting Brickyard 400 attendance is blacking it out on local television. NASCAR and especially its TV partners are not likely to be wild about that idea. And as long as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is getting a sizable chunk of the TV revenue, track officials might not make too big a stink about it, either.

But if IMS honchos wanted to revisit the current policy of airing the race live in the Indianapolis market, you couldn’t blame them. Not pushing for such a move would be nothing less than short-sighted. It’s difficult to ignore that, while attendance at the race is terrible, TV viewership—especially in this market—is not.

Yes, imposing a local blackout of the race here would ruffle some fans’ feathers. But it also would induce locals to get up off their couches, open their wallets, buy tickets, and fill the bare stands at the Speedway. It was fine to air the race live when 250,000 fans attended the event during its first decade. But now that  attendance has declined 70 percent, it's time to change the policy.

It’s time NASCAR honchos take a page from the playbook of NFL officials, who learned a long time ago that a pillar to a strong sports business model is vibrant live attendance. The NFL has one of the strongest local blackout policies in professional sports.

In some ways, the Brickyard 400 and NFL football games are fighting the same challenge. The experience of watching the event on TV might now be better than attending it live. A TV blackout of the race coupled with some of the major improvements planned at the track, including upgraded video screens and other amenities, may be just the thing to drive fans back to the race in droves.

This year, the overnight TV rating for the Indianapolis market was 13.7, the highest rating of any market nationally, according to New York-based Nielsen Media Research. This year's Brickyard 400 aired on ESPN.

A 13.7 rating in the Indianapolis market means about 150,000 households tuned in. That’s up from a 10.9 local rating in 2012, and that’s a significant gain. All the while, attendance continues to drop.

Toward the end of this year’s race, the local ratings topped out at 16.66—or about 179,000 households. So while only about 75,000 attended the race, more than 230,000 central Indiana residents tuned in on TV. So is the TV broadcast hurting attendance? Well, it sure isn’t helping. The interest from locals in this race is certainly more intense than anywhere else.

Indianapolis is always a top TV ratings performer when it comes to NASCAR races, but the spread over the other top markets was a bit surprising this year.

Other top markets behind Indianapolis on Sunday were Greensboro, N.C. at 10.1; Greenville, S.C., 9.4; Charlotte, N.C., 9.1; and Norfolk, Va., 8.3.

Nationwide, the 20th running of the Brickyard 400 earned a 3.4 overnight rating (3.75 million households), according to Nielsen. That’s up 13 percent over last year.

It should be noted that last year’s Brickyard ran up against the opening weekend of the London Olympics. It also should be noted that the overnight rating for the 2011 Brickyard was 3.7 and in 2010 it scored a 3.5. So there’s no reason for event promoters and NASCAR officials to do back flips in their exuberance. By comparison, the Indianapolis 500 this year scored a 3.7 Nielsen rating nationally.

But locally, if race fans want to see the Indy 500 live, they have to attend the event. The Indy 500 earned a 9.3 rating locally on ABC, which aired it on tape delay about five hours after the live race.

Since the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500 are owned by the same company, it's easier to get a consensus on when the race should air in its home market.

It’s time for IMS officials to lean on NASCAR bosses to change their policy. Either that, or they can both stand by and watch the event go up in smoke.

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