IndyCar, ABC discussing moving more races to network

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This is a big month in more ways than one for the IndyCar Series.

In addition to the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 later this month, there are several notable happenings regarding the open-wheel series.

On Tuesday, the series unveiled two potential prototypes for its 2012 chassis—one for road and one for track. Response from fans varied from those who think it’s great to those who don’t think the new models represent enough change and innovation.

Also this month, IndyCar drivers will take their annual pilgrimage to New York City, where series executives hope they can use recent momentum to gain the attention of the Big Apple’s massive media contingency.

But one of the most important happenings for the series’ long-term health is occurring behind closed doors. In recent weeks, series officials began negotiating a television contract extension with ABC, which airs the Indianapolis 500 and four other races.

IndyCar’s contract expires at the end of 2012, and while there’s been a lot of chatter about moving races to NBC, ABC officials have said they still have a strong desire to retain the open-wheel racing series.

The IndyCar Series hired IMG Media Sports Programming to negotiate with ABC and the two sides held their first meeting during the last week in April. Those talks, sources said, are heating up this month. ABC has a 90-day exclusive negotiating period before series officials can talk to other networks.

According to sources, ABC pays between $4 million and $6 million annually to air IndyCar races, and series officials are looking for at least that much for the next contract. The Indianapolis 500 is the key driver to the deal. Versus cable channel pays a similar amount to air the series’ remaining races.

One of the things on the table, according to sources familiar with the talks, is adding more races to ABC’s package to bring in more revenue for the series. That would be especially good for the series considering network channels almost always earn higher viewership than do cable channels, especially those as relatively unknown as Versus. ABC has aired the Indianapolis 500 for 46 consecutive years.

Series officials are likely to ask ABC to increase its promotion for the Indianapolis 500, which according to New York-based Nielsen Media Research had a 3.6 rating (5.8 million U.S. viewers) last year. That was the lowest rating the race had earned since the race began airing live in 1986, and was off 10 percent from 2009.

TV ratings as a whole continue to be a serious concern for IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard, with the only race airing so far this year on ABC earning a 1.2 rating, and the first two races airing on Versus averaging a .2, according to Nielsen.

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