IndyCar could get boost from unlikely ally

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The IndyCar Series this week got a boost from an unlikely ally: Formula One.

Despite the fact that F1’s worldwide audience dwarfs that of IndyCar and its reach is far more European and Asian than the American-based series, some within the IndyCar Series still think that the two open-wheel circuits compete on some level for fans and sponsors.

This week, F1 officials announced its American broadcasts in 2013 would be jumping from Speed, a Fox-owned cable channel, to NBC Sports Network, where the IndyCar Series resides.

NBC officials are confident the F1 move will add eyes to the IndyCar broadcasts, not divert attention from the series.

The agreement between NBC Sports Network and Formula One Management brings an end to the 17-year run Speed had as the U.S. rights holder to F1. Fox Sports officials last week said that NBC outbid Speed during contract negotiations earlier this year.

NBC will air four races—the Canadian Grand Prix in June, and the final three races of the season in November—while the remaining 16 races will air on the NBC Sports Network cable channel—formerly known as Versus. All practice and qualifying sessions will also be on the cable station.

The deal would seem to indicate that NBC is ready to make a major commitment to open-wheel racing in all forms. And if the growing U.S. F1 audience gets exposed to some IndyCar promotions, all the better.

“This is an opportunity for us to get further engaged in open-wheel racing and really acquire some great live first run content,” said Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network. “We think there’s real upside for IndyCar and this super-serves the open-wheel racing fan.”

NBC officials already are talking to IndyCar leaders about some intriguing cross promotions between the series. NBC hopes to pull some of the fans of F1’s U.S. morning broadcasts into afternoon IndyCar races.

“There will be days we have a Formula One race at 9 a.m. and an IndyCar race at 1 p.m.—we walked the IndyCar people through that … and they are excited about the opportunity,” Miller said.

There are four 2013 dates in which the F1 race be televised before the IndyCar race on the network.

Several IndyCar sponsors said they are excited by the prospects of NBC Sports Network’s cross promotions between the two series. Since F1 has a much larger international audience than IndyCar and a growing U.S. audience, the IndyCar Series would appear to have much to gain.

Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One Group CEO, is confident NBC will grow the American F1 audience.

“NBC and its various media assets have a huge profile throughout the United States and … I feel that they will promote Formula One to a level not seen before in the United States,” he said.

IndyCar officials and fans have reason to be skeptical about NBC’s commitment. NBC’s sports cable channel hasn’t exactly been a stalwart marketer of the IndyCar Series since the circuit came over from ESPN in 2009.

Ratings for IndyCar races that aired on NBC Sports Network during the 2012 season were down 27 percent compared to 2011. The average audience for each IndyCar race on NBC’s cable channel was fewer than 500,000.

Following this season, sports marketers and IndyCar sponsors said increasing the circuit’s TV ratings is the No. 1 challenge for series CEO Randy Bernard.

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