IndyCar leaders feeling vindicated by NASCAR’s new TV deal

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IndyCar Series officials, long derided for leaving ESPN for the fledging cable channel Versus, are looking quite a bit smarter in the last 24 hours.

NASCAR announced Tuesday that beginning in 2015 it would air the second half of its season—likely including the Brickyard 400—on NBC and NBC Sports Network, which was formerly Versus.

Former race driver and long-time TV analyst Derek Daly had only one word to say after hearing the details of the new NASCAR-NBC deal. “Wow.”

“NASCAR is a strong enough property to grow this cable channel [NBC Sports Network],” Daly said. “With IndyCar growing and improving its product, this couldn’t come at a better time.”

There is speculation among motorsports industry insiders that the new NBC-NASCAR deal could wreak havoc on the IndyCar Series schedule, but IndyCar officials weren’t letting that dampen their spirits Tuesday.

“This is the big picture going in the direction we all had hoped and signed up for,” said Kasey Coler, IndyCar Series’ vice president of marketing. “This is an extremely important development for us, and it’s definitely a positive move.”

The 10-year deal stipulates that 20 NASCAR Sprint Cup races—its highest level of racing—will air on the NBC family of channels, including 13 on the cable channel NBC Sports Network, where many of the IndyCar races are aired. The agreement, which runs through the 2024 season, also gives NBC 19 Nationwide races, select NASCAR regional touring events and other live NASCAR events. Much of that content also is expected to air on NBC Sports Network.

The deal will likely have two major, and relatively immediate, impacts on the IndyCar Series when it starts in 2015. The inclusion of NASCAR races will cause more cable networks to add the channel—and add it to lower (less expensive) tiers.

Secondly, NBC is expected to promote its other motorsports properties—including IndyCar races—during NASCAR races.

NASCAR races, even though ratings have declined somewhat in recent years, still draw 4 million to 8 million viewers on a regular basis.

IndyCar’s Coler couldn’t help feeling a little vindicated in the hours after the announcement.

“Going back to the days of Versus, we could see this was a sports network with the resources and the vision to grow,” Coler told IBJ Tuesday night. “This is a validation of that vision that was set out a few years ago.”

In 2009, the IndyCar Series ended its relationship with ESPN and signed a 10-year deal to air many of its races on the fledging cable channel now known as NBC Sports Network.

NBC Sports Network has two major problems. It reaches too few homes (about 75 million nationwide compared to ESPN’s 100 million) and too few people know where it is on the dial.

The NASCAR deal will help tens of millions of fans find the channel, said Larry DeGaris, director of academic sports marketing programs at the University of Indianapolis.

And DeGaris, who has conducted several in-depth studies of NASCAR, thinks the move will push the perfect audience to the channel for IndyCar.

“The biggest opportunity for the IndyCar Series to grow is exposing it to existing motorsports fans,” DeGaris said. “There’s a lot more opportunity to win over more fans by attracting people already into racing than increasing exposure among casual sports fans or stick-and-ball sports fans.”

Motorsports sponsorship broker Zak Brown, CEO of locally based Just Marketing International, thinks this gives the IndyCar sales staff something to roar about.

“It’s certainly a selling point,” Brown said. “I think the bolstering of NBC Sports Network is something that will resonate with sponsors and potential sponsors.”

Television viewership has long been a concern for the IndyCar Series—especially on races airing on NBC Sports Network. None of the IndyCar races airing on NBC Sports Network have earned a 1.0 rating (about 1.3 million viewers nationwide) this year, which Brown said is critical to attracting sponsorships to the series.

NBC Sports Network has the rights to air IndyCar races through 2018, and several motorsports insiders said new Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles needed to get out of the deal to save the sport. That’s proving not to be the case anymore.

“We fully expect significant cross promotions across NASCAR, IndyCar and Formula One [on NBC Sports Network],” Coler said.

There is, however, one major concern about Tuesday’s NBC-NASCAR announcement. It could foul up the IndyCar Series’ schedule.

IndyCar officials will sit down with NBC honchos soon to discuss the matter. IndyCar’s Coler said running IndyCar races on a tape delay is not an option.

“We have to figure out how we [IndyCar, NASCAR and Formula One] all compliment each other,” Coler said.

Coler said it will be imperative not only to work with NBC but also “to build out the schedule far enough in advance to make sure there are no conflicts.” In recent years, IndyCar officials have fallen in to the bad habit of not releasing the schedule for the next year until well after the conclusion of the current season.

IndyCar officials, starting this year, aim to get that rectified. Though he wouldn’t pinpoint a date, Coler said series officials plan to release the 2014 schedule before the end of the season.

Terry Lingner, owner and CEO of Lingner Group Production, which produces all the IndyCar races but the Indianapolis 500 for ABC and NBC Sports Network, thinks series officials need to re-think their schedule.

“It would behoove IndyCar to get really creative with their schedule and think about things like mid-week races, maybe on a Thursday night, and things like an earlier start to the season,” Lingner said. “There are always going to be scheduling issues and the inclusion of NASCAR on NBC might increase the challenges for IndyCar. But these are great problems to have.”

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