TV ratings for IndyCar season up overall, but down on NBCSN

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The growth of the IndyCar Series’ television ratings hasn’t exactly hit warp speed, but a 10 percent increase in 2016 over last year is an encouraging sign.

Despite that growth, the open-wheel series’ audience for many of its races still isn’t where sponsors would like to see it.

In 2016, IndyCar Series' 16 races averaged 1.28 million viewers nationwide, according to New York-based Nielsen Media Research. The season concluded Sept. 18 in Sonoma, California.

That’s the highest TV viewership the series has achieved since 2011 and marks a 35-plus percent increase in ratings since Mark Miles took over as CEO of IndyCar parent Hulman & Co. in late 2012.

However, motorsports sponsors told IBJ there are still far too many races that reach fewer than 1 million households.

“They’ve got it going in a positive direction. They’re making good progress. Now sponsors want to see them continue that,” said Zak Brown, founder of Zionsville-based motorsports marketing firm Just Marketing International.

IndyCar’s 2016 average TV audience got a boost from its five races on ABC, especially the Indianapolis 500, which this year attracted just under 6 million viewers, according to Nielsen. But it was concerning to some that the 100th running of the series’ crown jewel race didn’t see an increase nationally from previous years. The race sold out for the first time in decades.

The average number of viewers for the nine races aired on NBC Sports Network and two on CNBC was 488,000, according to Nielsen. That’s down from 507,000 viewers on the NBC stations last year.

On the upside, NBC officials said they had a record number of total unique viewers tuning into IndyCar races this year, with 6.5 million different people tuning to one race for at least six minutes.

IndyCar’s TV viewership numbers are still a fraction of what NASCAR draws, but NBC officials said they hope to retain the open-wheel series when the current 10-year contract expires after the 2018 season. 

Miles said he expects negotiations with the series’ TV partners to begin late next summer. IndyCar has hired New York-based sports and media advisory firm Bevilacqua Helfant Ventures to prepare them for negotiations with NBC and ABC. 

Bevilacqua Helfant Ventures’ clients include the Cincinnati Reds, Chicago Cubs, Texas Rangers, Washington Nationals, Pac-12 Conference, Rose Bowl, Atlantic 10 Conference, University of Notre Dame and Learfield Sports.

Jon Miller, NBC Sports president of programming, said he’s already spoken to Miles twice about extending their deal and is eager to start formal discussions next year. NBC Sports Network in recent years has added Formula One, NASCAR and Red Bull Global Rallycross, and Miller said the IndyCar Series is a good fit with that programming. 

“We do everything we can to try to grow that audience … and recognize where some of the challenges are,” Miller told Sports Business Journal. “But looking at a world where you don’t see a lot of properties growing in terms of audience, the fact that IndyCar grows year after year kind of validates their strategy and our partnership.

“We’re very happy with the [IndyCar] product … and we certainly will talk to them when the time is right,” Miller added. “We think they have a real home as part of the NBC Sports Group and hope it continues for a long time.”

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