IndyCar Series seeking bigger TV deal, more exposure

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IndyCar Series seasons are all about making adjustments, and there's a big mechanical issue that the series hopes to tighten up for the long term.

IndyCar Series boss Mark Miles is set to start negotiating new television contracts this month.

The open-wheel series’ contracts with NBC and ABC/ESPN are set to expire following the 2018 season, and Miles and network officials are scheduled to kick-off negotiations in a couple of weeks. Miles says he wants a double-digit percentage increase in the series’ TV rights fee.

That may be a tall order in an era where TV viewership has been pretty flat, with lots of young viewers instead choosing to get their information and/or watch sports online.

While money is important, Miles told IBJ, “trying to increase our exposure is probably our highest priority.”

IndyCar hasn't revealed the value of the current contracts.

Miles and IndyCar’s broadcast consultant, New York-based Bevilacqua Helfant Ventures, feel they are on firm footing in asking for a higher price from their broadcast partner or partners. IndyCar officials said they could look to re-up with NBC and/or ABC or could look for another—possibly nontraditional—partner. IndyCar officials said looking at potential candidates such as Google and Amazon is not out of the question.

Currently, the ABC relationship is a straight rights fee deal. The IndyCar Series gets cash, and in exchange the network gets to air the Indianapolis 500 and four other races, IndyCar officials said. The NBC deal, which covers the remainder of the season, is structured with shared expenses and revenue.

The growth of IndyCar's television ratings hasn’t exactly hit warp speed, but a 10 percent increase in 2016 over last year is an encouraging sign. In 2016, IndyCar Series' 16 races averaged 1.28 million viewers nationwide, according to New York-based Nielsen Media Research. 

Despite that overall growth, the series’ viewership for many of its races still isn’t where sponsors would like to see it.

The average number of viewers for the nine races in 2016 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 in 2015.

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

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

IndyCar’s 2016 average TV audience last season got a boost from its five races on ABC, especially the Indianapolis 500, which last 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 in national viewership from previous years.

IndyCar’s TV viewership numbers are still a fraction of what NASCAR draws, but NBC officials told IBJ at the end of the 2016 season they hoped to retain the open-wheel series when the current 10-year contract expires. NBC Sports Network also airs NASCAR and Formula One races, and IndyCar is a nice fit in that portfolio.

“We love our relationship with IndyCar,” said NBC Sports President of Programming Jon Miller in a media release, adding that network officials “look forward to discussing the future media rights later this year.”

ABC/ESPN also appears bullish on IndyCar

“The property is doing really well for us,” said ESPN Julie Sobieski, vice president of league sports programming, in a media release. “We’re feeling really good about that future.”

Officials for Fox, which airs NASCAR races, said they have no interest in IndyCar at this time.

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