It’s hard to blame IndyCar for coming up with a couple of gimmicks to try to shake things up.
Although the introduction of a new chassis and engine competition improved IndyCar’s on-track product, the competitive racing in 2012 certainly didn’t help the series boost its exposure, especially on television.
So, beginning in 2013, it’s going to try doubleheader weekends for three street courses, as well as instituting a $1-million (U.S) Triple Crown award for a driver who can win all three of its long oval events.
The doubleheader cities – Toronto, Detroit and Houston – will have full-length events on both Saturday and Sunday which count as single races towards the season championship.
The Triple Crown trip is the new 400-mile event at Pennsylvania’s Pocono International Raceway, the Indianapolis 500, and the 500-mile season finale at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
The reason to take some kind of action to spark more interest in the series is clear: Things look bleak for IndyCar when it comes to its television ratings, which dropped 27 per cent this year from 2011’s levels.
While some would like to blame it solely on the loss of media darling Danica Patrick to stock cars, the numbers show a more troubling trend that began long before she departed for NASCAR’s Nationwide Series at the end of last season.
IndyCar’s television audience has plummeted a staggering 62 per cent since 2008, according to Sports Business Journal. That’s an average of more than 15 per cent each year since the series signed a deal to leave ESPN and have its races on Versus, which is now the NBC Sports Network. The contract with the NBC Sports Network runs to the end of 2018.
IndyCar broadcasts on NBC Sports Network averaged a pitiful 292,000 viewers per race in the U.S. in the 2012 season. In 2011, its numbers were a bit better, with an average of 402,000 tuning in. In 2008, IndyCar attracted an average U.S. audience of 778,000, when it was broadcast on ESPN.
The six other races on ABC this year, including the marquee Indianapolis 500, drew an average of 2.5 million, although those numbers are skewed by the huge crowd that watches the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Essentially speaking, the numbers show that the Indy 500 is only race U.S. viewers care about on the IndyCar calendar. Nielsen Media Research and ESPN had 6.9 million people parked in front of their televisions for this year’s Indianapolis 500, up slightly from 2011.
To put that in perspective consider that some NASCAR observers questioned having a Chase for the Cup stop at Dover International Speedway after a disappointing crowd of about 90,000 showed up for last weekend’s race. That’s almost one-third of IndyCar’s average TV audience on NBC Sports Network.
In Canada, IndyCar’s TV numbers suffered from the apparent indifference of its broadcast partner TSN. With NASCAR and Formula One serving as its bread and butter racing series, TSN didn’t show all of IndyCar’s events live and often ran them later on Sunday when only the hardcore fans would stay up to watch. That may be rectified in 2012 when Rogers Sportsnet takes over and broadcasts all the races live.
While the doubleheaders are a great deal for the promoters and fans in the stands – it is assumed promoters will still pay the roughly same sanction fee for two events as they did for one since IndyCar boss Randy Bernard doesn’t expect ticket packages to change – it remains to be seen if people will stay indoors on two days of a weekend to watch IndyCar on TV.
Seeing as it was hard enough to get them to sit through one race, convincing fans that two deserve their attention on a weekend may be a pretty hard sell. It may also lead to some confusion among casual fans, who might wonder why two different drivers won the same race. Not to mention the discord it might breed among the other promoters who likely pay a similar fee those with doubleheader events, but only get the gate draw of one race.
A bonus to the series and competitors of the two-for-one weekends is that they offer a cost-effective way to raise the race count without having to add more venues. This factor was likely a huge selling point for IndyCar, which has been under fire from owners about the high costs of it’s new DW12 chassis.
IndyCar can now talk about a 19-race calendar while increasing its overall road trips by just one. New tracks next year are the tri-oval Pocono International Raceway in Long Pond, Penn., and Houston’s Reliant Park street course while the stop in Edmonton disappeared, giving IndyCar 16 total venues.
While an interesting idea, it remains to be seen whether the doubleheaders gain any traction with fans. It’s not as if the twin races at the Texas Motor Speedway last year drew a larger than normal crowd or drove TV ratings through the roof. It was just another IndyCar weekend that most ignored.
In reality, baseball is the only sport that makes doubleheaders work and it had just 20 this season (40 total games) out of 2,430 games, or 1.6 per cent of the total played. In other words, they are a novelty. On the other hand, IndyCar’s three doubleheaders – six races in total – out of 19 make up almost 32 per cent of the total schedule.
Unfortunately, the Triple Crown likely won’t help much at all. There’s no doubt its $1-million prize going to anyone who wins all three will be coveted by drivers and team owners, but it’s apparent that fans don’t take much notice of anything but the overall championship.
The series already runs separate oval and road course championships that no one really notices, and it’s more than likely the Triple Crown will be mostly hype and not much more.
Even in the most rabid fans in Formula One essentially ignore the Constructors Championship, which goes to the team whose drivers score the most combined points. The same goes for NASCAR’s owner points system.
One good thing about the IndyCar schedule is the finale in Fontana next year will move more than a month later in the year than compared to 2012. The bizarre scheduling this year left a six-month gap between the mid-September final race of 2012 and the late March start of next season. The 2013 Fontana race is Oct. 19.
After this year’s mid-September finale, IndyCar can only attract attention with off-track action, such as its schedule announcement and “Dancing With the Stars” updates on Penske driver Helio Castroneves’ progress.
There has also been talk of – and no this is not a joke – a reality television series featuring IndyCar drivers at home.
Meanwhile, most of the racing world is paying attention to NASCAR’s ongoing 10-race Chase for the Cup title playoff and Formula One’s five-driver, down-to-the-wire world championship fight.
Also filling the gap are stories about a possible IndyCar takeover by its former boss Tony George and a group of team owners.
Whether true or not, rumoured infighting and power struggles certainly won’t help IndyCar boost its reputation at a time where it seems to be struggling to find relevance and credibility with U.S. racing fans.
Then again, the team owners and series executives battling over control of IndyCar might be a ratings winner as next season’s theme for Donald Trump’s reality TV show, The Apprentice.
For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone (No login required!)