The IndyCar broadcast dilemma

Every decision facing Mark Miles and his team could be considered ‘make or break’ as they rebuild the IndyCar Series. In the case of securing new broadcast and title sponsorship deals for 2019 it is absolutely true.

An already challenging market for sponsorship dollars and broadcast rights is further complicated by the dilemma of whether to stick with traditional broadcasters or embrace the subscription video on demand (SVOD).

Tried and tested broadcasters versus live streaming

IndyCar is exploring traditional options for broadcast of the series from 2019 onward. Coverage via one of the major US networks plus a standalone title sponsor appears to remain the preferred option. But with one eye on the future the series is also considering dovetailing these deals into one.

By working one with of the major players in the SVOD sector IndyCar could break new ground and solve some of its fundamental weaknesses. By 2019 we could be watching the Amazon Prime IndyCar Series with race broadcasts shown, exclusively, online.

The race to grow the IndyCar fan base

It is an open secret that IndyCar is supported by an ageing fan base. Growth in younger markets remains sluggish. This is despite (or because of?) a broadcast deal with ABC and NBC, plus title sponsorship from the largest wireless telecommunications brand in the country.

Combined with fragmentation of traditional viewing habits and one fairly unenthusiastic current broadcast partner, all of this has reduced the appeal of a network deal for the series.

IndyCar Josef Newgarden champion
IndyCar has a youthful new American champion lacks a young fan base. (Image: IndyCar)

The attraction of broadcasters like Netflix and Amazon is of course their huge popularity with millennials. To an ever increasing proportion of under 35s the concept of being tied to watching traditional TV is incompatible with their lifestyles.

Big audiences and big money

Accessing younger audiences is essential for IndyCar as it struggles to get more eyeballs on a superb product. SVOD’s potential is impressive: Netflix boasts 128m individual users in the USA and there are a further 85.3m and 32m subscribing to Amazon and Hulu respectively.

The increasingly lucrative on demand streaming business also means the main players have plenty of cash to spend on content. It was reported earlier this year that Netflix is committed to spending nearly $16bn (yes, that’s billion) on streaming content deals in the next few years.

Fernando Alonso IndyCar Indy 500 helmet
Testing: 2m fans watched the live stream of Fernando Alonso’s rookie test at Indianapolis this year. (Image: IndyCar)

Compared to the bargain-basement feel of ABC’s recent coverage of IndyCar, the prospect of tapping in to the resources of an SVOD broadcaster is undoubtedly enticing. And though the live streaming of Fernando Alonso’s rookie test at Indianapolis this year was a toe in the water, the reported 2 million fans that watched must figure in Miles’ thinking.

A chance to get ahead of the curve?

No major sports franchise or property has fully embraced on demand streaming. The big boys of the NFL and NBA are dabbling in it increasingly but they are still committed to the traditional TV broadcast models. As is NASCAR as it tries to steady a ship leaking sponsor dollars and big name drivers at an alarming rate.

IndyCar has the opportunity to capitalise on first mover advantage with live streaming relative to the sports that regularly kick its butt for ratings.

Assuming Miles and his team have done their homework, the pros column of any ‘TV versus streaming’ assessment will be lengthy. The catch however is this: will the existing IndyCar supporters make the switch? And how will series partners and team sponsors react?

These may be the only two entries on Miles’ list of cons but they are major considerations.

Will IndyCar fans follow it to online streaming?

IndyCar does not have the luxury of compromising its existing fan base in pursuit of another. A move to a SVOD deal has the potential to put IndyCar in front of a whole generation of potential fans. But will the current fan base swap a Sunday afternoon slot with ABC for an Amazon live stream on their tablet?

How would audiences react to having to pay for an IndyCar subscription to watch races  after seeing them for free or as part of other subscriptions? Will they stick with it or simply walk away?

The impact on sponsors and partners

By definition they believe there is value for money in sponsoring, supporting or participating in IndyCar because of its coverage and fan base.  The existing TV broadcast arrangements currently in place with ABC and NBC are integral to that fan base.

It would be surprising if any partner or sponsor declined the opportunity to embrace on demand streaming as a way to reach new audiences. But if that comes with a caveat – we are not entirely sure every fan will come with us and how many new fans we will attract – concerns will be raised.

Are Honda and Chevrolet interested in pay-per-view?

How would Honda and Chevrolet react if their achievements at the Brickyard were no longer broadcast on ABC? Would team sponsors like DHL, NTT Data and Fuzzy’s Vodka be as enthusiastic about brand exposure that is exclusively online?

This is just a snapshot of the tricky balancing act facing Miles and his team.

James Hinchcliffe Honda IndyCar Indy 500
Would millions still tune in for the Indy 500 online? (Image: IndyCar/Owens)

IndyCar may well be ‘damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t’ in securing a new broadcast deal (and potentially title sponsorship). It could prove to be an act of folly if it turns out that younger generations are simply not interested in open wheel racing, no matter how it is broadcast to them.

Or it could turn out to be a tactical masterstroke for the series. Guaranteeing its survival and – perhaps more importantly – its growth for the next decade.

Stay tuned on this one.

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