IndyCar is counting on NBC Sports to help it fire on all engines again as the racing series looks to overcome a TV ratings slump and replace a departed title sponsor.
IndyCar in March inked a three-year deal with NBC Sports, which will air all IndyCar races in 2019, including the Indianapolis 500, on NBC and its cable-sports network, NBCSN. IndyCar's previous deal was split between NBCSN and ABC, which had carried the Indy 500 since 1965.
IndyCar execs are banking on the new deal to bring more continuity and improved ratings, they said in recent interviews. Nine of the first 12 races of this year drew fewer viewers than last year, according to Nielsen. And the Indianapolis 500—by far the biggest attraction of the season—saw its viewership drop 10 percent to 4.91 million viewers. IndyCar officials say the season-long slump is an anomaly. According to their figures, average TV viewership jumped 38% from 2013 to 2017.
"This year has been more of a challenge, especially the Indy 500," says C.J. O'Donnell, chief marketing officer for Hulman Motorsports, parent company of IndyCar. "The setback of the Indy 500 ratings is really our opportunity: It defines what we can accomplish moving forward with NBC Sports."
IndyCar execs are putting their faith in NBC Sports' promotional muscle to raise new interest in the series, while also relying on NBC's relationships with advertisers to help it land a new title sponsor. Mike McCormack, VP of sponsorship and strategy for NBC Sports, confirmed NBC is assisting with the title sponsorship search. "We work with so many brands across multiple properties under the NBC Sports umbrella. So it allows us an opportunity to introduce and engage with partners that IndyCar may not be talking to," he says.
IndyCar officials declined to name the companies they have approached. Rod Davis, Hulman's chief revenue officer, says the effort has reached "a few hundred" potential sponsors, of which 15 percent to 20 percent entered serious discussions.
When IndyCar named Verizon as its title sponsor in 2014, replacing Izod, the series did not make the announcement until just a couple weeks before the season began that year on March 30. This time, "nobody wants to get to that point, so it can't happen soon enough, but at the same time it's not like we have a week to go," Davis says.
For now, IndyCar is dealing with a more immediate issue as news coverage continues of the major wreck that occurred at an Aug. 19 race at Pocono Raceway in which driver Robert Wickens fractured his spine.
IndyCar vs. Nascar
IndyCar execs are positioning the racing series as drawing a younger, more educated, higher-earning fan base than Nascar. IndyCar fans have an average household income of $92,539 and 40 percent of IndyCar fans are millennials, according to Nielsen Sports Sponsorlink. The average household income for Nascar fans is $88,526 and 39 percent of them are millennials.
Nascar's attendance and ratings have been falling and it has seen some key sponsor defections. Lowe's earlier this year said it would not renew is sponsorship of Nascar driver Jimmie Johnson this season. Also backing out of Nascar is 5-hour Energy, which is ending its deal with the Furniture Row Racing term and driver Martin Truex Jr.
But Nascar still dominates IndyCar when it comes to total viewers. The Monster Energy Nascar Cup series has drawn a per-race average of 3.29 million viewers over the course of this year's season, compared with IndyCar's 12-race average of 952,917 viewers.
With the new NBC deal, more IndyCar races will air on broadcast TV: Eight events are slated to air on NBC next season. That's up from the five races that got broadcast coverage this season on ABC, with the remaining 12 on NBCSN. NBC plans to give the Indy 500 a jolt by including it in its "Championship Season" marketing effort, which covers big spring sporting events such as the Kentucky Derby, NHL Stanley Cup Final, French Open and Premier League Championship. And NBC is pledging to keep its foot on the promotional pedal all season long.
"Historically after the Indy 500, ABC would have one more race and then typically pack it up and then we would pick it up," McCormack says. "The ability to use our platforms to not only showcase the power of the Indy 500 but the power of the series we think it going to be a huge advantage."
IndyCar, meanwhile, has put an emphasis on raising the starpower of its drivers. When speeding around the track, their faces are shielded by helmets, so IndyCar is "trying to get them out and better recognized," Davis says.
For instance, drivers Conor Daly and Alexander Rossi starred in this season's edition of "The Amazing Race" on CBS, where they competed as "TeamIndyCar." Canadian driver James Hinchcliffe appeared on "Dancing With the Stars" on ABC in 2016. The blueprint was put in place in 2007 when Helio Castroneves of Team Penske gained notoriety by winning "Dancing With the Stars" on ABC. He followed that up with appearances on "Celebrity Wife Swap," "American Ninja Warrior" and "Celebrity Family Feud," where he competed with other IndyCar stars in 2016
On race day weekends, IndyCar puts a premium on giving fans access to drivers, which officials say separates the series from other sports leagues. "Our drivers are taking pictures on the track before they are getting in their cars," Davis says. "You can't get close to an NBA player and NFL player two minutes before kickoff—-that's the difference in the access."
Contributing: Anthony Crupi