(by Robin Miller speedtv.com 9-9-09)
Let’s get the positive stuff out of the way. VERSUS coverage of IndyCar racing is top notch, certainly a vast improvement over the past several years on ABC/ESPN.
The races are heavily promoted throughout the week and treated like a major sporting event from start to finish. Viewers always get to hear from the winner and there’s a healthy pre-race show.
Terry Lingner remains one of the premier motorsports producers in the business and the chemistry in the booth between Bob Jenkins, Robbie Buhl and Jon Beekhuis has been a pleasant surprise (especially Buhl).
But all that doesn’t matter because IndyCar is dying on VERSUS. It’s not a theory or an assumption, it’s a fact.
The ratings are abysmal, almost infomercial level. So far in its 11 races on VERSUS, the IRL’s average rating of 0.32 figures out to less than 240,000 people per race. The official numbers say that the VERSUS telecasts have reached 2,552,000 households and that represents roughly 3,310,000 viewers. And those aren’t average numbers, that’s the TOTAL for all 11 events.
By contrast, this year’s Indy 500 on ABC reached 4.5 million homes and was watched by 6.3 million. The other four ABC races in ’09 made it into 3,710,000 homes and totaled 4,619,000 eyeballs for an average of just over 1.1 million per telecast.
Without even figuring in Indy, there are five times more viewers watching IndyCar on ABC instead of VERSUS.
These numbers aren't shocking to IRL management since they claim they expected it. It’s also not the first time an open wheel racing series has been AWOL this decade (Champ Car vanished in 2004 when it ventured onto SPIKE).
The company line has been that it’s going to take time for IndyCar and VERSUS to grow together and that’s why they signed a 10-year deal. But the cold reality is that IndyCar doesn’t have the luxury of patiently waiting for VERSUS to try and establish itself as a player in the sports network world.
A series bereft of sponsorship at every level cannot hope to survive on a cable network that’s virtually unknown unless you’re into cage fighting. Whether it’s fair or not, the first thing potential sponsors want to see is the exposure they’ll receive on television.
“The issue is one of sponsorship. We’re seeing it now and we did back then,” said Kevin Kalkhoven, the co-owner of KV Racing who was referring to the disastrous decision to go with SPIKE when he co-owned Champ Car. “It’s quite simple. You need to be on national television in order to get proper sponsorship.”
Paul Tracy recently met with GEICO, which sponsored him at Indianapolis and Watkins Glen this season. The insurance company said it was happy with PT’s efforts and wanted to help him again in 2010.
“But they’re only interested in the races on ABC,” said Tracy.
The pressing problem is that IndyCar budgets are so unbelievably unreasonable compared to the value of the series. It costs $4-6 million per car to get near the front and $8-10 million to monopolize like Ganassi and Penske. Tracy went to Monster energy drink a couple years ago (when IndyCar was still all on ABC/ESPN) looking for $4 million and was told IRL was only worth $1.2 million.
So what in the name of Bob Reif would that number be today?
It’s an inverted financial pyramid because right now the series isn’t worth a fifth of what it takes to run up front.
The latest bit of news that DIRECTV has pitched VERSUS and its 16 million homes might seem like more doom and gloom. Yet it’s really good timing because it could be the out in the contract that IndyCar needs.
There appears to be a couple of options. Maybe IndyCar could re-negotiate its deal with ABC and, instead of getting big money for Indy, take less and get more races than the five that are currently promised for 2010.
If that’s not feasible, then simply go buy time on NBC and CBS (like ChampCar did in its final years), or call Fox or SPEED. Because IMS has its own in-house production company, a time buy wouldn’t be nearly as costly as it was for Gerald Forsythe and Kalkhoven (rumored to be $800,000 per race).
Of course there is one major obstacle in this plan.
VERSUS is supposedly paying IndyCar $6 million a year and it might be tough to convince the new IMS management to quit receiving money and start spending it.
But it needs to happen ASAP. Keep Lingner, the talent and the VERSUS attitude, just dump the channel and reconnect with the mainstream. Network television may not be IndyCar’s allies, but they damn sure can come to the rescue.
It matters not that VERSUS puts on a good show because nobody is watching.