The problem with IndyCar is not that it will fail (despite the nearly continuous cacophony of doom and gloom by a small group whose sole mission in life is to position it as on its last legs); rather it is a perception of unmet expectations. I saw my first IndyCar turn a wheel in person in 1959. Each evolution of the sport since brought similar ‘end is near’ yelping. Yet here we are in 2014, over 100 years since the accepted beginning of Indy-style racing. The sport itself remains compelling.
Factions of the IndyCar fan world and community are easily delineated. In general there are traditionalists who believe an American series centered around IndyCars should contain mostly Americans not imported from European formula ladders, a lot of ovals and an annual series of events that are scheduled consistently with the same teams and drivers that compete at Indy. There are also formula-centric enthusiasts who believe IndyCar’s ultimate potential is aspiring toward a Formula-1-like configuration including far-flung events worldwide and a non-oval orientation. There is nothing really wrong with either orientation. It all simply turns stupid when stereotypes begin flying.
In order to discuss the topic with any intelligence an honest look at actual reality is required. One point of nearly continuous debate involves television ratings. Ratings today are much lower than they were during the (your favorite era goes here) period of the past. The comical part about all the teeth gnashing is the preponderance of rampant ignorance about how ratings are actually used in the commerce of advertising sales vis-à-vis IndyCar. Breathless anticipation of 12+ overnights and sweeping predictions (usually of doom) that follow completely miss the point and makes almost anyone who attempts to form an argument on that basis look foolish to those engaged in such commerce.
While the actual ratings used in such commerce remain somewhat relevant, especially on NBCSN, reliance on them for survival misses the point. The market has become far too fragmented for 20+ year old methods and practices. Most advertisers that run inside IndyCar programming do so at pre-negotiated rates based not on ratings numbers but on sponsorship obligations related to involvement in the series. Almost everything else either lands in IndyCar as part of a targeted mix of demographically similar programming or as ROS scheduled direct response. IndyCar makes money as the result of sponsorship commitment and NBCSN makes money derived from both sponsorship and spot revenue. Internet television experts always fail to recognize IndyCar is among the highest rated programming on NBCSN and that most programming on that and similar sports networks is not rated at all.
The real challenge going forward should not exclusively be attempting to get television ratings to rise. The only way that will actually happen is having every race telecast on OTA networks and even that is a finite proposition. As a matter of fact the best way to make all ratings rise is to enhance dissemination of the product by shamelessly exposing it on all currently available and emerging distribution channels, including serious use of the web. It must be made ‘hip’ again. Once they figure that out ratings will rise organically. IndyCar vaults contain well over 100 years of history and content, and sitting on it does not do the sport any good. Lawyers that demand a quarter or half a million or more for limited content use ensure continuation of the small IndyCar niche.
This is especially important given the inevitability that going forward NBCSN will devote 85% of its motorsport efforts and promotion to NASCAR, 10% or more to F-1 and 5% or less to IndyCar, along with special programming for both NASCAR and F-1 but nothing for IndyCar. Why so little? It is the cumulative result of not having people or processes in place capable of affecting such change combined with NFL-like arrogance at the highest levels. The NFL can get away with such arrogance because their popularity is widespread and pervasive. IndyCar must orient itself humbly and inside reality to grow. If they continue refusing to budge the small niche they currently occupy is the best for which anyone can hope.
In the years following the post-IRL demise of CART critics loudly complained that IndyCar was not being run enough like a business, often chiding the ‘aw shucks’ modus operandi of the Hulman-George family rooted in decades past. That direction began to change toward a marketing/promotion-first stance when outsider Randy Bernard was brought aboard then shifted completely (foxes in the hen house at work again) toward a business first approach when Mark Miles was placed in charge of not only IndyCar but the entire Hulman-George business empire. The current failure to reach potential is not really the current business first orientation. It is the imbalance of business first against the purity and natural evolution of the sport, not to mention a complete lack of coherent promotion.
There is far too much reliance on rigid corporate structure as well as outside advice of consultants with no meaningful motorsports background, and precious little faith in racers who just want to race. If IndyCar is to reach its potential the balance between business and sport must be adjusted. Micromanagement that drives racers away; e.g., Beaux Barfield, must be scrutinized with objectivity. Motor racing, as Hemingway articulated decades ago, is one of only three sports (the rest being just games). The most extreme form of motor sports has been sanitized, homogenized and micromanaged into a format largely rejected by all but hardcore fans. Logical solution: LOOSEN UP, then let people know it is there.
If IndyCar employs high credentialed marketing professionals when will they actually begin marketing instead of merely crafting business-speak wordplay such as ‘…customized, synergistic promotional programs that leverage each other’s assets…’ and other such whimsy? IndyCar positions itself as diverse. Exploit it. Feature TWO ‘triple crowns’ per season. The first should emphasize diversity. $3 million dollars to anyone who can win Long Beach (street), Barber or Mid-Ohio (road) and Texas (high speed oval) in a season. The second should emphasize power and speed. $3 million dollars to anyone who wins Indianapolis, Pocono and Fontana. Besides, what are the odds someone would actually accomplish that given the overall competitiveness of the series lately? Why not throw in a third ‘triple crown?’ Three foreign races and $3 million to a winner of all three. Who would need any sort of gimmicky ‘chase’ then?
Maintain meaningful contact with domestic race tracks. Plenty of new markets exist. Hillenburg’s Rockingham and Memphis Motorsports Park come to mind. Learn from your mistakes. The two biggest this season with respect to venues was the Pocono 500 on 4th of July weekend and Fontana on Labor Day weekend. When a logical place on the schedule is located for them bring a street festival atmosphere to each track and run something more than just IndyCars. Presentation at each of those tracks was uninspired, lazy and insulting. IndyCar invented oval presentation, something copied and perfected by NASCAR. Re-invent the genre for yourself and get serious about it.
Given the proclivity of current management to chase easy money it is understandable that far flung races in places like Dubai might seem attractive from a revenue generation standpoint. Those are the events that should be scheduled on the fringes of the season. Do not be afraid to run races at the beginning of football season. Just do not schedule races opposite football games.
Figure out a way to make the series and its ladders more inclusive to a greater number of participants. A goal should be 30 full time entries in IndyCar. Instead of poaching sponsorships why not participate in generation of it for teams?
If fans were an important component in series direction IndyCar could concoct ways of attracting more of them. It is time for IndyCar to put its money where its mouth is.