SBJ/20091019/This Week's News

Versus move costs IRL race viewers

The chief criticism from teams in the Indy Racing League this year centered on the IRL’s TV deal with Versus and it’s easy to see why, based on the number of viewers the network delivered for the first year of the league’s 10-year agreement.

Network executives say they have met viewership promises made to the league by delivering more eyeballs across more hours of coverage, pre-race and post-race. But actual viewership for Versus’ IRL races dropped by nearly 60 percent from ESPN/ESPN2’s races last year.

Versus averaged 315,000 viewers for 12 races, down 59.5 percent from ESPN/ESPN2’s 2008 average of 778,000 viewers over 11 races.

ABC also saw a viewership decline, averaging 2.636 million viewers over five races, down 3 percent from an average of 2.727 million for seven races in 2008. Combined, ABC and Versus averaged 1.157 million viewers for the full 17-race season, down 28 percent from last year’s 1.616 million average over 18 races.

But Versus executives say it is a mistake to focus solely on the ratings for each race’s two-hour window. Versus says it has delivered more eyeballs to the IRL this year than last, thanks to the seven hours of coverage per week it devoted to each race.

Versus ran a one-hour preview the day before each race, an hour of pre-race coverage the day of the race and a three-hour block the day after the race.

“As a whole, we are feeling very good after year one of a 10-year deal,” said Marc Fein, executive vice president of programming, production and business operations at Versus. “We’re falling into place where we thought we’d be.”

Actual viewership of races on ESPN/ESPN2 last
year and Versus this year showed a big drop.
IndyCar Series TV viewership
ESPN/ESPN2 (11 races)
Versus (12 races)
down 59.5%
Total across all nets
down 28.4%

According to Versus, 29.5 million people tuned in for the IndyCar Series coverage on its network this year compared to 25.9 million on ESPN/ESPN2 last year.

That’s the kind of blanket coverage IRL officials sought when they struck the 10-year agreement with Versus, understanding that it would trade the 99 million homes reached by ESPN/ESPN2 for Versus’ 62 million homes and additional coverage. Versus lost about 14 million homes when DirecTV dropped the network on Sept. 1.

But the drop in ratings and viewership during the races still leave the teams answering a lot of questions from their own sponsors. As many team executives point out, sponsors look at the ratings for the race broadcast, not the cumulative viewership over multiple pre-race and post-race shows.

In an attempt to allay the teams’ concerns, Terry Angstadt, president of the IRL’s commercial division, and Versus President Jamie Davis met with team officials at the season finale in Miami two weekends ago.

“We know it’s a soft spot from a pure ratings standpoint and it’s easy to take shots at that,” Angstadt said. “But as we’ve said, if your story is never told, you’re going to have a hard time getting more people to watch. We went from two hours to seven hours of coverage (a week).

“We know that when you switch broadcast partners, ratings go down. It’s going to take awhile. Versus is like us, a new entity, but it’s everything we anticipated and we could not feel better about the guys we’re involved with. We know the team owners have a lot of sponsorship to sell and (the TV numbers) is the No. 1 criticism, but I think they felt better after hearing from Jamie.”

The teams acknowledge the enhanced coverage from Versus, but it’s offset by complaints from sponsors.

“Sponsors hear about the ratings numbers, not the pre-race and post-race and all the other stuff,” said Jonathan Gibson, vice president of marketing at Penske Racing. “While the numbers are smaller and we need to see improvement, we do feel like they’ve enhanced the product. The talent on the broadcast is knowledgeable about the sport and they’ve done a good job educating the viewers.”

The loss of households from the DirecTV-Versus rift last month also hit teams and sponsors, who complained that many family members of team staffers haven’t been able to watch races on TV.

“We talk about (increasing) households all the time,” Angstadt said.

IndyCar’s performance on TV didn’t hinder the series’ business efforts, Angstadt said. The IRL brought in 11 new partners this year, including Maker’s Mark, Orbitz, National Guard, Mattel Hot Wheels and

Apex-Brasil, Verizon and Izod made significant media buys on the broadcasts, and Apex-Brasil also brought more than 200 guests to the season finale in Miami.

Generating that level of enthusiasm for the race broadcasts is the next step for the IRL and Versus. Fein said the first year of the deal felt much like the network’s first year with the NHL, which has seen steady growth on the network.

“With the first year, you have to be realistic,” Fein said. “There’s an education that has to take place. It takes time for viewers to find it.”

Angstadt added, “We’ve made a bet on them and they’ve made a bet on us. It takes a little leap of faith right now, but we know that Versus has an aggressive parent (Comcast) and we’re convinced they’re not content to sit where they are.”

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