SBJ/May 2-8, 2011/Leagues and Governing Bodies

IndyCar weighs adding races to boost TV money

Editor's note: This story is revised from the print edition.

In an effort to boost its television rights revenue, the Izod IndyCar Series is considering adding races to its 2012 schedule that would expand and sweeten the five-race package now held by ABC.

The rights agreement for ABC’s package, which includes the Indianapolis 500, is set to expire this year. The parties last week held their first negotiations. Currently, ABC broadcasts five races, and Versus, which has a revenue-sharing agreement with IndyCar, televises the other 12.

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ABC televises five IndyCar races, including the circuit’s most famous event, the Indianapolis 500.
ABC pays $6 million annually for the rights to the Indianapolis 500 and four other races: St. Petersburg, Milwaukee, New Hampshire and Las Vegas. It has held the rights to the Indianapolis 500 for 46 consecutive years.

IndyCar has hired IMG and Barry Frank to represent it in its TV rights negotiations. ABC has a 90-day exclusive negotiating window that runs from April through the end of June.

“ABC has been a great partner, but I also know there’s significant interest from other networks,” said IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard. “It’s [Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO] Jeff [Belskus] and my goal to make sure we get the best possible deal, and we’re confident we can do that with the help of Barry Frank.”

Frank said that as the series looks to increase its rights fee, it is open to adding more races to the package in order to sweeten the deal.

“We’re out to do a better deal than now,” he said. “It’s possible they would add [more events].”

Frank said he’s optimistic that ratings for the Indianapolis 500 will pick up this year. ABC earned a 3.6 Nielsen rating and 5.79 million viewers for its broadcast of the 2010 Indianapolis 500, which was won by Dario Franchitti. The rating was the lowest for the race since it began airing live in 1986. The ratings and viewership were down 10 percent and 9 percent, respectively, from a 4.0 rating and 6.338 million viewers in 2009.

“I think over time those ratings will improve,” Frank said. “The Indianapolis 500 is a classic race in the sports scene. It won’t go away overnight. It will be important again.”

John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president, programming acquisitions and strategy, who is handling the IndyCar negotiations for ABC, said the network remains committed to the Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar Series. He added, “We are encouraged by the momentum generated for IndyCar under Randy Bernard’s leadership and would like to renew.”

So far this season, the IndyCar Series has averaged a 0.6 rating and 872,000 viewers for three races on ABC and Versus. It has averaged a 0.2 rating and 313,000 viewers over two races on Versus. In 2010, the series averaged 0.2 rating and 404,000 viewers during three races on Versus.

Bernard said that in addition to a higher rights fee, the IndyCar Series is looking for more promotional support, marketing and event coverage from its future broadcast partner.

“We’re going to go in with a wish list of everything we want, and we’re going to go with reasoning why we believe we can move the dial,” he said.

As an example of the types of things that he believes will increase interest in IndyCar, Bernard pointed to his $5 million bonus to any driver outside of the series who comes to the season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and beats series drivers in their own race. He also pointed to the addition of new manufacturers and a new car in 2012, which he thinks will attract new viewers.

“I’m very bullish on our future,” Bernard said. “The next couple of years are going to be a big proving ground.”

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