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Volume 23 No. 24
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IndyCar shows growth amid emotional finale

Though tumultuous and even tragic at times, the Verizon IndyCar Series saw solid growth in key business metrics for the recently completed 2015 season, giving it a much-needed dose of momentum heading into a long offseason.

The series, which wrapped up the campaign two weeks ago at Sonoma Raceway, where a thrilling finale was mixed in with the somber remembrance of deceased driver Justin Wilson, averaged 1.16 million viewers over 16 races on ABC and NBCSN. IndyCar thus realized its second straight year of ratings growth, this time up 13 percent from 2014 — which equated to a 3 percent increase on ABC and 34 percent increase on NBCSN, which had its best season since acquiring IndyCar’s media rights in 2009.

The IndyCar season ends with team owner Chip Ganassi celebrating driver Scott Dixon’s fourth title.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
The sanctioning body also signed deals with new partners, including Panasonic and Sherwin-Williams. And it experienced growth across digital and social media, with a 10 percent uptick in unique visitors to IndyCar.com and a 51 percent combined spike in Twitter and Instagram followers as well as Facebook likes.

For Mark Miles, CEO of series owner Hulman & Co., the positive steps were attributable to several factors, including NBC Sports’ heavier cross-promotion of IndyCar during its NASCAR and Formula One programming, a more concerted effort toward deepening fan engagement in the digital and social realm, and key storylines emerging such as a close battle for the championship and American driver Graham Rahal’s unlikely championship bid.

“It just kept getting better,” Miles said of the business metrics, while also acknowledging the Wilson tragedy. “From the start, we had excellent events: St. Petersburg said it was their all-time attendance record. Long Beach was fantastic. We get to Indianapolis and we had another 6 percent increase in the crowd at the 500, and that was off of a big base, so that’s an important number. We kind of got to the homestretch starting around Fontana, and in terms of capturing fans from then on in, television audiences were growing consistently and attendance was up at every one of the races. So we felt really, really good about the way the year built up to the climatic championship.”
Still, the series did face challenges in 2015.

Most prominent was the death of Wilson, who was struck by a piece of debris at Pocono Raceway last month and became the first series driver to perish from injuries sustained in a race since Dan Wheldon in 2011. The incident has sparked renewed calls for safety improvement.

Earlier in the year, the newly introduced and highly hyped aero kits from series manufacturers Chevrolet and Honda were troubling from the start, with brittle pieces leading to exorbitant costs for teams and to issues like a broken-off piece in St. Petersburg hitting a spectator, who then sued.

Moreover, many teams still face financial difficulties — in part because of the costly aero kits — and car count could be an issue next year. In a recent story by the Indianapolis Business Journal, former IndyCar driver and current analyst Derek Daly estimated that “three-fourths of the IndyCar teams are financially unstable,” adding, “it’s the worst situation I’ve seen in American open-wheel racing in decades.”

But Zak Brown, CEO of CSM Sports & Entertainment, which owns motorsports marketing agency Just Marketing International, said that while some of the financial issues facing IndyCar teams are real, they’re not any more pressing than they’ve been in the past.

“I don’t think the economics of the sport are any worse than they’ve been in the past,” Brown said. “They continue to put out full grids. I think you go into every offseason biting your nails going, ‘What’s the car count going to be for next season?’ But I’ve been thinking that for five, six years, and they’ve been putting full grids out for five, six years. I think the momentum [from this season] will only help that moving forward.”

Ahead of next year’s campaign that will include the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, IndyCar — which will be expanding its season in 2016 — is budgeting for an increased marketing spend, according to Miles and series CMO C.J. O’Donnell. The 100th running of the 500 is seen as a massive opportunity for IndyCar to capture the world’s attention, and the series plans to take advantage.

“We need, as a series, to embrace the 100th running — it’s a great opportunity to bring more fans and attract new audiences to IndyCar,” O’Donnell said. “And the trick next year is not to look at that [race] as a single event. We need to use that broadcast to ignite the whole series and lift attendance and viewership for all of the races.”

To that end, IndyCar’s marketing campaign for 2016 will be based around the notion of today’s drivers being living legends.

“Next year is a historic year, and it’s a great time to recognize the champions of today and not just the champions of the past,” O’Donnell said. “That’s what we intend to do.”