IndyCar faces media, title sponsor questions
The Verizon IndyCar Series is facing a crucial year on and off the track with several moves that will shape the sport’s future.
The open-wheel series kicks off the 2018 season this weekend in St. Petersburg, Fla., as it debuts a new car kit developed in a bid to create better racing. But the league also is in the midst of media-rights negotiations and selling its series title sponsorship, with the new deals designed to start in 2019.
IndyCar wants to land a media-rights partner first in order to use that partner to help sell the open title sponsorship, which is being vacated by Verizon.
Mark Miles, chief executive of Hulman & Co., which owns IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said he soon should have a “pretty clear sense” of which network IndyCar is going with but declined to provide a specific window.
“I don’t know how long it’ll take to get a long-form contract; maybe we can get a binding term sheet and feel comfortable enough [to announce the deal] then, but getting that papered in one form or another is harder to predict,” Miles said.
IndyCar looked into streaming partners including Amazon, according to sources, but Miles said the new media partner both for linear and digital rights in the U.S. will likely be one of the incumbents, NBC Sports or ABC/ESPN. Industry buzz has started to peg NBC as the favorite, but Miles said talks continue with multiple parties. IndyCar averaged 1.14 million viewers last year. That was down 11 percent from 2016, but the series saw a 34 percent uptick in viewership from 2014 to 2016.
Miles said IndyCar has received interest from new prospective title sponsors, including from some not based in the U.S., but he said those talks were at the early stages. Verizon has been title sponsor since 2014.
The new car kit that IndyCar is debuting this year will be used by both of the sport’s manufacturers, Chevrolet and Honda. IndyCar introduced the kit, made by Italian chassis manufacturer Dallara, to save teams money but hopes it will generate more exciting races.
Miles said Jay Frye, IndyCar’s president of competition and operations, spent the offseason pitching auto manufacturers in Europe and the U.S. about coming into the series. Sergio Marchionne, chief executive of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, recently told Italian reporters that FCA was considering deploying the Alfa Romeo brand into IndyCar.
The team side of the sport appears relatively stable; there are four new teams coming into the series this year, but that’s been offset by some of the bigger teams cutting back on the number of cars they’re running. There have also been a steady trickle of new partnership announcements coming from teams this offseason, but there’s still questions surrounding whether Steak n’ Shake, one of the most visible new team sponsors in IndyCar in recent years, is coming back to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
“The conversations [with prospective sponsors] are a heck of lot more positive today than they were three to five years ago,” said Jon Flack, president of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, which is unveiling a large new hospitality structure at most of the races this season in concert with major primary sponsor Arrow Electronics.
The schedule this year is mostly the same as last year, aside from Watkins Glen International being dropped in favor of a return to Portland International Raceway.
“I’ve now finished five years here, and I don’t care to describe the years before I started but I do feel like on every front right now, we’re gaining ground and doing better,” Miles said. “I certainly have not experienced this kind of positive feedback and alignment with the paddock in the time I’ve been involved.”