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Volume 21 No. 34
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ABC says goodbye, NBC waits in pits at Indianapolis 500

The crowd provided an energetic vibe but television viewership reached a new low.
Photo: Getty Images

While ABC staff prepared for their final Indianapolis 500 broadcast at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a cadre of NBC Sports executives gathered 15 minutes across town at the trendy Tinker House restaurant.

 

NBC takes over full-season media rights of the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2019, when it will become the first broadcaster besides ABC to air the Indy 500 in 55 years. The NBC executives were there to give a briefing at IndyCar’s annual partner summit — made up of teams, tracks, brands and agencies — on what it will bring to the property.

 

NBC has touted its cross-promotional expertise as a way to grow IndyCar. And while IndyCar’s overall ratings as a series are up from where they were a handful of years ago, NBC will inherit viewership declines for the property’s marquee race in the 500. This year’s race finished with a 3.1 rating and 4.9 million viewers on ABC, down 6 percent in ratings and 8 percent in viewership from a 3.3 rating and 5.3 million viewers last year. It was the least-viewed Indy 500 on record.

 

NBC has yet to announce the talent it will use for next year’s race, but sources said Mike Tirico was also at the summit, indicating that NBC may use the Olympic prime-time host in its Indy 500 coverage next year. NBC Sports’ current booth for its half of the season that it’s been splitting with ABC is filled by versatile Australian announcer Leigh Diffey and analysts Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy, both of whom are former drivers.

 

For ABC’s part, multiple staffers in the leadup to the event reflected on the end of the media company’s long run with the 500.

 

“It’s sad and disappointing any time a partnership of this length has a pause or the streak is broken, which is essentially what’s going to happen next year,” said Kate Jackson, ESPN’s coordinating producer. “Racing is a very small community and we are all like family, so there is a real sense of mourning that we will not be a part of the series for the next two [or three] years.”

 

Fuzzy’s Vodka gained exposure from its ties to Ed Carpenter Racing, which qualified three cars in the top seven.
Photo: Adam Stern / Staff

STRONG TURNOUT: After a torrential downpour held off until just after the 500 ended last year, Indianapolis Motor Speedway executives got another dose of good luck with weather this year, with sunny — albeit sweltering — conditions all weekend that boosted walkup ticket sales.

 

As of last week, IMS had yet to release an official crowd count. But Mark Miles, chief executive of track and series owner Hulman & Co., told SportsBusiness Journal during the race that he expected the final tally to crest over the 300,000 mark, which would be up from 2017 — though likely short of the 350,000 mark in 2016, the 100th running of the 500. Miles pegged the Miller Lite Carb Day crowd on Friday of race weekend at between 75,000 and 80,000 people, which is up around 15 to 20 percent from 65,000 last year.

 

While TV ratings were down, the crowd provided an energetic vibe and the community demonstrated strong buy-in all month leading up to the event. Corporate hospitality sold out, as did the 15 Try It Tiny mini-homes that debuted in the infield as part of $3,000 packages.

 

SPONSOR HIGHLIGHTS: In its final year as title sponsor of the series, Verizon also sponsored the eventual race winner in Team Penske’s No. 12 Chevrolet driven by Will Power. But while Verizon will stay with Team Penske after its title sponsorship ends, the company appeared to send out little to no messaging around the win on social media in the days after the race, underlining the concern of the industry that the telecommunications company hasn’t activated the sponsorship as heavily as some had hoped.

 

Nonetheless, sponsor activation was relatively robust during the month of May, led in part by GoDaddy, which returned to the 500 for a one-off with endorser Danica Patrick for what she says was the final race of her career. Three times during the race GoDaddy ran its “Side Hustles” ad, which sees Patrick tout the web-hosting company’s ability to help build small businesses like hers. Barb Rechterman, GoDaddy executive vice president and CMO, said the company plans to continue working with Patrick after her racing career and isn’t closing the door on possibly doing other deals in motorsports.

 

Thanks in part to the strong run of the team he sponsors, former Masters champion Fuzzy Zoeller and his eponymous vodka brand had an exciting month of May at IMS. Fuzzy’s Vodka since 2010 has been a sponsor of Ed Carpenter Racing, which saw its three cars qualify in the top seven for the race, including race polesitter Ed Carpenter, who rode up front most of the race and finished second, garnering a hefty amount of TV exposure for the vodka company.

 

“As a new company, you’re always looking for something that will give you the exposure immediately, and IndyCar racing has done that for us,” Zoeller said from his company’s suite in the IMS pagoda, one of several assets it has around the property.

 

Fuzzy’s, which is sold in 20 markets nationwide, sells its vodka at the track, including annual limited-edition Indy 500 bottles.

 

Other heavily visible brands during the 500 — whether on TV or at the track — included Chevrolet, Firestone and Coors Light.

 

The 15 Try It Tiny mini-homes, available in the infield as part of $3,000 packages, sold out.
Photo: Adam Stern / Staff

REASSURING WORDS: After IndyCar star driver James Hinchcliffe failed to qualify for the 500, Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports President Jon Flack could see crew members hanging their heads as they returned to the garage. Flack had just spoken to Mike Long, chief executive of Arrow Electronics, primary sponsor of SPM, who had assured Flack that Arrow understood what had just occurred even though it meant that the company would miss the major branding opportunity.

 

Buoyed by Long’s words, Flack asked Long to deliver a similar message to the team in the SPM garage.

 

“They made it very clear: ‘We’re family, we support you 100 percent, we trust that you’ll find a way to get us as much exposure and value as we possibly can — but we’re with you for the long haul, so don’t sweat [the missed qualification].’ When I heard that, I thought it would be really good for the team to hear that. … [Long] delivered a really powerful speech to the team and lifted everyone’s spirits. And now we’re ready to go fight again.”

 

NEW FACES: While McLaren didn’t enter this year’s 500, plans for the English car company to join IndyCar full time next year have led to more optimism that the series is heading in the right direction from a team perspective. Sports car team Scuderia Corsa, which did a one-off entry in this year’s 500 as part of a joint venture with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, has also been reported as being interested in joining IndyCar full time.

 

This year, new full-time entries came in the form of Carlin Racing and Harding Racing. Meanwhile, Indy Lights team Steinbrenner Racing — owned by members of the family that owns the New York Yankees — is also considering moving up to the IndyCar Series next year.