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Volume 22 No. 35
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Indy 500 bullish on attendance, but will ratings rebound?

Attendance could reach 310,000 if current ticketing trends continue.
Photo: getty images

The rejuvenation of the Indianapolis 500 that started in 2016 continues this year, but the question is: Can new media partner NBC Sports help the event stop its ratings skid?

The race, which has a new presenting sponsor in Indianapolis-based online financial services platform Gainbridge, will run its 103rd edition this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where NBC Sports will make its debut airing the event.

It comes three years after organizers revitalized the buzz and business around the event’s 100th running, which sold out to 350,000 spectators and won a Sports Business Award for Event of the Year.

The race has found a major storyline to hang its hat on every year since then, with two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso and McLaren Racing running in 2017 and again this year (see story, Page 11), as well as Danica Patrick running her final race before retirement last year.

Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Co., which owns IndyCar and IMS, said the mixture of notable on-track storylines, activation from corporate partners and a deeper commitment to myriad community events around the race have been keys to the continued success in attendance.

“It’s not like we had a lot of scientific data to project what to expect [after 2016], but knew how to sustain a lot of the growth in that year and it seems to be working,” Miles said. “The major contributor is we’ve had great racing but the thing that is more new for us, beginning in ’16, was the community engagement — really working to involve every element of the community.”

Miles said that as of early May, ticket sales were tracking up a couple percent from last year’s crowd of 300,000, which could put this year’s attendance closer to 310,000, should the uptick hold through the race.

NBC Sports has followed through on its long-stated plans to heavily promote the race. On top of having shown Indy 500 promos dating to the NFL playoffs earlier this year, as well as the Kentucky Derby this month, the “Today” show will broadcast from IMS this Thursday. NBC also will have Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Patrick serve as guest analysts.

NBC, which picked up full-season IndyCar media rights this season, aims to reverse drops in the Indy 500’s TV ratings. ABC last year earned 4.91 million viewers for the event, off about 7% from 5.27 million in 2017, making it the race’s least-viewed telecast on record.

In terms of sponsor activation, new IndyCar fuel/convenience store partner Speedway has been doing several promotions at its stores and on its mobile app. That includes signage and videos at gas pumps alerting people to Speedway’s official partner status and this month’s events. The efforts also include point-of-sale displays by Pepsi, which is a new partner to IMS after replacing Coca-Cola.

Verizon vacated its title sponsorship after last season but it will maintain a solid presence at IMS this month nonetheless. Verizon is activating around its 5G service as part of its Team Penske relationship and will have signage at IMS. Verizon has set up a private, wireless 5G network at the track to help Team Penske improve certain operations. Verizon will capture content through the system and use it to market the technology.

Gainbridge, which replaced PennGrade Motor Oil as the 500’s presenting sponsor, is running TV advertising around IndyCar races, has signage at IMS and is activating on social media. Gainbridge is also among those activating on the midway, along with the U.S. Air Force, Chevrolet, Firestone and Geico.