You're right, I did lose a million dollars last year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year. I expect to lose a million dollars *next* year. You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I'll have to close this place in... 60 years. - Charles Foster Kane in Citizen KaneYesterday ESPN announced a multi-year deal to televise Champ Car races on it's family of networks. No less than 11 of the races will air on ESPN, ESPN2 or ABC in 2007, with the network taking over exclusive broadcasts in 2008.
Now before you do a spit take in disbelief that the network that covers the Indy Racing League would jump in bed the other open-wheel league, understand this is a different type of agreement. Whereas the IRL is paid at least something to televise their races (if only to allow coverage of the Indy 500), the CCWS has reportedly spent the last few years paying it's way onto TV. Previously they have been on SPEED, with league owners such as Kevin Kalkhoven, Gerald Forsythe, et al footing the bill to pay for two hours of coverage for their races in an effort to attract more sponsors.
Well, now they will get more coverage but at an even higher cost. The big brains at TrackSide Online have a whole lot more on this, but the estimate is a quarter of a million dollars per hour to be on any given network from the ESPNs. Say two hours per race, 11 races next year and you've got over $5M just for air time. Plus you've got equipment, crew, on-air talent and you're basically paying some serious coin for people to please watch the races.
Now consider that the heads of Champ Car are also going to be buying the new Panoz DP01 chassis they paid to develop and will couple it with their Cosworth engines for the purpose of renting to prospective team ownership. What you have is a series trying really, really hard to get anyone into their league. How far behind can no-meny down financing be with these guys?
Here's the money quote (pun intended) from Kevin Kalkhoven yesterday.
"I'm actually very pleased by the whole deal," Champ Car co-owner Kevin Kalkhoven told ESPN.com's John Oreovicz. "It's a favorable long-term contract for both sides and it brings stability to our television package. Stability is very important to our future. For motor racing fans, it's a very good thing. There are two key aspects. To be on ESPN gives us access to U.S. racing fans. ESPN also offers a total package for sports fans, with the Web site and the magazine.I marked the important parts in bold, and even if I didn't you don't need to be a rocket scientist to figure what this is all about. Kalkhoven went to Indy this year and was seen at IRL races on weekends Champ Car was racing. He has spoken publicly a lot more than Tony George about unification, and it would seem this move to ESPN would be for no other reason than to try to force the IRL's hand into a merger.
"If we can't have open-wheel unification, at least we can have a common broadcast partner. Once you get past that, the channel is outstanding in a lot of ways. Now, American open-wheel racing is at a place where fans can find it. Speed Channel [the previous broadcast sponsor] has become so NASCAR-centric that we were just a speed bump in their day."
Seriously, the NASCAR comment is bogus since ESPN (the Engine Sports Programming Network) will be televising NASCAR next year. I'm confident they won't be putting open-wheel racing of any kind above stock cars on their broadcasts.
TSO says IRL officials are concerned but not worried about this development. Why should they be? Most American race fans have seen Champ Cars and they probably won't suddenly start watching a bunch of generally unknown drivers go around in a parade. It's not like Champ Car (or even the IRL) has another ten million fans in America who can't see the races.
The worst possible outcome for the IRL is that this forces a merger. ESPN is still paying for the IRL so they would presumably want that product to remain strong, but giving cable audiences all the open-wheel racing they can handle may create an urgency for a merger if only to avoid confusion. Then again, race fans may actually be smart enough to figure out which league has Danica and Andretti and which doesn't.
The best possible outcome for the IRL is that at some point Kalkhoven and his pals spend themselves into the ground trying to force a merger. It's a strange situation that the series that actually has a paid TV contract with the most famous race and well known drivers is NOT the one with the strongest financial backing. The Hulman George family is well off to be sure, but not like the Champ Car guys.
With this announcment Kalkhoven has fired a serious shot across the SS IndyCar and let them know he wants to merge these leagues and he will do everything in his power to do it. He knows what he wants and putting both series on the same TV networks is part of his plan to get it. Hey, you can't blame a billionaire for trying.