Immolation

Posted by Iannucci | 7/28/2008 | 16 comments »
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Recall these words your humble host wrote just a few days ago.

...the league’s bipolar relationship with the network swings wildly from the Danica Patrick love-ins on the race broadcasts to the occasionally abusive coverage at ESPN.com. As a consequence there has been a growing movement from fans asking that the IRL consider a different broadcast partner for next year, a proposal that despite the flawed relationship I’m not going to echo. I mean, I’ve seen what happened to the National Hockey League, and I don’t want to go looking for races on Versus.

Now it appears this off-the-cuff "doomsday scenario" of a broadcast partner has an actual chance of occurring.

Conventional wisdom was that a unified open-wheel racing series would result in a more valuable media property. But five months after the IRL and Champ Car joined together, the series is seeing what has been its biggest asset — media rights — struggling to maintain value.

Both incumbent partner ABC/ESPN and suitor Fox Sports have told the circuit that they are interested in broadcasting only the Indianapolis 500. But the IRL is trying to sell a package that includes at least four other races for broadcast as well.

ESPN has been pitching the IRL on a different model, possibly based on revenue sharing. So far, the IRL is not interested in such an arrangement.

While Fox has had some discussions with the series, Versus has shown the most interest in obtaining a package, which would not include the marquee races, according to several sources.

(MORE from Sports Business Journal)
Versus? Are you kidding me? Pardon me, but I have to find a Zippo and some lighter fluid. Just in case.

(Thanks to Will at is it May yet? for sending me into cardiac arrest bringing this to our attention.)

16 comments

  1. Tabernerus // July 28, 2008 4:59 PM  

    One thing I'm not sure about:
    Are we all maybe misreading this article? It uses the term "broadcast," but I have a feeling that the issue is not whether ABC/ESPN and FOX want to pick up more than the Indy 500, but that the IRL wants more of their races to be broadcast on broadcast television, ie, network. Its a logical step for the League to say, "Hey, how about a few more races hitting the max number of homes, huh?" The carriers are balking at that, maybe, and only want to put the 500 on broadcast TV, while relegating the rest of the schedule to cable of some variety?

    This is just a guess - I have no info. I just have a feeling a lot of people are reacting based on an article by Street & Smith, and that there isn't a lot else out there to go on. Just food for thought.

  2. chrisestrada // July 28, 2008 5:00 PM  

    Here's what I have to say about it:
    http://tinyurl.com/5ws8v2

    The IRL's at a bar stool and it's looking at two mean shot glasses of poison.

    ESPN will never give them equal treatment with NASCAR and ESPN knows that save for the Indy 500, the series has not been able to get upward in ratings.

    The bad news is everyone else knows too and that's why the league is fighting with the sword of 'No IndyCar Series, no Indy 500.'

    We may be one step away from having an ESPN exec go, "We're all you've got" to Tony, Brian and Terry.

  3. Grizzlor // July 28, 2008 5:22 PM  

    Well, the ESPN deal runs through 2009, so they're just exploring at this point. I think part of the issue is payment. In other words, other networks are willing to air the non-Indy races, they just don't want to pay for them. The IRL will wait until next year, but the odds are they are going to have to settle for ESPN's revenue sharing deal.

  4. pressdog // July 28, 2008 5:22 PM  

    Stuff said at this point is probably as much negotiating posture than anything, so don't get too freaked. That said, it's good for fans to realize this is bidness, and if TV can't make money off the IRL shows, guess what? They won't on TV. That simple.

  5. Johnny // July 28, 2008 6:05 PM  

    I tried to wait a minute and calm down before I posted this but seriously, get a grip. Versus does an amazing job with stuff like the WEC, the NHL, PBR and just this month had the best Tour De France coverage I've ever seen in 25 years of watching the sport. Don't sell them short. I'd much rather have a smaller network aggressively pursue something they were passionate about doing than being NASCAR's sloppy seconds on ESPN/Fox.

  6. Derek // July 28, 2008 6:30 PM  

    I'm all for the IRL going to Vs.

    They really care about the things on their network, the hockey coverage has been getting better every year, I've never seen hockey broadcast late due to women's golf on vs… This is something the IRL needs and I like to see them stick it to ESPN, who seems to be letting all these smaller properties go, creating a pretty good upstart network in versus.

  7. Jeff Iannucci // July 28, 2008 6:54 PM  

    This has nothing to do with the quality of coverage provided by Vs. It has everything to do with the quantity.

    Specifically, unless I pay my cable provider for an extra tier I don't get Vs, so to me IndyCar racing becomes a form of pay-per-view entertainment.

    Of course I would pay for it, but many others would not. Shrinking the visibility of the league is is no way a good thing. Again, just ask the NHL.

  8. yaumb // July 28, 2008 7:14 PM  

    IMO, of course...

    Indy 500 + four or five races on OTA broadcast + balance on Versus > Indy 500 on ABC + rest of schedule on ESPN, the Deuce, and the Ocho.

    I can't imagine that Versus could do a worse job than the Marty and Jackie Show Featuring Brienne and Her Amazing Double-Jointed Jaw. And since Cox moved TCM onto expanded-tier digital cable, I get Versus, so I'd be fine.

  9. Demond Sanders // July 28, 2008 8:22 PM  

    I'm with you Jeff. I would love to see someone (vastly) improve the quality and length of coverage, but I'm scared of a move to Versus because:

    1.) I am an 18-35 year old male, but I have never watched a single minute of Versus programming.

    2.) I get 200 channels, but I'm not sure I even get Versus.

    I think you leave a lot of people out of the loop with such a move. I guess I am still crazy enough to think the sport has mainstream potential.

    Pressdog is almost certainly correct about ESPN's posturing, but even so it might not be too soon to start praying Danica or Marco wins next May.

  10. Carrie // July 29, 2008 5:43 AM  

    Jeff: I get where you are coming from but I'm missing where you aren't paying for some of the IRL races as it is. Unless you get basic cable/satellite for free?

    Yes, it would suck to have to pay MORE, especially if Vs is on a tier with a bunch of channels you don't have any use for at all but...

    FWIW Vs is on the basic digital package here in NW GA. I'm paying for that anyways.

  11. Dale Nixon // July 29, 2008 6:23 AM  

    Versus is a substantial, growing channel with a number of high-ranking execs with racing experience. In fact when Speed moved headquarters from CT to NC, a couple of the main players stayed behind with the OLN which became Versus. And most of those guys cut their teeth at the pre-BOO YAH RAH RAH ESPN i.e. when it was a real sports station.

    And while I love the Versus hockey coverage, the market penetration is a concern that could be addressed by adding more keystone events.

  12. Tabernerus // July 29, 2008 6:30 AM  

    Let's approach this from a different angle. What's the ideal IndyCar TV package? Well, aside from all races on ABC, live, with pre and post race coverage, and a high production value. 'cause that's be crazy talk.

    Let's assume a 20-race season, because I think we'll be there by '10, if not '09.

    8 races on ABC (Indy, Long Beach, Texas, Toronto, The Glen, Iowa, Mid-Ohio, the Finale (wherever it is).

    10 races on ESPN.

    2 races on ESPN2 (pick the two least likely to be awesome).

    All races carried live through conclusion of advertised distance, with 30 minutes of pre-race, and 15-30 minutes of post-race. Cut away from preceding program if it runs long, to show the full race.

    Weekly one-hour program covering IRL and related racing. This includes at least a mention of Lights races, and the occasional Atlantics mentions. Actually, how about approaching ALMS to see if they can bring anything to the table in exchange for some coverage as part of this show?

    IndyCar Series qualifying shows, preferably live, but condensed into an hour if necessary, on ESPN2.

    There. That's a great step up for the series. That's a goal. I doubt ABC/ESPN will want to go this far, but it's a starting point.

  13. Johnny // July 29, 2008 8:29 AM  

    As far as the ALMS, I think they're wanting to distance themselves from the IRL somewhat because they don't want to be perceived as a support series or undercard. I wouldn't look to them for any support at this point.

  14. Chuck // July 29, 2008 5:25 PM  

    Versus is probably going to go after this hard if they sense blood in the water.

    Lots of awesome comments in this thread, so I'll try to throw my two pennies at a couple of them (fractional cents for each, it seems)...

    1. It was nice to see Jenko and Beeker back behind the mics this weekend. Jenko struck me as off-stride at first, but by 10 laps in it was like he never left. ESPN needs to take notes when it is so clear that they left behind only the scraps of their broadcasting team (Goodyear), and yet the overall quality of their broadcast went up. Their regular play by play fellow is so uninformed about the sport he's doing play-by-play for that... I mean, could ESPN do anything more to indicate they don't care about this sport beyond just showing it on side-by-side with SportsCenter in the main screen for the whole race?

    2. While I love our San Jose Sharks broadcast crew on Comcast Sports Net, I've gotta say, the *package* that Versus puts on the air for hockey is pretty incredible. Obviously, it's no Hockey Night in Canada (I miss Don Cherry!), but they take the time to put together not only a good live location crew, but a solid studio analysis group for intermissions, as well. I really think if they got a good chunk of the IRL schedule, they could show the big-league N-word broadcast crews how to tie a studio show in with a live sports broadcast.

    And 3. Versus isn't the reason the NHL has bad national exposure. The single biggest problem is that about 0.01% of their games total are on any sort of national broadcast. The vast majority of games run only on local cable, and even in huge markets like Chicago, there's a big chunk of games that don't get TV at all. The IRL has fewer than 20 events per year. The NHL has damn near that many in a week. So careful on the unwarranted comparisons.

  15. Tabernerus // July 29, 2008 7:58 PM  

    So on further review, my guess is that this will all be worked out in the end. However, if the worst happens, and the IndyCar Series ends up on Versus, there are a few advantages. They are rapidly expanding, and will soon have a footprint close to ESPN's. Their coverage tends to focus more on the sport itself than the "personalities" in the booth. They are looking for partners that they can work with to help both grow. ESPN has in some ways jumped the shark. Google "ESPN Criticism." Seriously. There's a freaking' Wiki article about it.

    I hope a deal with a major carrier gets worked out. Fox would be awesome, if it means Mike Joy calls the races. But if the series ends up with an energetic partner in Versus, it could be worse. I think. Maybe.

  16. Tabernerus // July 30, 2008 8:29 AM  

    Interesting thing about Versus. Read their Wiki article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Versus_(TV_channel) and notice their acquisitions of late. They also recently launched Versus HD, with their full line of programming available. They came very close to grabbing MLB from ESPN. Lots of folks have tired of ESPN's schtick. There's a not insignificant chance that in another two years, Versus will be on equal footing with ESPN. Just sayin'. Still, a huge risk.