VERSUS starts with a bomb

Posted by Iannucci | 4/07/2009 | 16 comments »
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There's simply no way to polish a turd like this.

"...Last Sunday's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the first-ever IndyCar Series race on Versus, earned 233,000 viewers. Last year's IndyCar season opener, the Gainsco Auto Insurance Indy 300 from Homestead-Miami Speedway, earned 1.1 million viewers on ESPN2 on a Saturday night in primetime.

"That means this year's season opener was down 79 percent. The '08 race from St. Pete, which was that season's second telecast, earned 575,000 viewers on ESPN for a Sunday afternoon telecast, representing a drop this year of 60 percent..."
Now, this comes to us from an Indy Racing Revolution report of a TrackForum posting of an AutoRacing1 subscriber story, so there's a chance this is totally bogus, but in case it's not the negativity can't be overstated. This isn't a bucket of ice water on the state of IndyCar popularity; it's being thrown naked into the Siberian wilderness of televised sports.

If memory (or in this case, Wikipedia) serve me correctly, two years ago the IndyCar series opener at Homestead was a .7, or somewhere around 700,000 viewer. I seem to recall most races were around .5, although that's far from scientific studies. I'm mentioning 2007 because it was a bit closer to 2009 in terms of awareness, since last year had both bimergification and "Dancing With the Stars" factoring into the ratings mix. So by my calculations, from that season opener two years ago the series rating has been more than halved.

Hang on a sec - I need to pour myself an adult beverage.

Now before we go any further it needs to be said that there had to be an expectation of a ratings decline. ESPN is in like 100 millions homes, but we kept being told that VERSUS was available in 70-some million. A strong number, but around three quarters of the installed base of the previous broadcaster.

But the availability of a channel doesn't mean it's going to get watched. For starters, ask yourself how often you walk into an establishment and see an ESPN channel on as opposed to VERSUS. I'm guessing I know the answer, and unless you live in a Hockey town it's probably not a 1-to-1 ratio.

Probably more impacting in that horrible ratings number is where the channel is featured by any given provider. Both pressdog and I noted we had to pay some extra coin to bump up our cable packages to get VERSUS, and surely thousands of other fans were faces with a similar choice. How many people are willing to pay $8-10 extra per month to catch IndyCar races - in THIS economy? Somewhere between 2 and 233,000, I suppose.

Wait a sec: Didn't Cavin say he estimated there were 60,000 people at the race on Sunday? And only an additional 233,000 fans tuned in to watch? Good grief, that's less people than will be watching in person at Indy next month! I need to refill this adult beverage.

Look, this has nothing to do with the outstanding job VERSUS did with the actual broadcast nor with the effort they exhibited leading up to the season, but the net result of 233,000 viewers on a Sunday begs the question: what would the ratings have been like had they NOT promoted the snot out of this event?

Perhaps people didn't watch because this was a street race. Or because last year it was a rain-delayed and time-shortened event. Or because there was an N-word race on, which always affects the ratings. Or because they didn't have VERSUS. Or because they had the bird flu. It doesn't matter. The bottom line is the season opener just took a 79% decline. SEVENTY-NINE PERCENT! As if the job wasn't challenging enough already, selling sponsorship packages for race teams, events and broadcasts just got decidedly more difficult.

Bottoms up, friends.

EXTRA POINTS: First off, the intrepid Curt Cavin has taken the time to point out to me it wasn't he but rather a fan he was reporting on who estimated the crowd at 60,000. My mistake. We know that if Curt had adequate time he would have counted every seat in the interest of accuracy.

Cavin also addresses some ratings questions in his Q&A today.

If indeed the TV ratings are bad, I believe it's more a reflection of a bigger issue, including not being on ABC or ESPN. But you're right in questioning how the league can go to a potential partner and ask for huge dollars, especially in this economic climate, if its TV ratings are low.

James from 16th & Georgetown has forwarded this chart showing what happened to ratings to the National Hockey League when they switched to VERSUS. A rough estimate shows they fell by roughly half. It's important to note that the NHL cancelled an entire season after leaving ESPN, which certainly depleted the overall fanbase of the sport. So unless the Helio Castroneves tax evasion trial is having some massive hidden effect, that comparison is helpful but not exactly equal.

Defender of the IRL seems to disagree that this is bad news. All I can say is the sky may not be falling, but the ratings definitely did, and that makes for a tough road to hoe for the marketers of the league. Maybe if VERSUS can put some golf on ahead of races we can catch a few more hundred thousand people napping and prop up the ratings.


VERSUS' race coverage was watched by more than 2 million viewers (.30 national HH rating and peaked at .40 during the race's final laps), while all of the telecasts reached 3.4 million viewers. It is available in more than 75 million homes via cable and satellite.

"We couldn't be happier with our opening week of race coverage on VERSUS," said Charlie Morgan, president & COO for IMS Productions. "VERSUS' commitment was to 'super-serve' IndyCar Series fans and based on the response we have seen from our fans they are thrilled with the amount and quality of coverage available to them throughout the weekend."
OK, something there doesn't make sense. I'd love to think a .3 rating equals 2 million viewers but that doesn't seem right.

If a rating equals the average percent of households then a .3 can't equal 2 million viewers. If that's the case then a 3.0 equals 20 million viewers and a 30.0 = 200 million, and a 90.0 = 600 million, and there aren't 600 million people in America.

Maybe that "2 million viewers" includes viewers overseas. Or possibly pets. Is there a Nielsen employee in the house who can 'splain this to me? Isn't a .3 still a "79% decline" as previously stated?


  1. Andy // April 07, 2009 11:38 PM  

    There is one more stat we need before jumping off a cliff together - how does that rating compare with whatever Versus had in the same slot last week? If it's up, that's good - whatever the actual figures involved. If it's down, well, you can figure it out without me...


  2. pressdog // April 08, 2009 4:40 AM  

    Versus did a good job promoting it on their own air and with the broadcast itself. Heck, I even enjoyed it. The thing is, it was a street race on a channel with a smaller possible audience. Let me know if you've heard this before -- Americans will not tune in in mass numbers (certainly not the numbers to appeal to million-dollar sponsors) -- for a street race, no matter where and when it's broadcast. Believing that they one day will is like believing 2+2 will some day equal 5.

  3. Dale Nixon // April 08, 2009 5:21 AM  

    Can't compare a prime time slot with Sunday afternoon - that's the reason MLBaseball plays World Series games at night.

  4. redd // April 08, 2009 6:08 AM  

    of all my friends, I'm the only Indycar fan. of all my friends, I'm sure I'm the only who has watched Versus, most people don't even know it's a network. people watch ESPN by accident--you have to make an effort to watch VS.

    then put a street race on a Sunday on a very obscure cable network, and then put it on against Neckcar and anyone really expected good ratings?

    let's see how it improves over the course of the season, maybe that's the only logical measurement.

  5. The American Mutt // April 08, 2009 6:17 AM  

    It's not because it's a street race. Things don't exist in a vaccum, and an oval start would have in all likelihood been about the same. You had to expect the numbers to be low. As Redd said, you have to make an effort to watch VS. The shame of it is ESPN sucks in every regard, not just indycar. They can't telecast for shit.


    How many "Racing" fans are there in America. Most Napcar fans are marketing fans who buy into the fictional drivers they're presented. Think Friday Night Smackdown with cars. I'd be willing to bet 75% of Napcar fans couldn't tell you who Niki Hayden, Ashley Force, or Lewis Hamilton are. Point being, they're a fan of Nascar, which from what i can tell hasn't provided much more than parade laps bookended with a good start and a good (ish) finish.

    It's not because it's a street race. Things don't exist in a vaccum, and an oval start would have in all likelihood been about the same. You had to expect the numbers to be low.

    Directed at no one in particular,

    What gets me when people piss and moan about parades on streets/roads they act like it doesn't happen every year on ovals too. Nashville for instance, I for one am glad it's gone, and this after seeing it in person.

  6. The American Mutt // April 08, 2009 6:29 AM  

    Wow. That was a long rambling misfire of thought. Let me try again.

    Millions watch Nascar, but from what I can tell Nascar doesn't generally present a good race. Furthermore, EVERY Nascar fan I've talk to here in Southern Indiana NEVER stays awake through the whole thing. (which I personally feel should be reflected in the ratings somehow) So to say people won't watch street racing because it's "boring" seems wrong to me.

  7. AZZO45 // April 08, 2009 8:44 AM  

    The TV ratings system comes from a small "average" of the US Population. VERSUS & the IRL got the 230,000+ viewers based on a 1-2% AVERAGE.

    Not everyone is a race fan so estimating the WHOLE population & hoping a bunch of racing people will be represented in that 1-2%....

    I know its used for everything, but many sports fall into "No one's Watchin" categories with Nielsen & Arbitron ratings systems.

    I know they are the "industry standard" , but I think their philosophy has grown out dated & does NOT accurately represent how people are watching & the numbers.

    Yes, based on the system & the older numbers... its a big plate of "NOT TOO GOOD". Perhaps, I'm drinking Positive Juice, but I think the fact that VERSUS is a jr. college compared to Division 1 ESPN explains the horror show ratings #'s

  8. Anonymous // April 08, 2009 9:55 AM  

    Found this on Sports Business Daily so it must be true:

    "SLOW START: Last Sunday’s Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the first-ever IndyCar Series race on Versus, earned 233,000 viewers from 2:38-5:02pm ET. Last year’s IndyCar season opener, the Gainsco Auto Insurance Indy 300 from Homestead-Miami Speedway, earned 1.1 million viewers on ESPN2 on a Saturday night in primetime. The '08 race from St. Pete, which was that season’s second telecast, earned 575,000 viewers on ESPN for a Sunday afternoon telecast (THE DAILY)."

    Hard to believe. 233,000 is absolutely miniscule!

  9. AZZO45 // April 08, 2009 12:06 PM  

    233,000 is the AVERAGE!!!

    If St.Pete had 233,000 TOTAL viewers, the INDY 500 wouldn't have 350,000+ fans in the stands in May

    Bad numbers... YES. However, would you prefer the IRL to pay MILLIONS to ABC/ ESPN for those extra 342,000 "viewers"???

  10. Jenna // April 08, 2009 12:58 PM  

    On, it says that 2 MILLION tuned into Versus to watch the race.

  11. stand b // April 08, 2009 5:05 PM  

    I watched the race on

    anyone else doing this? If 233,000 is the tv number there cant be many on the web, are they counted? worth counting?

    Also I didnt hear dave the king wilson on speedway radio. did he lose that gig prior to, or because of his wibc pink slip? I actually kind of liked his rambling updates during the races. He would have been a great addition to the trackside broadcast/podcast and this may have suited his style better.

  12. stand b // April 08, 2009 5:45 PM  

    i think its a bit premature to start panicking about ratings on versus.
    There was a need to find some outlet other than espn and the joke it made of its indycar commitment and i dont think they could have picked a better time to make the move.
    granted you want to ride the unification wave that was touted, using the greatest amount of exposure possible, even if it is the second year of unification But i think the unification wave somewhat ameliorates the risk of a move to versus. imagine this move befor unification.
    lets face it the irl is rebuilding. it is not what it was and never will be, even if there is unimagined success in store. Its becoming something different and will rise or fall on its current merits. While stating the obvious it leads me to the point that staying on espn and being treated like an ugly stepchild is not conducive to the creation of a new and loyal fanbase. Being treated like second tier to sixth tier sports is not going to work for the irl even on espn.
    i think this is the best deal the irl could get and offers the best platform from which to grow in the future.
    A great product and a great RACE SCHEDULE THAT PROVIDES SUSTAINED MOMENTUM will not be successful if there is not a committed media partner -- which versus appears to be. THANKS VERSUS!
    sorry for the length but i also wanted to say that the indycar web content, videos etc, has improved considerably. Way to go!!

  13. Anonymous // April 08, 2009 6:49 PM  

    I believe's 2M, over Nielsen's rumored 230K. IndyCar probably got its number from Versus. Nielsen is an archaic way to track viewership. Almost all of us have boxes that our cable and satellite providers track viewership on. Nielsen takes roughly 5K households and statistically determines viewership for the entire country. They aren't in this house. (This is probably the same sample size used by the banks to figure out their risk exposure before the bust.) Here's how they do it on "How Stuff Works." They talk about the sample size.

  14. AZZO45 // April 08, 2009 7:41 PM  

    Well "Anonymous" you document what I believe with a handy link!!! I'm with you... The advertising community should FIRE Nielsen (for non-network TV) & figure out an unbiased way to harvest the info from the cable boxes. Entertainment tracks sales from retail sales... not units shipped (more accurate?)

    I'm sure DISH & other Satellite TV services have a similar way to read programing info?

  15. Grizzlor // April 09, 2009 1:05 PM  

    233K is the number of households, not viewers. Given that Nielsen says there are 290 million viewers in the USA in 114.5 million households, the ratio probably equates to around 590K viewers.

  16. Chuck // April 11, 2009 1:48 PM  

    That 233k number -- households, viewers, whatever -- seems really freakin' low. Whatever the numbers, the're absolutely going to be domestic, and they're only going to be viewers on Versus.

    To put things in perspective, San Jose Sharks broadcasts on Comcast Sports Net (a regional cable property, so only SF Bay Area with, what, 3 or 4 million households?) manages to pull over 50k, sometimes 60k households.

    I find it simply unbelievable that national numbers for the IRL are only four to five times the regional numbers for the Sharks.