Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Are IndyCar's ratings on ABC a reason to be worried?

The doubleheader Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix concluded ABC's coverage of the Verizon IndyCar Series for this season as the remaining nine races will be broadcast by NBC Sports Network. Five races and two qualifying days for the Indianapolis 500 had in total 11.5 million viewers on ABC. That is 11 percent down from 12.9 million last year, and seven percent down from 12.3 million viewers in 2015.

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Excluding the Indy 500 and its qualifying, the four regular races had 980 thousand viewers on average on ABC. That is down 16 percent from 1.2 million last year and the same as in 2015. Only the INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis road course was up in viewership compared to last year whereas only the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg had more viewers than in 2015.

There were many positives for INDYCAR from the Month of May. However, the 101st Indianapolis 500 was the lowest-rated 500 with a final rating of 3.4 with 5.5 million viewers, down 12 percent in ratings and nine percent in viewers from last year (3.9 rating, 6.0m viewers). The drop wasn't such a big surprise as last year was the celebrated 100th Running and the local blackout was lifted. However, the 2015 Indy 500 had earned a final rating of 4.2 with 6.5 million viewers, despite the local blackout.

The drop in the Indy 500's American ratings was compensated by increased viewership in Europe, thanks to F1 star Fernando Alonso's participation. The viewership in Alonso's native country Spain averaged at 361,000 viewers with a share of 2.9 percent. That was above F1's Monaco Grand Prix the same day which averaged 212 thousand viewers and 302 thousand a year earlier. In the United Kingdom, the 500 averaged at 129 thousand viewers and a share of 0.91 percent, up 975 percent from 12 thousand a year earlier. The Indy 500 was broadcast on a pay channel in both Spain and the UK.

Declining viewership isn't only IndyCar's problem, in fact NASCAR and NHRA are experiencing even more dramatic drops in viewing figures. Also Formula One suffers from declining viewership worldwide, though in the USA its ratings have improved so far this year.

IndyCar behind F1 in the 18-49 age group

The Monaco Grand Prix in the Memorial Day weekend earned a 1.0 final rating with 1.4 million viewers. It was the most-viewed F1 race on NBC's channels since the group became the American F1 broadcaster in 2013. Excluding the Indy 500, no free-to-air IndyCar telecast on ABC could match those numbers.

While the difference in the viewership isn't particularly big between F1 and IndyCar, F1 has considerably more viewers aged between 18 and 49 years. 31 percent of the viewers of the Monaco GP were from the 18-49 age group. For the five earlier F1 races this season on NBCSN, the average is 33 percent. Excluding the 500, the four races shown on ABC had only 24 percent of viewers from that 18-49 age group, and on NBCSN the average so far is 23 percent.

The Indy 500 didn't see an increase in the share of viewers aged between 18 and 49 years. The last two years, 22 percent of the 500's viewers have been from that age group, below the average of the other races shown on ABC. That is opposite to NASCAR's flagship race, the Daytona 500, which had 30 percent of its viewers in the 18-49 age group whereas the average for the other races on Fox this year was 26 percent.

Also, while the gap in the viewership of the Indy 500 (5.5 million) and NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 (4.6 million) was the biggest since 2000 in favor of the 500, they both had the same viewership of 1.2 million in the 18-49 age group. Though a year ago, the Coke 600 had more 18-49 viewers despite the 500 having more viewers in total.

Given that IndyCar and F1 have lots of similarities but also certain differences, a good question is why F1 gets more viewers in the USA, especially in the 18-49 age group.

Formula One is known as the pinnacle of motorsports for a reason. It has the fastest cars for road courses, the F1 cars are technically the most advanced race machines alongside Le Mans Prototypes, and most of the top talent in open-wheel racing are in F1. If anything, F1 is relatively unknown in the USA compared to the rest of the world.

On the other hand, the Verizon IndyCar Series has the fastest race cars in the USA, apart from F1's annual visit to the States. While IndyCar lacks the technical competition of F1, its closer field provides better racing, and ovals add to the versatility of the series. Nine of the 21 full-season cars are driven by Americans whereas there are no American drivers in F1 despite an American team. The F1 races are mostly early in Sunday morning whereas IndyCar races are in the afternoon or evening. And IndyCar offers more chances for American fans to go and see races live.

If I had to make an assumption on why F1 gets more viewers than IndyCar in the USA excluding the 500, I'd say that's because of F1's status as the pinnacle of motorsports. No matter how great racing IndyCar provides, there will always be people who insist on F1's supremacy because it draws most of the open-wheel talent and has the higher levels of engineering.

The 18-49 age group was probably the most impacted by the split of American open-wheel racing. The younger generations of that group were still teens or even kids during the split years. With the American open-wheel racing split in two, F1 may have been the most attractive open-wheel series to start following back then.

Also, the technological skills of the younger generations may be behind F1's popularity in the 18-49 age group. If you follow the international motorsports press, F1 dominates there. Thanks to Internet, you can follow series that don't get much coverage in your local sports news. Probably no other series has so much coverage between the races as F1, making it easy to stay engaged with it.

If there's any major flaw in the Verizon IndyCar Series, I'd say it's the length of the season, or rather the offseason. Hardly any major series in motorsports goes away for half of a year. I get the INDYCAR management's point of avoiding the football season but the long offseason kills the momentum the series had gained during the season. INDYCAR leaves the fans craving for other racing, like NASCAR or F1 that already dominate the media. Even if TV ratings for fall races were hit by football, the longer season would keep fans more engaged with the series.

Alonso's running at Indy generated lots of interest among F1 fans. Given that, I was disappointed the Indy 500 viewership declined also in the 18-49 age group. Maybe Alonso's participation had very little effect on the American viewership of the 500 or maybe it saved it from even bigger of a decline.

I'm not so worried about IndyCar's declines ratings on ABC this year. While the ratings were down on ABC, the three first races on NBCSN have averaged 378 viewers on average, up nine percent from last year and up 15 percent from 2015. Yet the age structure of IndyCar's fanbase is worrying. IndyCar has a smaller part of its viewers in the 18-49 age group than F1 or NASCAR have. It's important IndyCar can attract younger fans to ensure the series' long-term health.

The future of IndyCar broadcasting

As ESPN, which produces ABC's IndyCar coverage, has laid off their motorsports staff, it seems like INDYCAR will need to find another broadcaster for the races they want to have broadcast free-to-air. ESPN still is under contract of showing five races on ABC in 2018, though the layoffs imply they may give up those rights a year before the contract expires. And anyway, INDYCAR needs to negotiate a new over-the-air broadcast contract for 2019 onwards.

NBC would seem like a logical choice for the over-to-air coverage as they already broadcast 12 races on cable. Broadcasting the full season, NBC might put more effort in promotion than ABC which shows only five races. A single broadcaster might also be more flexible in their choices to show races free-to-air; currently ABC's coverage is centered around the Month of May and the entire second half of the season is on cable on NBCSN.

INDYCAR also needs to have a look into the streaming services. MotoGP already offers a streaming service, and F1 might as well if the contracts with local broadcasters didn't prevent it. If INDYCAR or its broadcast partner offered a streaming service without having to pay for other content, that could be a way to make cord cutters watching the Verizon IndyCar Series. But streaming can't completely replace the TV coverage of the series; streams reach only the hardcore fans, TV enables reaching the big crowd.

Numbers via Awful AnnouncingShowbuzz DailySports Media WatchThe F1 Broadcasting Blog, and FormulaTV.

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