Open Wheelin’ Blog: Advice Taken? The IndyCar Promotion and Scheduling Debate

Joel Sebastianelli Featured, Joel Sebastianelli Blog, Midwest, Southeast, Sprints & Midgets, Staff Columns, Verizon IndyCar Series 0 Comments

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Blog by Race Chaser Online Open Wheel Coorespondent Joel Sebastianelli — Joe Skibinski photo — One month removed from the final IndyCar race of the 2014 season, the wait until next year already feels interminable.

Although the official schedule has yet to be released, we’ve got plenty of time to kill between now and the first confirmed race of 2015, the Brasilia Indy 300 at Autodromo Internacional Nelson Piquet in Brazil on March 8.

Five months and nine days, 12 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events (including qualifying for the Daytona 500), five Formula One races, and approximately 34 hours of racing in the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship.

162 days is a really, really long time—and during this time, very little will be done to promote the IndyCar brand and push the series into the minds of both fans and prospective viewers alike.

When Hulman & Co. received a 115 page report from the Boston Consulting Group detailing suggestions to boost the series from its compromising position in 2013, fans of open wheel racing were disappointed yet again at what appeared to be another case of the powers that be following the wrong advice.

Some of the ideas, like a playoff to determine a champion, are better left in the paper shredder instead of the IndyCar rulebook. However, the report also detailed worthwhile suggestions for IndyCar that shouldn’t be dismissed because they come from an unconventional source.

The capital of the IndyCar community is Indianapolis, and while a great portion of the fan base is from the region, all of us are from there in spirit. As a result, there’s a tendency to dismiss any idea from outside the Indy borders and think with our hearts instead of our heads for what’s ultimately in the best interest of the series.

Think objectively, and you may think differently about the Boston Consulting Group. Not every proposal is a stroke of genius, but here’s three that make sense and deserve consideration.

Compact Scheduling

I know, I just blasted the long wait in between the season finale and the first race of next season. Besides, how can any series maintain momentum when the season is only five months long and ends before Labor Day?

It’s a fine line to walk, but the truth is, it’s tough to establish momentum with a season stretched from March to late October with the same number of races. The BCG originally proposed a 15 race slate over 19 weeks, a model similar to what has been adopted by IndyCar.

Take a look at IndyCar’s TV ratings, which aren’t for the faint of heart. Although the season finale suffered a drop in viewership, NBC Sports Network reported record highs for the series in 2014…which sounds awesome until you actually see the numbers.

NBCSN averaged 378,000 viewers for the 12 races it televised, up 34 percent from last year’s average.

Let’s put that in perspective. Indianapolis Motor Speedway holds 257,325 fans at maximum capacity. Across the entire country, you could fill IMS about one and a half times with every fan (on average) that watched an IndyCar event.

NASCAR is in a ratings slump, but despite viewership being down a whopping 20 percent for last month’s night race at Bristol, 5.1 million people still tuned in to watch the event.

While IndyCar could only theoretically fit its viewers into IMS with a few stragglers on the outside, NASCAR fans could populate the entire country of Ireland with half a million fans left over!

IndyCar doesn’t want to be NASCAR, which is a good thing—but shouldn’t IndyCar strive for those numbers?

A casual fan of motorsports, or even just sports in general, may not follow NASCAR on a regular basis. However, he or she knows that on a Sunday afternoon around 2pm, there’s a fairly good chance NASCAR will be on TV.

Consistency is key, and that’s where the current IndyCar schedule (mostly) gets it right.

Any series, whether it’s IndyCar, NASCAR, Formula 1, etc., will always have what I call a “cement audience.” In other words, come hell or high water, the audience will always tune into events. They’re the diehards, and even when things get rough and the rest of the audience erodes, the foundation remains. This is precisely what happened after the infamous split, and the series should be eternally grateful to this group for avoiding extinction. They comprise a significant portion of IndyCar’s fan base.

But, as we can clearly see, that cement audience can only keep a series afloat—that audience alone can’t make it thrive. NASCAR has a cement audience too, but unlike IndyCar’s viewership, that audience doesn’t account for nearly as high a ratio of viewers. NASCAR has brand recognition and through the power of consistent scheduling and visibility, it can attract a “crossover audience.”

I define a crossover audience as a group of viewers who don’t closely identify with the televised product on the level of diehard fans, but enjoy what they see and tune in on occasion. This is a vital section of TV land IndyCar can’t attract during the fall, but the series desperately needs more eyes to view it.

Against college football and the NFL, a non-IndyCar fan would never willingly choose racing over a football game. A non-hardcore football fan might very well sit down to watch a football game if it beats the other options out there.

Good luck going head to head with America’s Game and expecting to grow your viewership.

Ending the season before Labor Day is a radical shift from tradition, but if IndyCar can start the season earlier with races in February and March, than it could work gradual but visible magic on the numbers for the series.

Speaking of radical shifts from tradition that work out…

Grand Prix of Indianapolis

The BCG pitched the idea of a race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course to kick off the month of May, another alteration to long-standing tradition that reserved the month only for the illustrious Indy 500.

As expected, the original announcement was met with trepidation from many traditionalist IndyCar fans. However, this is a tradition of its own, harkening back to the glory days of the speedway when the gates opened early and excitement built up over the course of the entire month.

How could IndyCar getting more eyes on the speedway and the series in May possibly be a bad thing? On the revamped course, the race was a fantastic one from start to finish and proved the doubters wrong.

Is increased viewership for this year’s Indianapolis 500 a result of the successful inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis? The ultimate impact could be debated, but the series needs more exposure and this event certainly did that.

Promotion

In the report, the BCG reiterated what we already know: that the IndyCar Series is “the best pure racing motorsports league in the U.S. … but the series suffers from lack of awareness.”

When was the last time you saw an IndyCar related advertisement away from an IndyCar race broadcast? What about an ad for a product with an IndyCar driver in it? Chances are, it has either been a really long time since you have, or you haven’t at all.

Focus groups suggested a shift in marketing that promotes IndyCar as the baddest, fastest, and most daring series in racing. So often, IndyCar takes aim at promotion in a different way. When the series actually does something substantial to promote the series, it focuses on the wrong things, like the excitement of crashes and driver feuds so eerily typical of NASCAR commercials.

Even at IndyCar’s return to Pocono in 2013, you’d be hard-pressed to discover any local promotion for the series. The few restaurants in the area had plenty of memorabilia for NASCAR, but none for IndyCar. The series may have great racing, but if you put on an awesome show and not enough people know about it, did you really put on an awesome show?

Visibility is the driving factor behind IndyCar’s struggles. Although working with a tight budget limits reach, it doesn’t have to limit creativity and persistence. The IndyCar brand needs to come out of hiding and the drivers, teams, and sponsors need to spread the word, even if it means banging on your door like the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

I think we can all agree IndyCar marketing needs a serious overhaul and the BCG was on the right track again by calling for restructuring. Yet, the BCG was and continues to be vilified by the borderline xenophobic assertion that IndyCar should only take seriously the fans and ideas that are born, raised, and perfected in Indianapolis.

 

So in closing — the truth is, everyone you know has something to say that’s worth listening to, even if it’s someone you don’t like (Boston Consulting Group).

The IndyCar fan base is a tightly knit community, which is an inherently good thing. But, for the sake of good business and sharing what makes the series so special, we shouldn’t turn this close community into a gated community.

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