One of the advantages of getting older, besides the over-55 senior discounts at various establishments, is that I've been around long enough to see the American sports landscape change and change dramatically. I can remember when boxing and horse racing were huge events in this country, and I can recall the days when IndyCar and specifically the Indianapolis 500 was a Memorial Day must-see – unless you lived in blacked-out Indy, in which case you listened on the radio.
Today, I see a very different sports landscape, one that features sports like soccer and MMA and even, heaven help us, professional gaming, one that has all but forgotten about boxing, horse racing (except for the Triple Crown) and open-wheel racing. I say that because the TV ratings say that: The recent 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 suffered its worst rating, a 3.4, since ABC began airing the race live in 1986. In fact, the ratings have continually dipped since 2016, the year of the 100th running of the race.
Our local crown jewel, which was changed forever by The Split in 1996, is a blip on the national radar. While the locals debate whether James Hinchcliffe belongs in the race, whether Danica Patrick belongs in the Motorsports Hall of Fame, whether the new cars can handle properly in tough conditions, the rest of the country goes…zzzzz. I know this, because I've lived and worked in several markets where motorsports – and open-wheel racing in particular – are summarily ignored except by a small niche of hard-core types who don't begin to move the needle. New York? Don't care. San Diego? Don't care. Pittsburgh? Cleveland? Denver? Don't care, don't care, don't care.
I've heard that ABC doesn't promote or present the race well, and that may be true, but if you want to watch a sports event, you're going to make it appointment viewing whether it's shown on HGTV or one of the big networks. Either you're a fan or you're not, and more and more Americans are not fans of motorsports, as the ratings declines suggest. It's impossible to make people care about something they just don't care about. You can try, and I know NBC will throw all its resources into this, but it's a challenging proposition.
The ratings decline even hit Indianapolis. The 8.7 rating on the tape-delayed broadcast was down 41 percent from last year. It should be mentioned that this year's race went up against the Cleveland-Boston series Game 7, but still…that's significant.
There is little doubt in my mind that ratings will improve once NBC gets its claws into the Verizon IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500. When the Kentucky Derby went from ABC to NBC, the numbers grew. I don't say that simply because I'm employed by an NBC affiliate and my editors would have a conniption if I suggested otherwise. I say that because NBC is the best network going when it comes to story-telling, which is why its Olympic coverage is so massively successful. Think people care about some guy from northern Minnesota who is going for the silver medal in luge? You do after NBC gets a hold of him and tells his heart-wrenching personal story. If the network can do for these drivers what it does for the Olympics, it has a chance to grow the series and grow the race.
I've long felt that what IndyCar has long missed, what the Indy 500 has long missed, is the personal touch, a reason for fans to truly care about those who compete in motorsports. Those of us who spend an entire month around them know them to be compelling personalities – even Will Power turned out to be a heart-tugging, emotional story, believe it or not – but those stories aren't often enough told by national TV. Then you add to the fact that nobody really knows where the races will be shown from week to week – isn't it on the Oprah Network this week? – and you end up with a scattered production that lacks continuity.
That should change once NBC takes over the franchise. NBC will offer viewers, both hard-core and marginal, far more ways to experience the IndyCar product. They will show eight races on NBC as opposed to ABC's five, and they will give viewers infinitely more viewing options when it comes to qualifications and anything else that involves motorsports. They will also fit it into the middle of its big-event roster, present it as part of a larger championship season.
But…can the network do enough to revive ratings in a significant way?
"My hope is we can," said Jon Miller, the President of Programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN. "…We took over the (Kentucky) Derby in 2001, and at that time, the Derby and the Indy 500 were roughly equivalent in terms of the kinds of audiences they were delivering – in the 9 to 9 ½ million range. Since we've had it, (the Derby has) grown to over 17 million watching it. We made it a big event. We put all the assets of NBC Universal into play. And it's transcended its normal audience where it's not just a male-dominated audience; now it's more than 50 percent female. We made it into an event with fashion and parties and the like. We're going to unleash all our marketing power and promotion power to hopefully do something similar (for the Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar)."
As a long-time newspaper guy, I've never particularly concerned myself with ratings, but it hasn't escaped my notice that ratings have generally declined across the board for most sports, with motorsports really bearing the brunt of it. There are myriad reasons for this, including the advent of streaming devices, which don't show up in the Nielsen ratings. But according to an NBC spokesman, digital only makes up about 2-3% of the viewership. The Super Bowl was watched by 103 million TV viewers; only about 3 million watched on their devices.
This goes deeper than streaming devices and ABC's purported lack of promotion and all the smaller issues that can make a minimal impact on the ratings front. This ignores the fundamental truth about the Indianapolis 500, and it's this: It's your father's event. It's your grandfather's event. It's your embarrassing uncle's event; he's the one in the Snake Pit doing keg stands.
Yes, we love it, but be honest: Do we love it the way we used to love it? The Speedway had to come up with the Indy Grand Prix just to put (some) butts in the seats before qualifying weekend. And even quals and Bump Day and the Fast Nine were sparsely attended. If the month of May has lost its luster in this city, imagine how it's playing in Peoria. Or anywhere else.
The race itself? The race is fine. The race is booming – locally, I mean. We're getting crowds of 300,000 and more, some of whom actually see the race between beer bongs. Race day is a civic holiday; always has been and always will. But we are the ones who care about Hinch and Danica and Helio, people with whom we're on a first-name basis. Spend any time outside our great city, mention open-wheel racing, and you'll get questions like, “Right, so isn't that the one with Dale Earnhardt Jr.?"
The trick for NBC will be to make the marginal motorsports fan in Dubuque care the way that we care here in Indy. And that's by trumpeting the event, using other properties to promote the 500, making it relevant to the man or woman who doesn't yet know they should care deeply about this event and this series. That means more platforms from which to consume racing. It means a long pre-race show. It means giving viewers the same big-event feeling that those who attend the race enjoy.
"We've gone from 23 hours of horse racing in 2011-12 to 85, so we're very bullish on the Derby and we're very bullish on IndyCar," Miller said. "If IndyCar was a stock, I'd buy it because I know what we're going to bring to the table. I know by the time we get to the Indy 500 next year, everybody will know about it, they will know the storylines about the drivers, everybody will know what's going to happen that day with the surrounding activities around the race…"
If it's somehow fixable, NBC will find a way to fix it. Nobody does big events like the network for whom I work (and no, I do not have a gun to my head currently). But times have changed. The Indianapolis 500 is still special, and it should be pulling a whole lot more than a 3.4 rating. It's just not as special to as many people as it once was, and that's the immutable if uncomfortable truth.