by Kent Sterling
There is only one place remaining in the world that clings to the notion that not televising an event locally leads to greater attendance. Everyone else in every organized sport has adopted the philosophy that the more people see an event on TV, the more they will want to pay to see it in person.
The Chicago Blackhawks were the last sports franchise to my knowledge that lifted the ban on televising home games just a few years ago. Once the ban was lifted, attendance went up – way up. That also coincided with a marked improvement in the quality of the team, so it’s not a perfect scenario for measuring the effect TV has a live gate.
The flawed thought has always been, why buy the cow if the milk is free. The more germane question is, who buys a cow if they have never tasted milk? If people would choose to watch an event at home instead of live, that means the event is in deep trouble. To continue to behave as though exposing the live show to the masses would be deleterious to ticket sales is cowardly and fear-based.
For all the warts of open-wheel racing, and the history of silly decisions that have reduced it to near irrelevance, the Indianapolis 500 is still a great event, and not because it so closely resembles the race as it was held in the 1950s and 1960s when its popularity was at its zenith. The Indy 500 is absolutely magnetic because there is a collective insanity in its very existence. Men (and now women) have always dreamed of going faster, farther, and higher regardless of the risk, and while all the barriers have likely been broken, there is still a compulsion within many to dare fate and put their feet to the floor.
Watching the 33 starters come flying out of turn four to take the green flag, then dive threewide into turn one at 220+ miles-an-hour is the most dramatic moment in sports, period. There is nothing close. There isn’t a person who’s witnessed it that wouldn’t pay to see it again.
In the name of speed, men have died at 16th and Georgetown, and those who’ve been out there when it’s happened understand a little bit about the solemnity of the race. Former head of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Tony George was an early adopter of technologies that keep the drivers as safe as possible, and while all the world seems to love NASCAR, it has always been IndyCar that has made the first move to embrace any number of technologies like the SAFR barrier. Maybe that’s because George has seen people he knows well die at the Brickyard.
There is an entire generation of kids in Indianapolis who have never seen the race, even on TV. Maybe back in the day, kids would wait for the 7p start time to watch the replay on channel six, but not anymore. They have better things to do than watch a three-and-a-half hour race that concluded at least two-hours prior.
The idea that an event can become more popular by limiting the access of people interested in watching it is borderline crazy. Even today, with open wheel racing still declining in popularity, nearly 300,000 people crowd into the Speedway to enjoy the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing”. There are holes in the grandstand where people should be, but there are still more than four people at the race for every one who packs into Lucas Oil Stadium for a sold-out Colts game. And 16 Conseco Fieldhouses would be needed to hold all the race fans willing to plunk down a bunch of money to see the Indy 500. The Pacers can’t fill one for NBA basketball.
It’s time for the new generation of leaders at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to stop living in fear of losing, and begin to embrace the fact that 300,000 people come to a hallowed piece of property every Memorial Day Weekend for a reason other than they haven’t yet found something better to do. They need to understand that the Indianapolis 500 needs to focus on becoming more popular, not define success by slowing erosion.
The folks at the Speedway need to understand what everyone other than Bill Wirtz of the Blackhawks learned in the 1970s – that television builds a brand better than any device in history, and nowhere does the IndyCar brand need to be stronger than in Indianapolis.
The only winners in the live blackout game have always been the radio stations who carried the events live. WIBC has long been the winner in this illogical blackout, especially since the radio rights were won by Tom Severino and Emmis Communications almost a decade ago. The radio broadcast on 1070 The Fan and Hank 97.1 FM achieves nearly a 12-rating – not share, but rating. (Share is the percentage of people listening to a station among all of those listening to the radio, and rating is the raw percentage of those in a community who are listening to a station.) No large market radio station to my knowledge has achieved a 12-share for any broadcast in the last 30 years.
That number is a monolithic testimony to the power of the Indianapolis 500, but it would be dwarfed by the number of people who would get a chance to witness the Indy 500 live on TV and develop an affinity for the event if it were broadcast live. There would be thousands of Indy 500 parties across central Indiana in addition to the huge party in Speedway, Indiana.
Indianapolis would embrace the Indy 500 in much the same way Louisville embraces the Kentucky Derby. For two weeks, Louisville stops being a mediocre town, and develops a New Orleans type outlook and swagger. As pleasant as all the fooferah surrounding the Indy 500 and the 500 Festival is, it isn’t Louisville, and that’s because 90% of the community is locked out of enjoying the centerpiece event.
Kids should dream about being old enough to buy a ticket and go to the race. Right now, they don’t even know it’s being held because they wonder how big a deal it is if it isn’t even on TV.
It’s time for IMS Chairman Jeff Belskus and IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard along with the Hulman-George Family to make a 30-year leap of media understanding and lift the blackout on the Indianapolis 500. Versus did a great job this year of putting together a team of broadcasters to bring viewers the fun and drama of qualifications weekend, and now it’s time for people in Indianapolis to be able to enjoy the race live along with the rest of the open wheel race fans around the world.