Indy 500 TV Blackout Defies Convention, Belief, and Wisdom

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.

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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.

17 thoughts on “Indy 500 TV Blackout Defies Convention, Belief, and Wisdom

  1. Neil

    Can’t argue at all on this one. Maybe (and I do say maybe) at one time it made sense to have a blackout but not anymore. Certainly not for the last 15 to 20 years. In the early years (after world war two) just as TV was taking off, it was actually televised locally for a few years with the “old” channel 6 doing the job. What I would enjoy is using some of the national feed but having local media people more involved in the local telecast so that it seemed more important. Indeed make getting the “Local” feed a better deal than the national feed. Cut the commercials down and do more rail to rail commentary.

  2. Joker

    1000% agree. The blackout makes absolute zero sense. Most younger people locally have zero interest in the race. To them, listening to something on radio is something so foreign you might as well forget about it. At the current rate, in another 30 years the 500 may well be a shell of its current self. Its already in decline.

    But you say that this is the only sport that practices local blackouts. Not true, the NFL still blacks out all local games that don’t sell out.

  3. Pauly Balst

    Indeed. In another parallel to hockey, TV does not capture the speed of the Indy 500 very well. If you have not seen firsthand how quickly that much real estate is covered at 240 mph, it’s tough to describe.

    The 500 is a mess but an easy fix. The idiocy of a blackout symbolic of the problems.

  4. Jeff showalter

    One of the good things about growing up in Connersville was the ability to receive Indy and Cincy channels. Was also cool to get shows an hour earlier from Ohio before Mitch decided we were closer to NYC the Chicago and put us on EST.

  5. Derek Townsend

    Reading this, I heard my own words to friends and family over the past 25 years of my life. I never got to see the 500 Live until a weekend at the lakes up north.

    The very next year, I had scrimped and saved to buy a ticket. My mother helped, because I never shut up about going to that race for an entire YEAR. I was 14…

    Why not televise it live THIS YEAR? 100 YEARS… COME ON!

  6. John Baldwin

    In the Indianapolis blackout market area, I’d be just fine with Pay per View for the Indy 500; Time Warner, Comcast, Brighthouse, even Roku media box live streaming. Indy 500 management is missing a significant demographic by blacking us out – almost making us second class citizens.

    1. Arb1

      Welcome to NFL, they do this for some teams when they don’t sell out the game they blackout local market within 75 miles. Its sad that IZOD who even now are struggling to keep their series going over years to black out coverage.

  7. DCL

    I know we are all taking Indianapolis citizens here, but due to the nature of the TV market in Indiana the blackout reaches fairly far north to people that aren’t really its proper target. I live in Lafayette and I can’t go to the race any more and besides, the infield isn’t a draw for IMS any more and if they are sold out they’ve done REALLY well anyway. I’d love to tick up their ratings by one person and know many people who are in the same boat.

    They simply are locking viewers away from their sponsors at this point. All the original reasons for the blackout are gone. Times are changing and this year instead of listening over the air to AM 1070 I am listening via Android app! It’s time to reward the mid-north Indiana fans that have dealt with the blackout for a half-decade.

  8. Taylor

    Not to be the next ditto-monkey in line but Kent Sterling is a hundred percent correct. No live TV broadcast, no streaming internet coverage, not even a PPV option for the Indianapolis metro area, this is Tony George-istic business practices at its worst. How can they not understand that viewership is what keeps motorsports alive, which draws fans in and makes them want TO GO TO THE DAMN RACE IN THE FIRST PLACE.

    The blackout is just wrong from all angles. It is bad for revenue for both the organization and the sponsors, pisses off the fans to no end, and all in all is a morally bankrupt practice.

    The Indianapolis 500 is not just the perview of the Hulman estate, its a race for the masses, for everybody. Let them see it even if they can’t be there.

  9. jking3002

    Haha, I’m in the same boat, Jeff. I grew up in Richmond, and even though it is often a forgotten about corner of the state (listened to the Ohio jokes more than once), guess what comes on the TV? Well, since we are part of the Dayton media market, the Indy 500 of course!

    Also, people DO have parties for the race, just like Kent suggests they would in the article. So if you can’t watch the race in Indy, drive on over to Fricker’s (another Ohio thing) in Richmond, eat some world famous wings and enjoy the race 😉

  10. Jim King

    Perhaps the TV network that picks up “The 500” when the ABC contract expires will influence IMS to open the telecast to the local affiliate. I hope NBC will get serious about the race as a “Versus On NBC” event.

  11. Joker

    I’ll just leave one final comment on this…over the weekend I talked with a few kids 12-15 years old….not a single one gave a crap at all about the Indy500. ZERO of them would waste a Sunday listening on the radio. And these are kids that grew up right here in Indy. One asked how long the race lasted, and after hearing said “people really watch cars drive in circles for that long…stupid”. These kids are sports fans too…to them the 500 is a non-event. The future is very, very dim for IRL.

  12. Doug

    I may be a little late to the comments but as we approach the 2012 running of the 500, it will be again an issue. I was raised here in Carmel. Grew up listening to the race on Memorial Day weekend. I’ve actually been to the race a couple of times. As I got older, it became something that would be on the radio in the background as the family was doing some spring cleaning or such.

    When I moved away and could watch the race live, even though I had to get up early to watch it in California, I did so pretty religiously.

    I moved within spitting distance of Lowes / Charlotte / Concord (whatever its called these days) Motor Speedway. The jets and blimps would pass straight over my house on their way to the track which I could hear the cars racing around when I was outside. And they didn’t have it blacked out. I could start the day watching the 500 in the morning and finish it with the 600 at night.

    Unfortunately I’m back in Indiana now, and my interest in the race will just go down the crapper. I have no interest in going to see the race in person. Did it, bought the t-shirt. But I would have watched it, and all the ads of them trying to sell me stuff. So much for midwestern common-sense.

  13. Dan Allison

    I don’t get the rationale of how its good business to hide your product and frustrate potential customers. Not only that, think of all the money that could be had – and sales taxes – with the Indy 500 afternoon parties! Perfect example – instead of spending tons of money hosting an Indy 500 party today, I’m sitting at my computer typing this comment.

    Eventually the poor business sense of the blackouts will be realized, but by then it might be too late. Too bad, so sad, good riddance.

  14. tony

    Ok everyone here’s the deal for the last 10 years. The only way to watch the 500 live in Indianapolis throwing a party in your living room is to get your Eastcoast feed of ABC New York. legally of course Gosh I love Indy.


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