Why is IndyCar not drawing a bigger UK audience? A few thoughts…

In a guest article, Jack Ainslie (@JackAinslie) looks at NBC’s coverage of the IndyCar Series stateside, and why audience figures closer to home are not as high as they could be…

As the 2019 IndyCar Series season concluded at Laguna Seca last month with Josef Newgarden coming out on top, it also marked the end of the first year of Sky Sports’ collaboration with NBC to televise the series in the UK.

It was NBC’s first year as the sole US broadcaster of the sport, having shared the rights with ABC previously. Thus, it seems appropriate to review the broadcasting output of what has been a thrilling season of racing.

Viewers in the UK watch the NBC broadcast with no input from Sky. The NBC product has been fantastic, with increased viewership stateside. The Indianapolis 500, the premier event of the series, reversed a ratings slide suffered under ABC’s stewardship of the event.

An average audience of 5.45 million people watched the event across all of NBC’s platforms, an increase of 11 percent on the previous year and the highest average audience since the 100th running of the race in 2016. Overall, audiences increased by nine percent compared with 2018.

Diffey, Bell and Tracy steer the show
In my view, the increase is partly down to the excellent commentary team of Leigh Diffey and his analysts Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy – both former IndyCar drivers. There is also an extensive line up of pit reporters who often speak to strategists during races.

The excitement the trio clearly have for the racing is infectious, mixing analysis with just plain enthusiasm. Diffey does not dominate the commentary, often allowing for his co-commentators to converse between themselves for periods of time.

They are not shy of speaking out when they see something wrong – Tracy called for Takuma Sato to be suspended after a serious crash at the Pocono race. However, the trio share an appreciation of the racing and a willingness for all drivers to do well. Tracy was one of the first to congratulate Sato when he won the next race at the Gateway oval.

The actual broadcast is also strong. Depending on when NBC’s coverage starts, we sometimes have extensive build up (also presented by Diffey and co), or occasionally being just minutes away from the race. The build-up is generally just analysis and driver interviews however there have been on occasion some excellent driver features, which NBC should continue to do into 2020.

The graphics are sleek and do their job during the race. The coverage provides a wide array of camera angles throughout the broadcast including the standard camera mounted above the cockpit, a cockpit cam facing the drivers, as well as the infamous visor cam.

2019 IndyCar Series Laguna Seca - Alex Rossi.png
Looking back from Alexander Rossi towards Josef Newgarden. Note how the on-board angle is sponsored, and also the light blue next to Herta’s name on the timing wall. The light blue indicates that Herta has activated the ‘push to pass’ system.

However, not all on-board camera angles are available to viewers watching at home. Fans at home only see between ten and twelve camera angles where third parties are sponsoring them, meaning that we sometimes do not get the best view of incidents if the main camera operators have not picked an incident up.

The visor cam really shows the thrill of the ride – particularly on the bumpy street tracks allowing us to see the speed of the cars as well as sensing the rough ride the drivers are going through. IndyCar often uploads these clips to their YouTube channel in addition to extensive race highlights, helping to cement their strong online presence.

NBC has heavily promoted races on other parts of its network, which benefited the 500 significantly. Us Brits may not enjoy the heavy amount of promotion of other NBC televised events during races but it does NBC’s commitment to increasing IndyCar’s viewership.

Little improvement for Sky compared to BT in UK
Closer to home, it is disappointing that Sky have been unable to build a larger viewership of the sport than it generally had during its BT days.

The racing product has been excellent, with absorbing, incident packed, overtaking laden races. There have been seven different winners and nine other drivers finishing in the podium positions – including drivers classified as low as 22nd in the championship. The racing itself is certainly not the reason for the lack of viewers.

Sky is in a strong position with an already present audience of committed motorsport fans regularly watching its coverage of Formula 1. So why the lack of interest in IndyCar?

Of course, IndyCar is not as ‘prestigious’ as Formula 1, therefore it seems reasonable to assume it will never reach the same figures as F1. However, there is familiarity for British audiences – drivers such as Sato, Max Chilton, Marcus Ericsson, and Alexander Rossi are names familiar to the committed F1 petrol head.

Oval racing is also not familiar to many of us in the UK and often dismissed (the Rockingham circuit which hosted Champ Cars in the early 2000s recently closed down), however the ovals have seen some of the most thrilling races in IndyCar this year.

Commercial breaks are a problem for IndyCar and its international audience. Unlike British motorsport coverage, American networks take advertising breaks during races. Whilst Sky do not cut to adverts during the US breaks it does mean that commentary falls silent in the gaps as Diffey and co. understandably do not continue commentating during the US breaks.

2019 IndyCar Series Laguna Seca - Colton Herta.png
Looking at Colton Herta as he tackles the corkscrew complex at Laguna Seca.

The on-screen graphics also disappear during US ad-breaks for UK viewers, which may confuse new viewers who are trying to follow the on-track action. Whilst NBC try to confine advertising to safety car (or ‘caution’) periods this is not always possible. It is also not thrilling for viewers to watch cars following the pace car with no commentary.

Promotion lacking outside of Indianapolis 500
During the Indianapolis 500, Tom Gaymor and Alex Brundle commentated during US advertising breaks leading to some continuity for UK viewers. It would be great for Sky to provide this at more races like BT did. As an unashamed fan of Alex Jacques, it would be great to see him call some Indy races, however this is probably impossible and merely a wish of mine!

The Indianapolis 500 understandably garnered Sky’s largest IndyCar audience of the season, with frequent mentions to the 500 from David Croft and Simon Lazenby during their Monaco Grand Prix coverage. Whilst the race was bound to gain a larger than usual audience due to its place as the top event of the season, there is a chance this promotion of the race could have directed more viewers its way.

Unfortunately, Sky did not repeat the promotion during other F1 weekends which coincided with IndyCar races, with little mention of IndyCar elsewhere during Sky’s F1 coverage. Four drivers were in contention for IndyCar’s crown as the championship entered its season finale, yet Sky did not reference this during their Singapore Grand Prix coverage.

Many races take place at reasonable times for UK viewers to watch however some of the night races take place in the early hours for British viewers. Sky could replay some of the races at more reasonable time slots during the week, as BT Sport did on occasion. Whilst this may not draw huge audiences, it would still allow a dedicated IndyCar following to build.

The IndyCar Series has fantastic racing and NBC is providing an excellent product for UK viewers to watch (even with presenters of motorsport in full suits!). However, Sky needs to push advertising of the series more.

Sky could do this through cross promotion, which seems to have worked well for NBC to build its own domestic audience as well as perhaps adding in some of their own personnel to make the broadcasts a more seamless experience for the UK viewer.

There is no doubt that the potential is there for the series to become far more popular in the UK than it is at present.

Have you been watching IndyCar this year? What have you enjoyed or not enjoyed? Do you think Sky could increase viewership through involving their own personnel or simply more advertising? Have your say in the comments below.

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23 thoughts on “Why is IndyCar not drawing a bigger UK audience? A few thoughts…

  1. Have loved Indycar since Mansell went over in ‘93. It baffles me to this day why more people, especially over here, don’t watch it. The product is far superior but people always dismiss it as “racing in circles”, when ovals are frequently the best part.

  2. I totally agree!
    I am a huge fan of IndyCar and it is a good decision to put it on Sky Sports F1.
    As you say, the decision to have UK commentary in US ad breaks is a great idea for the Indy 500.
    But why not do that for other Indy races?
    What i’d like to see is Sky promoting Indy a lot more. Sky Sports F1 broadcasts 24 7, and out of a 168 hr week, barely a quarter of that is live. So why not promote Indy races on the same day as F1 races?
    Indy reruns (it cant be that difficult)
    Indy discussion shows and maybe even a review show!
    Even F1 drivers discussing Indy!

  3. I’ve been an occasional viewer for many years. Sometimes just a handful of races per season to an avid viewer for the whole year. The biggest problem for me is the silence during ad breaks. Sky used to have Keith Huewan and guests based in a studio during the break. BT also had people to speak and analyse during breaks. Now you get just basic wide shots with no graphics until the host commentators return. For me this is just unacceptable. Either do a decent job or give it to someone else who can

  4. Agree with a lot of the other comments. I want to add some different points.

    Scheduling makes it difficult for a casual fan to find multiple races. The start times vary massively – one Saturday evening, Saturday night races (starting midnight or later in the UK), and lack of consistency with start times on a Sunday. The start times are mainly chosen to avoid clashes with other sport shown on NBC or NBCSN but it doesn’t make life easy for the viewer at home. That’s one thing that F1 does well, during the spring/summer you can be pretty confident that the race is going to start at 2:10pm. I love Indycar, watch all the races (although rarely stay up to watch the night races due to other life commitments) and can find this start time information out for myself, but it isn’t as easy as other sports who have schedule equity.

    Back in the CART days in the late 90s, all the races were broadcast in the US by ABC/ESPN. As part of the international rights package, ESPN International had the rights and employed two British commentators to form the international commentary team, which was picked up in the UK by Eurosport. The commentators were originally Ben Edwards and Jeremy Shaw, before Ben took a step back and Guy Hobbs took over. They commentated on site, were insightful, but most importantly they knew their audience – many passionate fans of motorsport but who may not be aware of all the intricate differences between European based open wheel motorsport and US based motorsport. They commentated throughout the race but had awareness of when their international TV partners were on ad breaks (some would be on breaks at different times) which provided good continuity and no large gaps of sound which we have now. I would be happy with this solution, so long as the team were knowledgeable and not like the examples below…

    You have to be very careful with what you wish for! The NBC commentary crew are very popular, and an ideal solution would be to hear from them during the ad breaks, rather than sit through car sounds or silence. There are times where deviating from US commentary has gone wrong – namely Larry Rice and Gary Lee who did international commentary for the IRL in the 2000s, who did not know the audience and therefore provided a frustrating viewing experience. Similarly, I really didn’t think much of Tom Gaymor and Alex Brundle’s commentary during the ad-breaks – there was a part of the race where pole sitter Simon Pagenaud came into the pits during a US ad-break and Tom was unable to identify the driver. I appreciated their input in the coverage but I wouldn’t want a UK based commentary team who aren’t immersed with Indycar day-to-day. Honestly, nothing frustrates me more to watch something described by guys who know less about Indycar than I do! If Indycar paired me with a driver to provide analysis, I’d happily volunteer to voice the new Indycar International commentary feed if the series sends me to all the races!

  5. I loved watching Indycar this year on sky. The unpredictable racing and warm buzz was a welcome relief to the dour predictability of F1.
    I’d recommend it to any motorsport enthusiast who happens to tune in on a Sunday evening !

  6. I’m in the U.S. and the commercial breaks in the Indy broadcasts are a huge distraction for me and I often give up watching a race because of them.

    I should add that when NBCSports was broadcasting F1 in the U.S. they also had many commercial breaks during the races. The breaks were so numerous that viewers lost over 1/3 of the racing action! The race commentators weren’t at the races: they commentated from the studio. The NBCSports F1 broadcasts was a huge disservice to U.S. F1 fans and did little to attract new fans. I bring this up now because I’ve read recently that Liberty is considering switching from ABC/ESPN back to NBCSports for their U.S. F1 coverage. IMO, this is yet another sign that Liberty has no clue about how to market F1 in the U.S.

  7. I fully agree with all the points made here. I cannot fathom why commentary, graphics and so on doesn’t continue through as breaks. It makes sense to as the feed goes to a global audience. I’ve enjoyed the overall presentation and it’s been good to experience watching a newer form of racing to me. I haven’t really spent any time watching it before this season, but the racing has been thoroughly enjoyable.

    • That’s because Sky uses the US domestic feed. On the international feed graphics continue during US ad breaks.

    • Yes, IndyCar is mostly a spec series. though there are some minor aero ans suspensions setup variations that make a notable differences.The result of course is that the biggest difference is down to diver skill and level in IndyCar is very high, some of the best anywhere and far beyond F2.

      While oval racing isn’t my preference. the oval racing in IndyCar is also MUCH better than anything NASCAR has ever achieved: It’s open wheel so there no intention barging around into other cars, no stupid “bump drafting”, no right wing cultural crap, etc.

      My biggest complaint about IndCar is that they have too many street races circuits that simply too narrow to allow much clean overtaking. OTOH, they also race at some of the best closed race tracks in the world.

      Yes, it’s not F1 but then again, F1 isn’t really F1 as it really should be…

      • As hinted at above, possibly Sky are forbidden from promoting IndyCar.

        Sky F1 was conceived as Sky Motorsport I believe, but Ecclestone blocked that and made it F1 only.

        It is surely time to revisit that and see if Sky can do what Motors TV failed to do and put together a hugely attractive package. Yes F1 weekends will remain F3, F2, F1 and IndyCar, but on non-F1 weekends they could run other live racing, plus there is plenty of currently dead-time rammed full of repeats nobody watches, when they could run ‘as live’ full races from other series.

        I’d be surprised if Sky weren’t considering this, if possible, given they have already taken on IndyCar.

  8. I wonder if there is some agreement with F1 about promoting (or not) promoting other series. I’ve found it odd that Virgin breakfast show (with Chris Evans) is heavily sponsored by Sky, have given away and promoted all F1 races but never mentioned an Indycar race including the 500.
    I disagree with the comments wanting some commentary during breaks. I never felt the sky in studio from IRL / CART days & also the BT audio more recently added much to the coverage. Neither have ever had any real experts that have oval Indycar oval experience and commentating from a studio means they are talking only about what we are seeing and always provides an awkward cut back, often missing or talking over the US feed (to be fair BT were better at this sky previously) and breaks for me the momentum if the US feed. I do think a banner explaining US coms are in break however would be good for the occasional viewer.

  9. I’ve watched a few races this year and enjoyed them, do sky have the contract for next year? The UK 7pm start time races are great on a Sunday night to finish off the weekend, not that it pleases the wife!

  10. I’m a Hugh fan of both Indy cars and Nascar. BT had the most amazing commentary which, when I watched you could understand all the technical information given. Having been over to watch both the Indy 500 and Daytona 500 live the atmosphere and fan base is like no other sport.
    For those of us who don’t have Sky it’s a total shame, that we miss out. We don’t even have the opportunity to watch LIVE F1 anymore now that Sky have the franchise.

  11. “Why is IndyCar not drawing a bigger UK audience?” Obviously because it is not on UK FTA tv. What do you expect?
    Sky has dragged the F1 audience down to a tiny fraction of the old 15m plus it used to get on the BBC. It never mattered to Bernie because he got the money up front Sky paid more and it made no difference to him if nobody watched at all. It is now at around 5% of the old UK FTA audience.
    Yes we watched our Noige in the Keymarket car win it. But there has been nothing since then.

  12. This is my personal opinion
    Sky needs to get a grip on indycar, it was rubbish with no promoting last year and they need to do something.
    I would have someone hosting in the UK, maybe David Croft or Martin Brundle.
    Have someone reporting in the US, maybe Rachel Brooks.
    Commentary?

  13. All Sky mentioned when they got the Indycar rights this year was about the Indy 500 and Fernando Alonso as if the other races didn’t matter at all. I can’t imagine what they was like when he failed to qualify for the Indy 500. Sky completely missed the boat that was the one thing I was most worried about they went back to Sky is that (Sorry to use a wrestling term here but) bury the sport. For some reason when NASCARs current contract runs out with Premier Sports I have the fear that they will go to Sky as well and just like back in the day they will be buried. I hope Sky can turn it around this year

  14. i don’t watch it as much as i used to because for me the current iteration of indycar is nothing like as interesting or exciting as it once was. it’s now essentially a spec series in terms of everything but the engine so comes across as a lower tier series rather than a top tier as cart once was.

    i miss having multiple chassis suppliers, a tire war & teams having the ability to modify the cars to find additional improvements.

    cart used to be mega, cool looking cars that were super fast & super interesting on the technical/development level & the current indycar simply isn’t that & therefore simply isn’t as interesting.

    it’s essentially nothing but a modified f2 with 2 engine suppliers.

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