Race Weekend Central

Small Move, Big Gain For IndyCar?

Perhaps you didn’t notice. And really, it’s just a blip, one of those little things that can be easily overlooked or ignored. This little thing, however, might end up being something that helps this enterprise known as IndyCar gain a little more traction. So what is being referenced here? Well, for those of you with DirecTV, it’s the NBC Sports Network’s move from high-channel purgatory into the seemingly safe confines of the sports channel milieu.

Say what? To explain, NBC Sports Network moved from channel 603 to 220, placing it amongst the NFL, MLB, NHL, and Tennis networks, and not too far from the ESPN block. In the broadcasting world, this is akin to moving from downtrodden, in need of rehabilitation apartment to the lush confines of a McMansion. Even now, in the digital age, there is still a premium placed with sitting in a specific place on the proverbial dial. By relocating in the channel sphere, NBC Sports Network is like the Jeffersons – moving on up.

The question that arises from this move is whether or not it will help Indy car racing. Well, it can’t hurt, because at this point Indy is doing a fine enough job of shooting itself in the foot with its leadership issues and contrived scheduling. But a move like this one could bring in wandering eyes. To most fans of the sport, they probably take a moment to find the station on which an IndyCar race is being broadcast, or might be familiarized now with where and when to find them.

Next year, IndyCar and Formula 1 will share a home on NBC Sports Channel’s new mainstream digs. Photo courtesy INDYCAR LAT USA

To non-fans this move could prove to be a little bit of a lure. For those bored on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and clicking through the channels, IndyCar is now sitting in a spot where, even accidentally, it might get some viewership. While devoted fans might not care one way or the other, these extra eyes are the ones that will help stabilize and possibly, ultimately grow the sport. Because while Indy car racing may have millions of fans throughout the world, it really seems like it is stuck in the pits with the engine revving here in the states.

Bill Simmons, ESPN’s self-named Sports Guy, has humorously mocked NBC Sports Network as being the “White Entertainment Network,” in response to their programming of hunting shows, hockey, the Olympics, the Tour de France, Major League Soccer and even lacrosse. Oddly enough, IndyCar means so little to him that it doesn’t even get mentioned.

It is, indeed, somewhat funny that so much of the programming on the NBC Sports Network channel caters to such a specific subsection of viewers. Whether this was an attempt to build ratings by hitting a certain target, or that those programs were the best available at the time, the network has made gains since being known as Versus.

Let’s remember what a mess Versus was. Or, I mean…the Outdoor Life Network. Oh right, this channel has a long strange history, so the evolution from being an ignored place for entertainment by the general sports viewer to one that is now infringing on the broader sports landscape is a good one. And one of those big moves came recently with another open wheel series.

As the Speed Channel, or FoxSports Speed Network, or whatever they’re actually labeling it now, looks to become more of an overall sports channel rather than one focusing solely on racing, they messed up their bid for Formula One and NBC Sports Network made a great coup. Hence, NBC Sports Network is now the destination for both F1 _and_ IndyCar. They might as well just call themselves the Open Wheel Network! (Oh right, Oprah’s got the OWN.)

The acquisition of F1 should be sure to have a positive impact on IndyCar. (Though part of me wonders whether some viewers, in being able to watch the races in a de facto sense of side-by-side might be inclined to ignore Indy for the choice of F1 – something to keep an eye on.) NBC Sports Network can now advertise the two in a conjunctive way, running ads during the other’s races and so on. And if NBC Sports Network can keep the brilliant triumvirate broadcasting group together that is used on Speed for F1 or even use them for both series – even better.

The hope is that NBC Sports Network might even put together a studio show that focuses on open wheel racing for that weekend, a la ESPN’s NASCAR Now or Speed’s Speed Center. One would think that they didn’t pay those millions just to let their products languish like a car that’s dropped a cylinder because the overall goal here is for NBC Sports to compete with the likes of ESPN and whatever-Fox-will-call-its-sports channel.

The NBC Sports Network move may seem trivial but it could be one that proves significant. Sometimes it’s doing the little things right that make the difference, and whomever engineered the jump up the TV listings, bravo. As for those of you without a top tier package on cable or satellite, well, maybe this whole thing isn’t so much of a big deal.

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