Race Weekend Central

Open-Wheel Wednesday: Can IndyCar Learn from Boxing’s Recent Success?

One day after the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Season started, I boldly professed that I would not criticize and/or overtly highlight IndyCar’s ever-present issue of declining popularity. I professed this in hopes that I and other IndyCar beat writers would focus on the positives of the sport instead of the negatives, because, put simply, the racing in this series has been too good to ignore. Harping on TV ratings every week only minimizes the excellent on-track racing product that can and should be talked about more.

But of course, the reality is that for a sport that is in as precarious of a position as IndyCar has been in recent years, it is nearly impossible to ignore declining TV ratings, attendance, and other topics of that ilk. However, my goal today is not to criticize. My goal is to perhaps shed some light on a recent sports media trend that could be of benefit to IndyCar.

(Breathes deep) Ok, now that that’s out of the way, are you ready? Good.

So I’m not sure how many of you follow boxing, or even sports business/media news in general, but there’s arecent media trend in the world of boxing that could have some relevance to IndyCar, and perhaps even other struggling motorsports organizations.

As I’m sure you’re all aware, the sport of boxing has been essentialy lifeless since the late 1980s. The incarceration of its last great star, Mike Tyson, the rise of Mixed Martial Arts companies, and a bevy of bureaucratic and financial issues torpedoed boxing’s popularity in the United States.  By the time the late 2000s had arrived, the sport was generally considered to be dead.

Does that sound familiar, IndyCar fans?

In response to the boxing’s sagging popularity, a group of promoters, investors, and other stakeholders joined together and forged a plan to put the sport back on the map. Knowing that network TV is the most watched form of media, boxing stakeholders knew they needed to get the sport back on primetime network TV. But who would want boxing as a property? No network worth its salt would pay enough to put on a properly promoted broadcast that would reach a wide audience. So another method would have to be found.

That “method” ended up being pretty simple: a group of investors would pay the networks for primetime TV slots, all with the trappings of a major sports broadcast. That meant guys like Al Michaels would come on board for commentary. That meant networks like NBC and CBS would promote the heck out of the sport knowing the sport was paying their bills. And Boxing as an industry would flourish with all of the buzz and extra eyeballs.

Guess what, all of that happened exactly as I outlined. The investors pitched the idea to the networks, and the networks ate it up with a spoon. The “Premier Boxing Champions” series was born, and it debuted as a smashing success. The first PBC broadcast on NBC earlier this year drew a 2.1 rating and 3.4 million viewers, the biggest boxing audience since 1998. IndyCar hasn’t seen a rating like that for a non-Indy 500 race since the late ’90s.

Clearly, you can see where I’m going with this. IndyCar is a sport not unlike boxing. It peaked in the late 1980s, and it nearly died  in the years after that due to bureaucratic nonsense and financial instability.

And in case you haven’t noticed, IndyCar could use the shot in the arm. The two races that IndyCar has staged on national TV this year, St. Petersburg and the Indy GP, pulled 0.6 and 0.7 ratings respectively. Neither of those broadcasts were given the kind of primetime, top-shelf treatment that would yield big ratings. The races were in largely irrelevant timeslots  and featured next to no promotion from ABC. Oh, and the broadcast team was pretty weak, to say the least.

I propose that IndyCar and it’s bevy of sponsors go ahead and swallow the pill, take the financial risk, and go the PBC route after IndyCar’s TV deal goes up for negotiation again in 2018. If boxing can do it, IndyCar certainly can. And let’s be honest, does this sport have anything to lose at this point?

It is a worthwhile question to ask, and only time will tell if such a strategy could even work for a motorsport. However, desperate times call for desperate measures, and there is little question that at this point, desperate times have indeed arrived in the IndyCar world. Its time to do something about it.

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