IndyCar

IndyCar’s new TV deal with Fox Sports: The good, bad and remaining questions

IndyCar's new TV deal with Fox Sports: The good, bad and remaining questions

INDIANAPOLIS – IndyCar’s new marriage with Fox Sports is neither a sign its next decade will be a guaranteed success, nor is it the beginning of the end.

The multi-year deal ends a nearly two-decade-long relationship with NBC/Comcast, including the past six years as an exclusive rights holder during which the sport took notable steps forward in growth and, in some ways, gained some momentum after seemingly being stuck in neutral in the shadows of The Split and Reunification.

With NBC, IndyCar found a reliable, dedicated partner willing to go all-in on its entire schedule in a way the sport hadn’t had in a decade. From the final year of its split schedule with ABC/NBCSN (2018) to the early days of its current 3-year deal with NBC, IndyCar nearly tripled its network TV windows. Even at a time where the writings of an impending split seemed to be on the walls, NBC executive producers Sam Flood and Jeff Behnke sat in the network’s production trucks during a deluge of rain and lightning May 26 and all but demanded decision makers in Stamford, Conn. and New York City keep their 500 broadcast on the air — four-hour delay be damned.

In all, it led to more than nine hours of dedicated, uninterrupted coverage.

In a way, though, NBC’s bevy of major national and international sporting rights kept the network from offering exactly what Fox could: unprecedented levels of network TV exposure in a day and age where streaming is increasingly playing a greater role. For better or worse, IndyCar’s new deal with Fox illustrates the ways in which America’s premier open-wheel racing series is at a different place in its growth process, compared to the country’s hottest niche pro sports and major pillars of the American sporting landscape alike.

Even still with a cable-heavy schedule, the first month of this year’s WNBA slate averaged more than 1.3 million viewers during each game broadcast. Meanwhile, the NFL, NASCAR and others are finding more ways to push its content to new — and more — cable and streaming partners, as major sports media rights deals more frequently are struck for billions — with a capital ‘B’ — of dollars.

It’s hard to imagine IndyCar having found a better (albeit realistic) all-around deal when it took its rights to market eight months ago. Privately, Penske Entertainment representatives have said they didn’t believe an all-network deal, with 19 windows for all its races and both days of Indy 500 qualifying, was possible for a financial figure that would make sense.

And yet, Thursday’s news doesn’t come without drawbacks. Let’s dive into the good, the bad and the question marks.

Fox’s offer ‘was too good’: Why IndyCar believes new media rights deal can lift series

Sep 24, 2023; Green Bay, Wisconsin, USA; A FOX Sports tv camera during the game between the New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Wins in IndyCar’s ‘historic’, unprecedented FOX deal

Unprecedented network time. With 50% more time spent on network television in 2025 compared to 2024 with NBC — and with those 19 network windows guaranteed for each year through the life of the multi-year deal — the series, its teams and their collective sponsors are guaranteed much higher overall exposure during IndyCar’s fast-paced six-month schedule. With no races on cable or streaming, and with 14 weekends on-track from the start of May through the end of August, IndyCar has gained an enviable ease of being found for its casual fans.

Summer afternoon on a Sunday? IndyCar’s probably on Fox. And in reverse, if you know it’s an IndyCar race weekend, there’s no question where to look. For cord-cutters, watching races may take a small (or in some cases, a rather large) investment, but if your priority is growth and reach, you can’t do any better.

Bye, bye low season-finale ratings. If you find yourself irked at the idea of your favorite sport making a concerted effort to shrink the span of the calendar during which it’s relevant, you’re not alone. It’s a backwards strategy, compared to so much of the sporting world, but that doesn’t make it wrong. It’s not hard to argue if you want your championship stretch to garner more national, mainstream attention, pitting that against the kickoff of college football and the NFL is a perfect way to fail. If you expose yourself to a wider audience over the course of the season and gain new fans, and they then can watch your riveting finale, perhaps you have a better chance at converting them into diehards, instead of them flipping on football during your final couple races of the year without a second thought.

Better ROI for partners makes for healthier sport. During a time in which teams are spending millions more per entry than they were just a few years ago — thanks to development of the hybrid system and new, lighter, more expensive parts to help retro-fit it to IndyCar’s aging chassis-engine combo — more exposure for teams’ sponsors couldn’t come at a better time. And if there’s any hope of keeping Honda around, after one of IndyCar’s two engine manufacturers aired its frustrations this winter on the lack of return on investment it saw in this current model of IndyCar, network-only deal with Fox could be a major linchpin.

Penske expects his grandkids to own it: How IndyCar growing as it enters 2024

Danica Patrick, left, and announcer Mike Tirico work for NBC Sports during the 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500.

NBC TV ratings seemed to have plateaued. For all that NBC did in giving IndyCar a solid foundation in 2019, there seemed to be a limit on just how high the network could take the sport. IndyCar’s full-season average per-race TV audience grew 37% from 2018-2023, and its average non-500 network audience was roughly 960,000 in 2019 (the first year NBC owned rights to every race) and last year didn’t eclipse 1 million. With few exceptions, IndyCar per-race average cable audiences rarely breached 600,000. When it came to the 500, NBC pulled 5.45 million for its first in 2019 and peaked at 5.58 million in 2021, then dipped below 5 million each of the next two years before jumping back up to 5.3 million last month.

New partner brings potential for greater date equity. Without the Summer Olympics every four years, IndyCar’s summer slate can be more firmly locked into place. Though there are spring gaps that still could stand to be filled, and the summer slate borders on too full, next year’s calendar is as evenly paced as its been in years. How the series and its new partner will schedule around the 2026 World Cup that Fox holds the rights to remains to be seen, but this new relationship gives one reason to think each race can start to own spots on the calendar in ways not all of them have. The Labor Day weekend ending also leaves open the possibility of the Music City Grand Prix returning to Nashville’s city streets, something that would be almost impossible to do in September and beyond.

Indy NXT a major winner. The top rung of the American open-wheel developmental ladder is no more important today to generating many of IndyCar’s next young talents than it was last week. But with this new deal — where a majority of its races will air on cable (FS1), instead of in front of a streaming-only audience (Peacock) — the series will start to feel and appear more ‘legit.’ It won’t attract the audience of NASCAR’s Xfinity Series, but minus a few races on FS2, it will get a similar treatment — delivering exponential growth for teams’ partners.

IndyCar becomes big fish in smaller pond for Fox Sports’ summer lineup. The audience that turns out for the 500 will be dwarfed by those who watch Fox’s biggest college football games, World Series, Daytona 500, but IndyCar’s impact on the network’s summer programming can’t be overlooked. During sports’ dog days of summer, a time when IndyCar competed for network time and promotional bandwidth while NBC juggled the French Open, NASCAR, consistent major golf programming, the Olympics every four years and more, Fox has the United Football League, NHRA and the MLB among its biggest summer properties. That should lead to more consistent promotion of its calendar outside race windows than fans might’ve been used to on NBC.

Insider: 5 takeaways on IndyCar’s 2025 schedule with Fox

Jan 18, 2024; Boulder, Colorado, USA; General view of a Fox Sports broadcast microphone before the game between the Oregon Ducks against the Colorado Buffaloes at the CU Events Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

A deal not without its drawbacks

Network races, cable practice and qualifying schedule not a win for all. A portion of IndyCar’s fan base was quick to point out Thursday the move to Fox will make it significantly more expensive for cord-cutting diehard fans to watch every single session of on-track action. The loss of NBC’s Peacock platform, which cost about $6 per month and currently is being offered for $20 a year will make way — pending anti-trust litigation — for Fox’s unique streaming project it hopes to launch later this year with ESPN and Warner Bros. Discovery called Venu Sports. The app — which will house access to all three’s live sports properties — will reportedly cost $40-$50 per month. Without a cable (or cable-like streaming) subscription that comes with FS1 and FS2 and which start around $70 per month, Venu Sports will be the only way fans can watch all of IndyCar’s practice and qualifying action.

To watch races, those without cable need only buy a digital antenna and plug it into your TV. They typically range from $10-$30. For those who live out of range of those feasibly working though, they’ll be left with no other option than paying seven times (or more) per month for a streaming fix, unless you’re adept at using VPNs and tricking IndyCar Live into thinking you live in another country.

There could be some other workarounds. Full-length NASCAR race replays have been posted to YouTube not too long after races have concluded, which Fox may do with IndyCar as well, but that’s not yet confirmed. Fox Sports’ own streaming app — which requires the authentication of a cable subscription — typically offers some amount of “free preview” watching for live events, too.

Generally speaking, the larger potential audience IndyCar will reach with this deal is a major win, but some current fans will (and have already) found it tough to come to terms with. A product like F1TV, which offers all live Formula 1 race broadcasts for $84.99 a year or $10.99 per month, would be a compromise, and with IndyCar so unique among the properties Fox Sports owns — one where it’s an exclusive rights holder and one with a larger following than NHRA or the PBA — perhaps it could be a consideration. But that’s a question for another day.

More overall network time, shorter race-day windows. Penske Entertainment president and CEO Mark Miles and Fox Sports CEO Eric Shanks said during Thursday’s media call IndyCar will receive blanket two-and-a-half hour TV windows for 16 of its races and a five-hour one for the 500 — the latter which matches NBC’s treatment. The former will mark a drop in more than four hours of non-500-related on-air time, compared to IndyCar’s race TV windows from 2023. That season, race windows ranged from two hours (Iowa Race 1) to three-and-a-half (season-finale at Laguna Seca). Six ran two-and-a-half hours, and eight ran three hours.

With average combined pre and post-race windows that averaged nearly 54 minutes per race, NBC could often have more of an even split of pre and post-race storytelling, depending on what that race may warrant. Under this new model — which would’ve offered nearly 37 minutes of non-race time if used for IndyCar’s 2023 schedule – series sources hypothesize that Fox’s broadcasts will more heavily weight post-race shows over pre-race ones. The belief within the industry, generally, is races — especially ones with a good lead-in event — rate better when the broadcast get almost straight to the action. Only five of last year’s 16 non-500s took longer than two hours to complete, with Laguna Seca (2 hours and 18 minutes) the longest. There shouldn’t be a concern regarding getting races in during that cookie-cutter timeframe, but fans will notice a smaller window for pre and post-race storytelling.

More potential for Le Mans-like conflicts. With an abundance of network windows comes less flexibility to navigate minor headache-inducing conflicts. It took less than 24 hours from IndyCar’s 2025 schedule announcement for that to become abundantly clear. Though it wasn’t much in doubt, WEC announced Friday the 24 Hours of Le Mans will be held June 14-15 in 2025 — the same weekend as IndyCar’s newly-moved date at World Wide Technology Raceway that had historically been held in August.

The clash drew the ire of fans and drivers alike. In reality, though, avoiding it next year, under the premise IndyCar must end its schedule by Labor Day weekend with Fox inundated with NFL and college football coverage in the fall, wouldn’t have been without other major issues. Holding the WWTR race directly after Detroit would make for six consecutive weekends on-track for the series, starting with Barber. Sandwiching it between Road America and Mid-Ohio would do the same (and include seven races). And running one of the two open August weekends would likely put it too close to the track’s NASCAR weekend in 2025, with the anticipation it too will be shuffled to a new spot on the calendar.

Long — and maybe even longer — offseasons continue. With IndyCar running into mid-September this year, due to NBC’s Summer Olympics coverage, and with next season starting the first weekend of March instead of the second, the sport’s upcoming downtime will be as short as it’s been in several years (when ignoring COVID-19-affected seasons).

But with a mandated end of the season by Labor Day weekend, combined with St. Pete needing to be held in early-March, drivers’ and fans’ wishes for a shorter offseason won’t be seen any time soon — unless the series can secure a long-awaited fall international exhibition slate. In the meantime, NASCAR, IMSA and F1 will all continue to run deep into the fall and then start their seasons as early (F1) or earlier (NASCAR and IMSA) than IndyCar.

Details: Everything you need to know about IndyCar’s new TV deal with Fox

Kevin Harvick (left) will make his first call as a full-time member of the FOX NASCAR broadcast team during Sunday at the Clash.

Deal’s biggest question mark? How FOX will produce races

The elephant in the room. On Thursday’s media call, Shanks was caught off guard by a question from IndyStar regarding many fans’ noted displeasure with Fox’s NASCAR race broadcasts. Complaints ranging from fans feeling inundated by commercials and missing key live action, to disliking an approach some see as corny or unserious at times are by no means new, and in the leadup — and reaction — to Fox’s confirmation as IndyCar’s new media rights partner, a legion of American race fans let it be known they were, at minimum, nervous of what they’d see Feb. 28, 2025 for Practice No. 1 at St. Pete.

On the call, Shanks told reporters Fox would work with Penske Entertainment to form a talent team both sides would be satisfied with and emphasized Fox treats no two sports properties alike, in terms of how the network approaches its coverage. “We celebrate and try to make every broadcast as approachable, informative and entertaining as we possibly can,” he said. “We do the biggest events on TV and take each one of them, in conjunction with our partners, to make the best broadcasts possible.”

With some of the biggest events on the sports calendar, Fox offers major opportunities to cross-promote its newest property, along with a talented lineup of broadcasters to handoff the broadcast to. Imagine Tom Rinaldi’s storytelling in May, for one.

But with more than seven months before the relationship formally launches, there is much to be decided. In many ways, how races will be presented to (hopefully) millions around the world, and how those methods and talent are received, will make or break this relationship. A blank canvas offers myriad opportunities for IndyCar’s newest partner.

Staying with NBC was ‘safe.’ This next chapter with Fox will be new and refreshing, whatever that may mean.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: IndyCar’s new TV deal with Fox Sports: Good, bad, remaining questions

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