By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Josef Newgarden winning the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was far from the biggest story. Instead, it was television and streaming contracts, two media outlets INDYCAR fans have gone full rage all week.
Just as the sport is hitting mass strides, something alters their momentum every time. This time around, it’s the television deals around the world that’s brought a lot of frustrations from the fans.
Let’s start off with the biggest piece of the TV puzzle – NBC Sports.
Last season, INDYCAR announced INDYCAR Pass, a premium streaming site that’ll air every NTT IndyCar Series practice and qualifying sessions, full-race replays, extended Indianapolis 500 coverage, and Indy Lights, all of that for $54.99 on NBC Sports Gold.
That’s nice and all, but it began an uproar of concern for most of the international audience, who’ve relied on the sanctioning body’s live streams on YouTube and IndyCar.com. This past weekend, that concern came into fruition for two countries that have a strong fanbase – Canada and Australia.
In the sport’s only other country to host a race, Canada got the short straw after Sportsnet was announced as the main network, beginning at Circuit of the Americas.
There’s a major problem – it’s the second race of the season, and up until Saturday afternoon, fans couldn’t see the season opener as measly reruns of WWE filled up the main network. To me, give me motorsports over wrestling any time of the week. Besides, Calgary’s Natalya is on Raw, not on SmackDown Live these days, I’m sure wrestling can take a backseat for one afternoon.
Worse of all, there wasn’t a way to watch a live stream without pushing the legal boundaries, which I severely don’t condone.
Thankfully, INDYCAR and Sportsnet heard their displeasure and on Saturday, they gave the fans a glimpse of what’s ahead with a free live stream on Sportsnet.ca, meaning they got to see the season opener after all. Now they must put up with another caveat because outside of the Indianapolis 500 and Honda Indy Toronto, the remaining 14 races can only be seen on a premium-pay basis.
Premium services have become the norm for a lot of racing coverage around the world, notably Formula One and fans have been dissatisfied about paying to watch motorsports for years. Now it’s going to be common ground for Canada, and I can imagine it’s not popular.
If you asked me, did Canada get the biggest screw job? Absolutely not.
Australia have it worse, they’ll only get fetched a bone as a one-hour highlight show is all they’ll get when it airs on Fox Sports. What pains me about their lackluster deal is that IndyCar is eyeing on heading back to Surfers Paradise, and this isn’t going to help the Aussie fanbase.
If the sport is willing to appease them, hope they come up with a better deal. The sooner, the better, but that’s just isn’t how television deal works. It takes a lot of hours and with the right amount of money, a deal can be made. All I understood from their shortcomings is money talks did rule, and it meant fans aren’t going to rave the decision.
Not only Australia are strong candidates for a future INDYCAR date, Mexico is another country who may be in the round table discussions. Fortunately for Mexico and Latin American countries, they’re getting a nice welcome with open arms treatment as the races will stream live on IndyCar.com, free of charge. One catch, it doesn’t include Brazil as INDYCAR will air on both free TV and subscription services.
Another country that got an excellent deal, and perhaps the best out of the bunch, are both New Zealand and Europe. Their races will air on Sky Sports F1.
Without a doubt it’s a huge win for them because they’ll be getting a strong exposure with every qualifying session and 17 rounds airing live. More so for Europe, who are starting to gain mass respect with several former Formula One drivers like Fernando Alonso and Marcus Ericsson making the move to the appealing sport.
While those last two examples aren’t too concerned about Australia and Canada’s misfortunates, this isn’t an ideal image for INDYCAR. If you have fans angry on not having full access without either paying or relying on highlight reels, which they have every right to be upset, what will happen next?
Fans stop attending the Toronto street course at Exhibition Place and/or the idea of adding Surfers Paradise will decline?
Time will ultimately tell, but perhaps the biggest karma took place on race day.
In the middle of multiple green flag stops and a tremendous battle for the lead between reigning Indianapolis 500 winner Will Power and rookie Felix Rosenqvist, the feed went out.
Not in the United States, the entire feed that airs IndyCar went pitch black.
IMS Productions faced an overheating uplink that ultimately failed, causing a blackout for the next 10-15 minutes. It resulted people scratching their heads as to what happened in Florida, and can imagine people tuned out to watch NASCAR or whatever else is on television or online.
For those who stayed, all we got was an old school audio quality from the NBC booth, with Leigh Diffey explaining that there was technical difficulties. It took me back to the days finding clips of Murray Walker and James Hunt commenting Formula One races on BBC or Al Michaels explaining what happened after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake struck before Game 3 of the World Series at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.
While I got a nice kick out of that mini nostalgia trip, I just shook my head because it’s the absolute worst thing that could’ve happened for INDYCAR, IMS Productions, and NBC Sports, who are starting their first season as the exclusive network in the United States.
On a personal note, Fox Sports’ NASCAR coverage has been abysmal in recent years, so I’ve been favorable what NBC has done with their racing coverage, especially in open wheel racing. They’re the epitome of what a solid TV coverage should be, which Fox Sports have drifted away from and absolutely vilify.
I was vocal about ESPN’s bare minimum coverage because they’ve done so much for the sport and all they gave in return was lame sendoff. Therefore, it pains me when NBC must deal with major backlash, and the blackout was another whammy for the network covering INDYCAR after last September’s debacle at Sonoma Raceway.
If you remember, the championship deciding moment wasn’t aired live on NBCSN because a red-flagged Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (the 11th of 15 that season by the way), the playoff opener no less, was more important.
When the network switched from NASCAR to IndyCar, fans saw the aftermath of title contender Alexander Rossi’s title bid dashed after contact with Marco Andretti less than five seconds after the green flag waved.
I covered that race at Sonoma and remembered everyone in the media center were disgruntled and frustrated on the network’s decision.
Can you honestly blame them and the fans who were angry that afternoon? No way.
That was the past and I’m just glad everyone were upfront about the issue and gave us an explanation. Unfortunately, the damage marred the optimism St. Petersburg provided. ISM Productions, who are top notch workers that I strive to work for someday, expect to never have this issue ever again and that’s all we can hope for.
At the end of the day, fans were outraged this weekend. TV deals isn’t to their liking, paying to see all things INDYCAR that was once free of charge, and the blackout is my main takeaway from the season opener.
I know it’s just the first of 17 races, so I’m willing to move on, but it won’t be easy for other countries, who deserves to get some sort of happy ending in the long run.