China? Qatar? Give us a break

IndyCar commentary — By on May 19, 2011 8:10 am
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Terry Angstadt said recently on 1070 The Fan that IZOD IndyCar Series fans can expect to see races added to the schedule in relatively short order from two of the following locations: Brazil, Mexico City, China, and Qatar.

We’ve already covered the fact that a second race in Brazil isn’t necessarily a bad idea. Not everyone likes it, but there are plenty arguments that can be made in its favor.

Mexico City checks some of the same boxes, but the fan base isn’t as solid, and initial consensus seems to be that the political situation in the country makes this a bad plan that wouldn’t be well-supported locally. This one has some grey area and may warrant a separate discussion.

But China and Qatar as race destinations are both spectacularly poor and short-sighted ideas. International events may appear to pay the bills with their exorbitant sanctioning fees, but the many losses that the IZOD IndyCar Series would see from pursuing them would require far more to offset than the money that INDYCAR is likely to receive. Besides, expanding American open-wheel racing into overseas markets has been tried several times, and it has always failed. Here’s why:

Time zones — fan reach and television ratings. The bulk of INDYCAR’s true potential fan base resides in North America, particularly in the US. Roughly 65% of the time, INDYCAR is already asking Americans who have never sought it out before to find it on a channel that’s only available on cable or satellite. And when a race is run at a time that’s inconvenient for the average Joe, only the most ardent of fans will seek it out and tune in (and a significant chunk of those fans will PVR it to watch later). So, for every overseas event, an opportunity to attract new fans on American soil is lost. Plus, advertisers lose eyeballs when live viewership is low, so the television partner loses revenue as advertisers lose interest. As television ratings fall for off-time events — even further than the standard low ratings, due to the factors above — ad time becomes even harder to sell. The net result is that attention for the Series from advertisers, television partners, and fans gets even harder to come by. That isn’t exactly a recipe for growth.

Sponsor representation. For a sponsor to be interested in funding a team in a series that includes overseas races, that sponsor either needs to be extremely benevolent (which, rightly, is hard to come by in the business world) or it needs to have interests in the vast majority of the markets being visited. Teams are having a hard enough time finding full-time sponsorship now. Finding any one company that wants to be on the sidepods of a car in the US, Canada, Brazil, and either Mexico, China or Qatar is borderline impossible.

Schedule rhythm. It’s highly unlikely that the Series would be able to add races in China or Qatar without returning extreme disruption to the late-season schedule — disruption that we thought had finally been mended through Motegi’s removal. With this projection leading to a minimum of three far-flung destinations, at least one of those will have to fall within eight weeks of the Series finale and put another month-long chasm into what should be an exciting build-up to the championship.

Driver representation. Having a Brazilian race on the schedule, or even two, makes a great deal of sense because there have been as many as six South Americans entered in races at a time as of late. An excellent fan base exists there to support those drivers, and the race attendance and television coverage in South America reflect that. Based on the field we see now and the young racers currently aiming for INDYCAR, how many drivers are we likely to see representing China at a race there? One, from the look of things. And Qatar, one presumes, is intended to draw expatriate Americans who live in the area. But do expats in Qatar have enough knowledge of American drivers in an American series that can they be counted on to show up? If no one’s there live and no one’s watching on TV back home, pockets may be lined but nothing else is achieved. F1 has been operating in Middle Eastern markets for the past few years, and attendance numbers haven’t exactly been burning down the house — and that’s F1, which has a significantly larger audience worldwide. And that leads into another point…

American open-wheel is not F1. It needs to stop trying to be. A large part of the reason that the INDYCAR model is broken is because it’s had an identity crisis for the past 20 years. The original IRL tried to follow the NASCAR model of being all-American; that didn’t work because that position wasn’t unique enough from NASCAR. Champ Car, particularly in its later years, tried to follow the dollars in overseas markets and in the process became more international; that didn’t work because that position wasn’t unique enough from F1. There are very particular circumstances under which it makes sense for INDYCAR to go overseas: a) the Series needs to race on tracks that provide a product that otherwise doesn’t exist in those markets (this usually means ovals); b) INDYCAR needs to be sure that those markets have excellent potential for independent growth; and c) the entire event needs to cater in every way to the core American fan base back home that is the basis of INDYCAR’s primary revenue stream. Canada and Brazil make sense as destinations for the IICS because the events fill all of these criteria (particularly with time zone) and add just a touch of international flavor that sets the Series apart from both NASCAR and F1. But once the Series starts going much further afield, it begins losing American interest. If INDYCAR is going to call itself American at its heart and encourage young Americans to see it as a goal, it needs to take care of Americans first. Neither China nor Qatar will achieve that as race locales.

In short, the exorbitant sanctioning fees that are no doubt being offered by China and Qatar are likely very enticing on their face, but INDYCAR needs to look at the big picture and realize that those short-term gains add up to long-term losses in terms of the future of the Series. There are too many great tracks on American soil that should be returned to the schedule before far-flung events in dead-end markets should ever be considered. INDYCAR needs to find a way to make its business model sustainable without these one-off shots in the arm that stunt its overall growth. It’s a slower process that requires more patience and diligence, but if done properly, the payoff can be lucrative indeed.

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