COMPETITION IS FINE; MARKETING AND PR NEED ATTENTION NOW
IndyCar sent out a release Monday that led off with the amazing news that the Sunday race of the two-race Dual at Detroit had attracted a whopping television rating of 0.8.
A ratings point of 1, according to Sports Media Watch – a U.S. Internet site that keeps track of these things – means 1,147,000 households, or 1 per cent of all U.S. homes with television sets, are tuned in to whatever, be it the Evening News or The Voice.
According to the release, this rating of less than 1 for the IndyCar race Sunday was an improvement over last year.
I’m glad IndyCar is feeling optimistic about this. From my perspective, less than 1 per cent of all homes with TVs watching my race is not something to get excited about, particularly when you compare it with other Sunday ratings:
PGA golf, 2.2; NHL hockey, 2.5; Major League Baseball, 2.5.
And finally the NASCAR race at Dover, Del., 3.5 (ouch!).
This year’s Indianapolis 500 was a great race and yet the ratings were the lowest since the spectacle went live on TV back in the 1980s.
In short, not a lot of people appear to care about Indy car racing anymore.
So, how to turn things around? How to attract attention and make people aware of this terrific sport and the people participating in it. I mean, I wrote Monday (Sunday night, really) about the wonderful story of Sam Schmidt and Davey Hamilton and how can you beat a yarn like that?
I’ll tell you: you can’t.
But if that had been a NASCAR story, instead of IndyCar, everybody would know about it and be talking about it. Baseball or football or hockey would milk a story like that dry.
But other than a small circle, which is pretty much what the IndyCar community is, not many people will be aware of the pain and suffering and courage and optimism that brought those two men, together, to the top step of the podium at Belle Isle on Sunday.
Here is a suggestion, which I will frame in the form of another story.
In 1985, David Billes, of the Canadian Tire Billeses, took a team to Indianapolis. His driver was Jacques Villeneuve, brother of Gilles Villeneuve and uncle of JV, the F1 world champion.
Uncle Jacques was a good racing driver but Indianapolis can be a nasty place and Villeneuve lost control during practice and hit the wall hard enough to give himself a concussion. He would not be able to get medical clearance to race.
Billes was not one to give up easily. He hired Johnny Parsons Jr., a journeyman American driver, to get his car into the race, which Parsons did, qualifying 26th.
The race, held on Sun., May 26th, was won by Danny Sullivan. Parsons finished fifth. It was not a spectacular performance – he didn’t win, after all – but a fifth-place finish in the Indianapolis 500 is worthy of mention, particularly in Canadian newspapers and on radio and TV.
And, of course, the next day – Monday – there was none. Not one single word. All the Canadian papers used American wire-service dispatches from Reuters, Associated Press and United Press International and there was lots about Sullivan and the second-place finisher Mario Andretti and so-on and so-forth but there was no mention of Johnny Parsons driving the Canadian Tire-sponsored car to a fifth place finish.
So on Tuesday, Canadian Tire purchased large advertisements in the sports pages of all the Toronto newspapers and other large Canadian papaers from coast-to-coast to trumpet the news that a Canadian Tire-sponsored car had finished fifth in the Indianapolis 500.
In short: rather than waiting for the media to do the job, which likely would never have happened, Canadian Tire purchased space in the papers to tell its own story.
What I am saying here is that if IndyCar is waiting for the mainstream media – particularly television – to start delivering the level of coverage it thinks it deserves, it is going to have a long wait.
What it should do - must do, in fact – is to go to ESPN and television stations in New York, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Miami, Dallas and however many markets it wants publicity in and do what Canadian Tire did in 1985: buy the TV time - two minutes either right before or right after the sportscasts - and generate publicity with its own words and pictures.
Stop waiting for someone else to do it because if they were going to they would have done it already.
Yes, there have to be more engine suppliers involved in IndyCar and the cars can’t all look the same going forward (the aero-kit announcement in recent days is a step in the right direction), but in the end the league has to get the message out that the racing is better than any you’ll find anywhere else and the storylines are more compelling.
But rather than hoping someone will listen and write about it or talk about it, IndyCar has to act now. It can't leave anything to chance any longer. If it has to buy itself publicity, so be it.
- NORRIS McDONALD