Friday, May 4, 2018

Hello Neighbor: IMSA Heads to NBC Sports

IndyCar's television deal was a big story entering 2018 and the desired outcome of NBC Sports taking over the full schedule was achieved. However, the biggest surprise in American motorsports television news was IMSA moving over to NBC Sports after a relationship with Fox Sports that dating back to the days of Speed Channel.

NBC Sports has all three major American motorsports series with NASCAR, IndyCar and IMSA and, just like IndyCar, IMSA has a new neighborhood to learn. Most of what IndyCar fans need to learn is the same for IMSA and it has been covered before.

IMSA does have a few differences from IndyCar, most notably at the start and the finish of the season. The good news for IMSA and the 24 Hours of Daytona is the race falls on a light weekend for American sports. It occurs on the weekend before the Super Bowl, which is reserved for the popular but less celebrated Pro Bowl. The good news is that weekend is usually an off-weekend for the Premier League, as it is an FA Cup weekend. The only event that causes concern is the NHL All-Star Game, which has taken place on that weekend for a handful of years. NHL All-Star Skills Competition takes place on Saturday night with the NHL All-Star Game taking place on Sunday afternoon.

The season finale at Petit Le Mans is the other date to watch for. Most Saturdays in October have Premier League and the NHL season will have started by that time. The Notre Dame football season will also be in full swing and NASCAR will be competing that weekend. This year, NASCAR is at Talladega the weekend of Petit Le Mans.

The same way IndyCar's move to NBC Sports does not clear up the issues with ABC, IMSA's move does not mean all the problems fans have with Fox Sports' coverage goes away. In all likelihood the endurance races will still be split over multiple networks and from the sounds of it streaming-only could be how part of these races are shown.

It isn't practical in 2018 for an entire 10-hour, 12-hour or 24-hour race to be shown on one network. That isn't a bad thing and the good news is CNBC has been used as an overflow network for NBC Sports coverage. CNBC is in over 86.5 million homes compared to Fox Sports 2, which is only in 57.6 million homes and it is actually more than Fox Sports 1, which is in 83.4 million homes. NBCSN is in 83.6 million homes. Fans do not like having to bounce between networks but it is the reality of the situation and with the move to NBC Sports if a race does have to bounce between channels the race should be easier to find.

While endurance races might have to be split up, NBC will show three races each season. One early rumor is three hours of each the 24 Hours of Daytona, 12 Hours of Sebring and Petit Le Mans will be shown on NBC. This is a big gain for IMSA but I wonder if that is the best way to spend the network airtime. Those are three of the biggest events on the IMSA calendar but I have never gotten a sense over whether partial race coverage has done much for those races or the series. Yes, these are three of the crown jewels on the IMSA calendar and I am sure the series wants these races featured but what will be shown? We have seen Fox broadcast the start of the 24 Hours of Daytona but I could understand if a causal viewer flipping through the dial (because it is still 1978 and not 2018) would invest the time to watch a race that is in the first of 24 hours.

For race fans, we will watch the endurance races and we will watch as many hours as possible but for the newcomer who wants a taste, they aren't going to make the same type of investment and want immediate action and that is fine. I would argue showing three of the shorter distance races could be the way to give people a taste as it would allow them to sit down, watch pit strategy, watch driver changes and get a conclusion in a timely fashion. I think putting Long Beach, Road America and Laguna Seca on network television could be more effective for attract new viewers than parts of the endurance races.

NBC Sports has its plate full of motorsports and it is exciting but simultaneously could prove to be too much of a good things. There are some pluses. NBC Sports will be broadcasting both the IndyCar race and the IMSA race from Long Beach and that should provide for good cross-promotion of the races. The same is true for the Belle Isle weekend. The one concern is what happens when these series are all competing at the same time? IndyCar and IMSA both race on July 8th this year at Iowa and Mosport respectively. The IndyCar race is scheduled for 2:00 p.m. ET that day while the IMSA race will be broadcasted at 4:00 p.m. ET. How will that be handled next year? Could the IndyCar race start earlier? Could the IMSA race start later? Would one get NBCSN and the other be put on CNBC? I am sure neither wants to be seen as the playing second fiddle.

The only other occurrence of the two series competing on the same day at different venue this season is August 19th with IndyCar at Pocono at 1:30 p.m. ET and IMSA's GTLM and GTD classes competing at Virginia International Raceway at 1:00 p.m. ET. Once again, we are a year away and the schedules could come out for 2019 and there could be no conflicts between IndyCar and IMSA and we haven't even mentioned NASCAR for that matter. With all three series being on the same network I would hope NBC Sports could bring the series together and work with them to make sure conflicts were avoided. The crossover between motorsports series seems higher than between any of those three series and another sport and it would make sense not to force fans to choose one series over the other and make it possible for all races to be watched.

Overall, I was surprised by this decision. For starters, the IMSA television contract was not something that was widely talked about. People were frustrated when Fox moved races to FS2 but it kind of seemed like one of the costs of the current sports media landscape. Fox had dropped the FIA World Endurance Championship but it did not seem like Fox was diverting attention from motorsports but rather it saw a series that did not have the appeal of the American fanbase to justify the cost for those rights and let it go even if it meant saying goodbye to the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

With the IndyCar move fully to NBC Sports is did not seem NBC Sports would be picking up any more motorsports properties. Obviously that wasn't the case and NBC Sports not only picked up IMSA but agreed to a six-year deal ending in 2024. The IndyCar deal only goes until 2021 and the NASCAR deal goes to 2023. I could read the length of this deal as a base for how far NBC Sports wants to commit to motorsports. If the network wants to re-up with IndyCar for 2022 and beyond and with NASCAR for beyond 2023 there is already a series there to provide coverage. If IndyCar goes elsewhere in 2022 and NASCAR leaves NBC the following year then the network would still have something for one year but allows the network to easily to cut the ties if the network wants to move on from motorsports after 2024.

There is a lot of time before this deal comes to life. We will learn about broadcasters, television schedules and streaming options in due time. It seems most are viewing this deal positively and if we know NBC Sports treats motorsports with respect. Sports car fans should feel IMSA is in good hands.