The week when the Verizon IndyCar Series races at Barber Motorsports Park in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama is the chance for writers to channel their inner Herbert Warren Wind¹ and wax poetic about the verdant greenways, majestic views, and oddball sculptures of the facility Some even say it is the Augusta National of the racing world. High praise, indeed. Of course, in the racing world, any green grass seems like Augusta National when compared to the asphalt and concrete of a city street course or the dead brown of Sonoma. Kudos to Iowa for the corn, though. Not quite Augusta-like but it does have a certain waving-in-the-wind grandeur.
In any case, a compelling storyline exists with the relationship of televised golf and its sponsors and what IndyCar may be trying to do to milk value from what, by any definition, is a small television audience. Golf succeeds for more reasons than just television advertisers. The sport has deep-pocketed event sponsors who pay millions to host a single event. According to an article by Patrick Rishe in Forbes, all 42 PGA Tour events are sponsored for between $6 million to $12 million annually with sponsor FedEx re-upping for $35 million annually to sponsor the FedEx Cup. Nice numbers, huh? And that doesn’t include TV money. The PGA does have the advantage of being on four days in a row each week, but, other than the majors, it does not routinely knock the ball out of the park. The recent Texas Open final round had a 1.6 U.S. rating the week before the Masters on NBC. Why does the PGA tour continue to rake in dough from well-heeled advertisers? In a word, demographics.
The sponsors of the PGA tour read like a who’s who of high end living: BMW, Cadillac, Audi, Bridgestone, CDW, Charles Schwab, Citi, MetLife, Rolex, Mercedes, etc. Why do these companies pay so much to advertise and sponsor a sport that gets relatively low ratings? Why don’t they go to NASCAR and the WWE, two properties that regularly ring up much higher numbers? Simple. The 1% does not ordinarily watch those shows. They watch golf. Numbers may not lie, but they can certainly mislead. High end advertisers want to go to where the viewers have the most money, not necessarily to the event with the most eyeballs.
What does this mean for IndyCar? Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. If you are promoting a niche sport, which IndyCar racing is right now, you need to appeal to an audience that spends the most money. Glamping at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway anyone? Want to listen to Hardwell in the corporate Snake Pit with VIP access? All you need is disposable income. IndyCar can grow as a property without beating NASCAR’s numbers as long as the right kind of viewers are attracted. Can IndyCar attract those fans to the races and the television? The devil is in the details, they say. City street courses are certainly closer to the high end consumer, which is a great reason to keep them on the schedule. It would seem to make sense that people who invest money to attend races are the same people who become invested as viewers of the series. IndyCar and its easy access paddock and personable drivers are a great way to capture the interest, and the hearts, of its fans.
If the answer to creating a successful and financially viable series was simple, it would have been done by now. The current brain trust at IndyCar/IMS is taking a measured approach to building the series, as it should. Have they identified their target demographic? I hope so. If not, then maybe the PGA tour is interested in coming back to a Pete Dye designed course at 16th and Georgetown in Speedway. There will be plenty of room for parking.
1. Herbert Warren Wind was a golf writer who coined the phrase Amen Corner for holes 11, 12, and 13 at Augusta National, home of the Masters.