The Indy Racing League Thursday announced that at least 13 of its main series races will be broadcast on cable network Versus beginning in 2009, as part of a 10-year agreement that includes expanded programming and longer coverage windows on race days.
The IRL also said ABC will continue to broadcast the league’s marquee race, the Indianapolis 500, along with four other IndyCar Series races, through 2012.
A source with knowledge of the deal said the IRL will received $4 million annually from Versus, with an opportunity for the league to share more revenue in the later years of the deal. The source also said that ABC will pay $6 million annually for the rights to the Indianapolis 500 and the four other races, which have yet to be determined.
“We set out about trying to secure the best media partnership going forward that will allow us to grow this property,” IRL chief executive officer Tony George said. “[We’re] bringing in a new partner into this mix going forward that will give us the opportunity to expand our coverage, create some new programming that we haven’t really seen in the past, [and] really to help us become a focal point of their new and growing platform.”
By striking a deal with Versus, the IRL breaks ties with ESPN and ESPN2, which had broadcast most series races since 1996. It would appear that IRL is essentially following a similar path to the NHL, which broke away from ESPN in 2005 after Versus promised more money, more promotion and wider range of programming options for the league. IRL officials said they looked at the NHL deal as a model.
While the NHL has said it is happy with exposure and revenue from the Versus deal, many fans have been critical of the arrangement because Versus has smaller distribution and recognition than ESPN.
ESPN and ESPN2 are available in more than 90 million homes, while Versus is available in 74 million. But sports business experts said the league will benefit from the consistency and certainty the Versus contract brings.
“You can’t grow the sport without stability,” said David Carter, principal of the Sports Business Group, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm. “If you have stability on a network, I think you position yourself to tell a story that can translate into growth over time.”
It is unclear whether ABC or ESPN ever pursued the IRL’s full slate of races, but Scott Guglielmino, ESPN’s vice president of programming, indicated that landing the Indianapolis 500 was the priority in the talks.
Versus, meanwhile, is getting the bulk of action from a sport that is on the rise after years of turmoil. IRL acquired the former Champ Car World Series before the start of the season, thereby unifying American open wheel racing for the first time in decades. The merged league has reported increased track attendance and television ratings for most of its races this year. It also has seen increased interest from sponsors and hopes to land a title sponsor within the next two months.