Mackey Marketing Group Weblog

January 14, 2011

In defense of Versus. I’m a reluctant advocate.

Recently, an article appeared in a respected auto racing publication that unfairly, I believe, contended that the IndyCar’s television package was an albatross around the series neck. They indicated that the rating numbers were taking IndyCar in their words, “into oblivion.” I wrote a letter in response.

While you indicate that you are one of Indy Car’s staunchest critics of their television package, I seem on the other hand, to be one of their more reluctant advocates. This is not because I feel particularly oriented to being a cheering section for the Versus television package, but rather I’m one who subscribes to the idea that the television package is not the source of Indy Car’s basic problems. On the contrary, Indy Car seems to be addressing a number of issues of importance and the momentum of positive developments signals a change that brightens the prospects of 2011 and beyond. I believe in many ways, the television package will “fix itself” based upon the popularity of the series and not the other way around. Television won’t fix, can’t fix, IndyCar’s decline in popularity. ONLY IndyCar can do that.
Your recent article is I believe, a bit off track. Here’s why.
First, let me warn you that in one of my earlier lives, I was a salesman of television time for a local ABC television outlet. That is important to know because it gave me a quality understanding of ratings and more importantly, extensive experience in interpreting, some might say, spinning, the rating numbers in ways that served the best interests of the television station. I understood then, better than most, the meaning of television ratings and shares. I can “interpret” with the best of ’em.
Here another way to look at things – and as a former “salesman” of TV time, let me make some contrary observations and spin, I mean, interpret them in a way I would if I was selling Indy Car spot advertising:
– In the all important prime time, Versus is the number 3 sports cable network! Behind ESPN and ESPN2.
– Versus has a HIGHER prime time viewership average than Speed Channel!
– Versus has higher prime time viewership average than Speed, NFL Network, NBA TV, Golf Channel or MLB Network!
– Since 2007, Versus has GROWN nearly 20% in prime time. In that same time period, ESPN2 has actually lost nearly 4% of prime time viewership.
– Versus has grown faster since 2007 than ESPN (18%) or ESPN2 (-4%). Versus has grown 19%!
With numbers like these, how can you say that Versus is taking IndyCar into oblivion! It’s all in the interpretation! Yes, I know, I’ve cherry picked the numbers a bit, but that’s the point. Ratings are very susceptible to “spin” and to negatively “cherry pick” rating numbers is equally misleading. Ratings are very often “spin”, how else could we have so many #1 programs?!
I still believe that Versus is an adequate television broadcaster for IndyCar. More than this, they can be a strong partner who will promote and devote real focus on IndyCar as it reflects a “prime” sports property for the network. IndyCar can receive CONSISTENT attention and have regular and attractive time slots to broadcast the events and support programming. IndyCar needs fans and the fans are the ones who primarily tune into television coverage. Without fans, you will not now or ever achieve the kind of ratings growth needed that would allow IndyCar to grow beyond the relative modest audience size of Versus. Period.


October 21, 2010

Versus vs. something other than Versus

by Brian C. Mackey, Mackey Marketing Group.

I find it interesting that when NASCAR’s current decline in popularity is reported, including the recent announcement of the Daytona 500 Experience closure, it is reported as due to the economy or other element. The television coverage is not often included among the rationale despite a current ratings downdraft. The content of a NASCAR televised event is subject to the debate, but not the television distribution capability itself. The reason is rather obvious; NASCAR has essentially a strong television package foundation. It is particularly strong when compared to other motorsport series. Yet when describing Indy Cars decline, the Versus television package is nearly always mentioned as a major, if not primary reason, for Indy Cars current malaise. As I have often written in various articles including, Indy Cars television package is not the primary reason for their predicament. It is merely the symptom of a much larger problem.
Here again is my basic premise. Television coverage does not “create” fans sufficiently economically to warrant spending the necessary funding to broadcast Indy Cars on major network television on a regular basis (see CART), whether the broadcast funding comes from the network or the sanctioning body. If Indy Car were to be broadcast on network television today, it would continue to battle low ratings, albeit larger than can be achieved by Versus alone, but not on par with other sporting alternatives. The fact remains that Indy Cars popularity among race fans has declined. This regrettable situation appears to broaden to include the number of race fans in general, as they also appear to be in a similar downward spiral and the real crisis facing racing series today.
Television “merely” broadcasts events. Like any television programming, it relies on its ability to attract viewers to justify the investment to broadcast. Popular programming is profitable. Unpopular ones are not. The audience must have an interest in watching. Regardless of what network the races are broadcast, no level of technological and sophisticated broadcast wizardry will ever succeed until there is a willing audience of fans to watch it.
That is the reason why I believe the various race series should focus their energies on creating new fans, primarily from the events themselves, in order to carve out a sizable and passionate base of race fans. They in turn will watch the events on television. No fans. No ratings. No future; whether on Versus, Speed, ABC or anywhere else. To paraphrase, it’s the fans stupid.
The Versus television agreement with Indy Car is a realistic and appropriate level of television coverage for Indy Cars current level of popularity. The story line shows it is growing and increasingly gaining viewers. Until it reaches a plateau where regular major commercial television coverage is warranted, it is precisely the kind of programming we should expect and bottom line, support.

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November 24, 2008

“Why the Versus/IRL television agreement is a good move”

I have read numerous negative stories regarding the recent IRL television agreement with Versus cable network. While I am not a stalwart supporter of IRL (I was in the CART camp of supporters), I do believe that the direction and the philosophy regarding this choice to be on target. Without inside knowledge to the “deal”, I can only go on what’s been published. Allow me to share some contrarian input on why I believe the IRL television agreement with Versus is an overall positive.

  1. An underlying aspect that one needs to understand is that event marketing as a whole, and motorsports perhaps in particular, relies on the relationship between fan and sponsor to generate value. Motor racing has an extended enviable track record of doing this. As evidenced primarily by NASCAR, race fans have proven to be exceptionally and reliably brand loyal to sponsor products. Event marketing, including motorsports, sell their value based on this relationship and not solely on the size of the audience reached. The reason why this form of more intimate marketing rather than the more “traditional” mass marketing of the past is growing, is the relationship that is developed between sponsor and consumer. It’s why a sponsor sponsors a race car, why they sponsor concerts, festivals and just about anything where people gather for a particular interest.  Sponsors want to show this targeted audience that they share their particular passion and hope and believe this interactive relationship will result in greater product sales. It’s not primarily about “exposure,” it’s about relationships. There is no other leading reason for doing it.
  2. The other element that one needs to understand is that television exposure does not primarily beget fans, events do. I keep hearing about “exposure” generating fans and the need to get a racing series on television. While it may do so to some degree, the vast and more efficient means of generating fans is to get people to the races. Television numbers follow the trend of a series ability to attract fans. NASCAR? It has fans. Subsequently, a stronger television package because networks, sponsors and series all understand that fans (aka television audience) will watch – and buy sponsor product. Several years ago, I read a report that indicated that 30% of the television viewers (aka fans) who watched a NASCAR event on TV reported that they purchased a particular sponsor product, PURELY due to the motor racing sponsorship. That’s a heady number and mind-boggling influence over consumers. No wonder sponsors have gravitated to this form of motorsport success. If NASCAR is now losing viewers on television, it isn’t due to less “exposure” of the sport; it is due to NASCAR losing fans. If one understands that “viewers” of racing events on television are primarily “fans” and vice versa, then the ratings numbers generated and the corollary impact on sponsor influence begins to emerge clearly.
  3. That brings us to Versus. IRL did not choose to “buy” their way onto commercial network television, in my estimation, properly so. It would have cost millions to generate a modest television rating number because the IRL does not have sufficient FANS to instantly produce big numbers! And buying television time will not generate them economically enough to impact rating numbers. See CART.
  4. Some have suggested that IRL is losing sponsor interest due to the weak television deal and not the economy. I doubt this is true. I do believe the economy may be driving away prospective sponsors with or without Versus. It’s a difficult environment out there. However, my contrarian viewpoint is that motorsport marketing (and the event marketing industry as a whole) may be able to gain advantage among sponsor companies due to the increased value placed on the influential manner in which these audiences are reached. In today’s environment, advertisers may not desire to continue to throw enormous numbers of advertising dollars at a passive mass audience. They want response and event marketing is the place to find it. It does bode well for motor racing if sold from the proper perspective. But right now it is difficult time to find willing sponsors.
  5. I think we all can agree that the IRL is in a regrouping phase after the prolonged and difficult split. I believe the IRL must focus their energies on building event strengths and then take those strengths to further their television coverage. They already have built-in strength in the Indy 500, a pivotal starting point. I think we can agree that the primary force that race events have to attract people to races are the drivers. Rather than spending millions on weak network television numbers, it is better to spend money on generating interest in events. NASCAR has demonstrated this and built their series around generating driver stars. IRL also seems to understand that drivers drive fans to the races. Like her or not, they have Danica Patrick. They also have a growing list of marketable and popular names to build their fan base, including the important aspect of American drivers. While the whole grid should reflect an international element to build a scale of importance, the grid should have a measurable American presence. Names like Andretti, Rahal and others bode well for the IRL.
  6. Finally, the advantage of Versus. We all understand that the rating numbers generated by the Versus television network is likely to be smaller than one generated by a commercial network coverage. But if you’ve been listening, you know that size of the audience is not the only measurable element. The number of “fans” watching the coverage is also an important factor. Fans will search and find the television coverage whereas passive television viewers won’t. If the audience grows to significant numbers by Versus scale, then the IRL will be successful in generating new and loyal fans. Fans who purchase sponsor products. And sponsor product sales are what keep sponsors happy. It is just as important to demonstrate to perspective sponsors the growth of a fan base rather than relying on comparably weak network rating number from a passive audience of viewers.
  7. From the Versus perspective, IRL is a plum. It enables Versus to feature IRL and drive the IRL fans to watch the events on their network. By becoming a lead featured program of Versus, the IRL gains a marketing partner in helping to build fans and not just a broadcast outlet.

All in all, I feel that the Versus television deal is a good one. It has all the elements needed, promotes growth, enables greater focus on the IRL through features, expanded coverage and higher network priority. And the millions off dollars saved can be diverted to greater purpose.

All of us who view open wheel with high regard can help by supporting this growth period and redevelopment of the brand. The Versus TV deal may only be a first critical step, but I am confidant a step in the right direction.

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