Originally Published: May 28, 2017 5:59 a.m.
INDIANAPOLIS — It began with a simple, black-and-white highlights show on the venerable “Wide World of Sports,” grew into a proving ground for broadcast innovations, and is now one of the longest-running relationships between a sports event and television network.
ABC and the Indianapolis 500, a marriage going back more than five decades.
It's been one of comfort, too, not only for the parties involved but for race fans who tune in every Memorial Day weekend. Those familiar voices of Jim McKay and Chris Schenkel, Brent Musburger and Marty Reid, have beckoned viewers to settle into a recliner, grab a cold lemonade and become engrossed in the colors, sounds and pageantry of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
Yet the rapidly changing sports media landscape has left a hazy cloud of uncertainty over the future of the race. Its current contract with ABC runs through next year, and some experts anticipate new bidders angling for the rights to the iconic sports property.
“Marquee properties, and the Indy 500 is certainly a marquee property with a great history, there will always be interest from various outlets,” said Doug Perlman, the founder of Sports Media Advisors, a company that specializes in broadcast and digital media negotiations.
Perhaps network rival NBC, which already has cable rights to the IndyCar Series, could take a closer look, or social media and streaming video services that have made sports television even more competitive.
“The important dynamic people lose sight of is, increasingly, there are going to be new bidders in the space for sports rights,” Perlman said. “You've seen that with what Twitter and Facebook and Amazon are doing. Multiple bidders are always good for a seller.”
Officials from ABC and its cable sports network, ESPN, declined to discuss whether broadcast rights negotiations are underway. But despite cord-cutting that has trimmed ESPN's once-vast subscriber base, forcing the company to closely examine costs, nobody expects ABC to be on the sideline when it comes time for the Indy 500 to settle on a future TV partner.
After all, the company has been part of the Indy 500 every year since 1965, televising the race live since the 1980s and in high-definition for the past decade.
“Our company has had a long and great relationship with IndyCar, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500,” an ESPN spokesman said in a statement provided to The Associated Press. “We certainly hope it moves forward into the future.”
A spokesman for NBC, which broadcasts several IndyCar races on cable, likewise declined to talk. But the company said in a statement, “We love our IndyCar relationship and hope it continues for many years to come.”
The negotiations figure to be far more complex than merely the bottom line.
There is intrinsic value in the Indy 500's long relationship with ABC, as evidenced by a marathon of past races that have played this week on ESPN Classic. There is value in having multiple partners in that a broader audience can be reached. And there is value to weigh in aligning with a single network partner, which tends to streamline the consumer experience.
“These deals are part art, part science,” Perlman said, “and it tends not to be a math problem. There are certain people who think you can look at the ratings and demographics and commercial load and drop out a number, but it really depends on a lot of other dynamics.”
One of those is presentation, where ABC for years has used the Indy 500 to roll out creative new broadcast enhancements — on-board cameras, for example, were pioneered during the 1983 race.
On Sunday, the broadcast will feature 96 cameras in a variety of positions, including three on-board cameras in 12 of the 33 cars, two super-slow motion cameras, four robotic cameras, another camera in a helicopter and the first use of visor cams in a live broadcast.
Josef Newgarden and Graham Rahal will have those tiny cameras mounted onto the visors of their helmets, giving viewers the chance to see inside their cockpits at 230 mph.
“It's probably going to be the coolest view in motorsports. I think it's going to be breakthrough technology,” Newgarden said. “They always introduce this type of stuff here and I'm excited to show the fans.”