I don’t love the deletion of Texas Motor Speedway from the new IndyCar schedule, but that’s already been said a thousand times since the 2024 calendar was released Monday morning. Having been there for the first TMS IndyCar event and, for now, the last, Texas was a special race that usually delivered thrills, was seeing a modest rise in attendance, and gave IndyCar rookies and oval neophytes a chance to face their superspeedway fears before tackling the big one at Indianapolis. There are no positives to be found in its absence.
Another worry is the wall of points-paying championship inactivity from the end of Round 1 on March 10 at St. Petersburg to Round 2 at Long Beach on April 21 — a full 42 days with no change in Drivers’ standings to debate or analyze — so let’s hope the $1 million non-points race at The Thermal Club on March 24 delivers some talking points to hold us over during six weeks of it-actually-counts IndyCar content.
IndyCar’s grand return to the Milwaukee Mile, which feels like a big win for those who’ve spent years calling for it to happen in the RACER Mailbag, has been re-animated as a doubleheader, which is incredible. Maybe Cleveland is next on the Mailbag-letter-writers-bring-things-to-life story arc.
The part that isn’t amazing about Milwaukee involves the date of the first race: August 31.
Like clockwork, the last and failed iterations of the Milwaukee IndyCar races always seemed to have giant event conflicts nearby that drew attention away from the hallowed grounds in West Allis, Wisconsin, and the 2024 date is no different. Milwaukee Race 1 on Aug. 31 also serves as the home opener for the University of Wisconsin college football team at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis., 75 minutes west of the race where upwards of 90,000 sports fans will spend that Saturday supporting their beloved Badgers. We can only hope they’ll head east on Sunday turn up at The Mile, but Saturday belongs to the Badgers.
If I look beyond the schedule changes and conflicts, my main issue is with IndyCar’s upcoming TV package. I realize and acknowledge that everything about the 2024 calendar and any of its wonkiness can be — and has been — attributed to the Summer Olympics set for July 26-August 11 and the black hole it’s punched in the schedule, and it’s the subtle knock-on effects that have me concerned.
The 2023 season opened with seven consecutive events held on the big NBC network before lesser TV ratings were seen on NBC’s USA Network cable channel at Road America and Mid-Ohio. The next race at Toronto, which was aired on NBC’s streamer Peacock, had a predictably abysmal audience, and then it was back to living high on the hog.
There are no upsides to the loss of Texas Motor Speedway from the schedule — aside from the possibility that its absence is temporary. Brett Farmer/Motorsport Images
After Toronto, six of the last seven races were held on NBC; the now-dropped second Indy road course race, which was carried on USA, was the only exception. Last season’s TV schedule, which placed IndyCar on NBC for 13 races, on USA for three, and on Peacock for one, was instrumental in generating the series’ biggest average ratings per event — 1.32 million people across TV and streaming — since 2011. In simple terms, the more IndyCar races on NBC, the more lucrative it is for its teams.
With those solid viewership numbers, teams can ask sponsors for more money in 2024 on the strength of what 2023 delivered for an average audience. That was, of course, until the new calendar was revealed.
In 2024, IndyCar has lost four NBC races, mostly after the Olympics, down from 13 to nine. IndyCar’s presence on USA, which has done a decent job with ratings but is by no means as strong as NBC, has doubled from three races to six, and Peacock, which we know is a ratings dead zone, has also doubled from one to two.
Look to April’s Grand Prix of Long Beach on NBC and its audience of 1,026,000 as a decent indicator of the big network’s power for IndyCar’s more popular events. The next race at Barber Motorsports Park came close with 930,000 viewers on NBC, and while May’s Indianapolis road course race, held on a Saturday, has never been a star property, its audience of 715,000 on NBC wasn’t wholly unexpected. After the Indy 500, the next NBC race at the Detroit Grand Prix produced 1,047,000 viewers, which was in line with Long Beach.
Compare those to the first race of 2023 on USA with the stop at Road America, which had its largest on-site turnout since the race returned, but was met with 385,000 viewers on cable. By losing four NBC races and dialing the USA dates up to six, somewhere between 300,000-600,000 casual watchers of IndyCar could be missing from the ratings for those broadcasts in 2024. And that could cost IndyCar teams money.
As retro as it might seem in an era where so much of what we consume is through our phones and tablets, old-timey TV ratings continue to hold vast importance for many of the teams in the series. Based on the audience size, teams in traditional marketing- and promotions-based sponsorship models use data from average and total audience size to establish annual sponsorship values. The higher the number, the higher the monetary ask from sponsors.
Granted, we know the bigger IndyCar teams like Ganassi, Penske, Andretti, and Arrow McLaren are less reliant on TV ratings to attract or appease major sponsors; most of the names presented in large manners on sidepods and wings and engine covers on their cars represent some form of business-to-business relationship where the value returned to the company isn’t from TV ratings, but from the deals struck between CEOs and CFOs in hospitality suites.
But for the other half of the IndyCar field, a lot of those sponsors in the big-dollar areas on the car are in open-wheel racing, rather than NASCAR, because it fits their budget, and that 1.32 million viewership average is a meaningful number to market to through traditional means on TV.
Many IndyCar teams need eyeballs in order to attract commercial partners, and they might be harder to come by with fewer races on NBC next year. Jake Galstad/Motorsport Images
In 2023, 76.5 percent of IndyCar’s races were aired on NBC, the one place where its best ratings are delivered. In 2024, that percentage drops to 53 percent, and while it might be a one-time thing due to the Olympics, it’s hard not to be uneasy when the costs of competition are rising due to change to hybrid engines.
“We sell eyeballs,” an IndyCar marketing veteran told me today. “That’s the business we’re in.”
And that’s the hope here for next season. Despite losing nearly a quarter of the events to NBC’s smaller outlets, IndyCar and its TV partner can’t afford to allow an expensive dip in audience delivery during those eight combined broadcasts on USA and Peacock.
With annual budgets expected to increase by $1 million or more in 2024 as hybridization arrives, the last thing traditional sponsor-reliant teams need is a smaller ratings number to sell.
As much as I’d like to complain about losing Texas and other items on the new calendar, it’s the paddock’s earning potential from TV ratings that stands out as deserving most of the series’ attention. According to Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles, popular programming before and after IndyCar’s cable races could boost the audience numbers.
“It starts with the scheduling and to try to make sure, for example, that there’s great lead-ins before us, and there is some of that, as well as the flipside of that where we’re a lead-in to — our racing is a lead-in to, in this case, NASCAR racing. Those things help,” Miles said, before touching on an increased cable promotional effort that will be applied by the series and its TV partner.
“Yes, there will be really important, solid promotion. We’ll do the absolute best we can through a great partnership with NBC. Peacock is really important to them, and it’s been important to us. We wanted to be on a streaming platform, so there’s a couple of those next year, and that keeps growing.”
Eyeballs do equal dollars, and the more of them you’re in front of, the more money teams can make.
In a compromised year where the Olympics have significantly altered IndyCar’s ability to play on NBC’s most lucrative channel, the series’ and its broadcaster’s ability to keep its rating numbers up and stay near that 1.32 million audience average is the big unlisted race on the schedule. For the paddock’s sake, it’s one IndyCar or NBC can’t afford to lose.