The NTT IndyCar Series will air in the UK exclusively on Sky Sports F1 for 2019 and beyond, in a deal announced just over a week before the first race.
This is exciting news if you get Sky Sports F1. And possibly good news for the series to get in front of more eyeballs. This is not so good if you were watching on BT TV.
I’ll get on to the future in a little while. First some context.
History With Sky
The old IRL had long been aired on Sky Sports. Eurosport aired the rival CART / Champ Car. When the series merged, Sky aired the unified IndyCar Series as a continuation of the IRL deal.
At the time Sky gave IndyCar little promotion and audiences were tiny. But they gave it some attention by providing a London studio which filled in the gaps.
US TV is allowed to take far more advert breaks per hour than British TV. This causes a headache for UK channels when they take live American sport. How do you fill the gaps? This is trickier if the host doesn’t show the action while US TV is away.
Sky Sports provided a studio for Keith Heuwen and a regular guest. Keith, the former 500cc Grand Prix motorbike racer and now MotoGP lead commentator for BT Sport. The guests were often former Indy Lights racer and long-time sportscar driver Johnny Mowlem, or British IndyCar engineer Andy Brown who had worked for teams in F1, CART and IRL with success.
Pre-race would be a discussion in London which joined the US broadcast just before the green flag. We rarely saw the packages from the host broadcast. Mid-race, when they didn’t go to break themselves they’d talk through the action we’d seen and show replays again, always a benefit. It was a good compromise.
Unfortunately it could also be dry which is just a function of the format. I’m never a fan of going to a studio during a live event. It doesn’t matter what it is, it could be racing, football, athletics, whatever. I find it detaches you from the event and sucks the life and atmosphere away. I’d rather see the event I’m tuning in to see and have the remote analysts talk over it. I get the sense I’m missing something when they cut away. Unfortunately it is common practice in UK sports broadcasting.
Sky Sports F1 launched in 2012. There was a bit of cross-pollination with 2 or 3 IndyCar races on the channel, but mostly IndyCar was on Sky Sports 4 and the two didn’t interact very much.
History With BT Sport
IndyCar TV rights outside America were held by ESPN International. ESPN had been trying to get into the UK market for a while and set up their own channel in 2009. IndyCar moved to ESPN UK in 2013. But by Summer 2013, BT, the telecoms giant, set up BT Sport as a big-money rival to Sky Sports with the intention of poaching some of the Premier League rights. They succeeded. BT Sport also purchased ESPN UK and repositioned and rebranded it to focus on American sport.
IndyCar on BT was basic to start with, just taking the raw feed from the US and I’m sure they even showed UK commercials for every US break.
After a while the US broadcaster provided a continuous feed during US ad breaks. This allowed BT Sport to employ their own team in London, again filling in the gaps, but this time with no formal studio. It would be audio only, over the pictures from the US. Perfect! The team included Keith Collantine of RaceFans.net (formerly F1 Fanatic), Ben Evans who commentates for BT on other series such as GT Open, and freelance Tom Gaymor who you will have heard at Eurosport on basically any racing they show. Usually it would be a pair from this three.
It was the best of both worlds. You never lost sight of the action. It settled into a routine whereby if US TV took a break while the race was green BT would stay with it with British commentary, but if the race was under Safety Car BT Sport would take a commercial break. This worked well – especially when the number of yellows decreased significantly in the last couple of years!
Occasionally this too could be dry, especially when they exchanged statistics rather than talked about the racing – the lone race where the BT team covered Road America in its entirety was particularly bad for this. But in general the team illuminated the coverage from a British perspective and kept it moving, even including fans’ comments via Twitter and running Q&As for people new to IndyCar. It was a very positive step.
There was moment when a different production team on the UK side covered Indy. The theory was good, big fanfare and explainers for newbies, but they made the same mistake as Sky with a UK studio. It meant UK fans watching for the first time were denied the pomp and ceremony preceding the race, which are as much part of the Indy 500 as the race itself. Instead we watched an incredibly dry discussion about how Fernando Alonso might do. The usual knowledgeable UK team were sidelined which was very unhelpful in explaining to potential new fans.
That race in 2017 the viewership hit 200,000, some 10 times higher than usual! Again generally IndyCar viewing numbers were terrible, just like with Sky, barely making 30,000 some weeks. There’s no way it should be that low in a country so mad on F1.
Future With Sky Sports F1
Sky Sports F1 has matured since 2012. It found its place and has built a loyal audience of motorsport die-hards willing to pay money to watch racing. So this is a good deal, yes?
Well, I have three concerns. One is promotion. How often do Sky promote the non-F1 series they already have, Formula 2 and GP3 (which will be FIA Formula 3 this year)?
Last year they failed to show a live F2 race, choosing instead to show F1 drivers playing giant Jenga, even though three British F2 drivers would sign to race in F1 this year (Russell, Albon, Norris) and two of them fought for the F2 title. For me this is not forgivable. The future of British talent in F1 was handed to them on a plate and they didn’t take it. Will IndyCar races get pre-empted by a magazine show about F1?
The other concern is those loyal die-hard Formula 1 fans. Judging by internet comments and comments I’ve overheard at racetracks and at Goodwood FoS, many have proven over many years to have a real problem with IndyCar. They jump to conclusions about “just turning left” or being “F1 rejects”, though a lot of IndyCar fans in the US make the second point as well.
It makes no sense to me. IndyCar races are mostly on road and street courses. They are open wheel single seater cars that race at high speed. Oval races often are tactically brilliant while being insanely fast.
Will F1 fans give IndyCar a fair shot? I hope so. It’s a fantastically competitive series. And the depth of talent is higher than ever. The top 5 were always as good as anyone in F1, but now you could extend that to the top 10 or 15. Drop Josef Newgarden or Scott Dixon into a Mercedes with 8 days of testing and they’d run Lewis Hamilton close.
If even a portion of these fans can be convinced, there is a ready and waiting audience. 600,000 fans regularly watch Grands Prix on SSF1. Convert even 10% of the audience and you’re already ahead of what BT achieved.
And the Indy 500? Lots of potential there. Could we see 400k? 500k? That would be a record for a UK audience. Will the channel see an uplift in subscriber numbers now F1 is exclusively live?
This is my third concern and it’s a big one. Sky is very expensive. Even with the deals on offer.
For a full cost analysis of Sky Sports please see Motorsport Broadcasting (the blog is also the source of the viewing figures quoted in this piece). The comparison includes Now TV streaming and the Sky Sports Mobile TV app which is by far the cheapest option.
If you already subscribe to SSF1 this is a win for you.
If you don’t you’ll either have to miss IndyCar – and live F1 – or you’ll have to switch. You will at least have delayed highlights of F1 on Channel 4.
YouTube was another option. Races have been uploaded in full to YouTube within days. I have a smart TV with a YouTube app and this was a great way to catch up on those 2am night races if I forgot to record them on BT.
However in the US there’s a new agreement with streaming and on demand catch up on NBC Sports Gold. It remains to be seen whether the series will continue to upload races to their YouTube channel. I suppose we will find out next week.
I have BT fibre broadband and BT TV and will lose IndyCar and F1 in the same year.
I had been resigned to watching F1 with Channel 4’s evening highlights.
To be honest I’d assumed IndyCar would stay on BT Sport and was happy with that because they have MotoGP. Two of the best series in the world justified keeping BT Sport and I got to see some Champions League and Premiership Rugby as well.
Yes I know they have other racing, DTM, GT Open, and so on. But I don’t watch those.
I’ve been an IndyCar fan since 2000 and this year’s series promises so much. SSF1 having live F1 and live IndyCar has me seriously looking at subscribing.
There are deals around which drop the price of Sky significantly, though it is still expensive. I’m trying to justify it to myself. It might mean changing broadband.
I won’t be able to get Sky installed before Round 1 at St. Pete next weekend and probably not before the Australian GP the week after. But to guarantee two of my favourite series for two years… is it worth it?
Is it worth it?