I was crouched next to an old radio last Sunday afternoon, trying to listen what I thought would be J.R. Hildebrand making Indianapolis 500 history.
Then, as we all know, he slammed into the wall on the track’s fourth turn and blew his sure victory.
Though I was rooting for the rookie to finish the job, Sunday’s finish was one for the ages and an ending that race fans will be talking about for generations.
It would have been nice to watch it live. While those at the track, with satellite or even living a few hours away can recite the crash as they saw it live, my retelling of the story, without the help of replay, would have to go as follows:
“There were a lot of people around me and I couldn’t hear very well, but it sounded like he was definitely going to win. Then, he crashed into the wall, but he was still able to cross the finish line. So I don’t know if he won or if someone passed him. It was hard to tell.”
That actually is what I was telling people who weren’t as close to the radio as me. Sure, we saw what happened later that evening, but because the race is blacked out in the greater Indianapolis area, we missed the experience of a great finish as it happened.
I’m familiar with blackout rules and why they exist. Jacksonville Jaguar fans, for example, are rarely able to watch their team on TV because many of the stadium’s seats are empty each week. Fine by me. If so many of those fans aren’t willing to attend games, they shouldn’t be able to watch them at home.
But the Indianapolis 500 is a much different event in a much different situation.
The NFL is the country’s most popular league in its most popular sport. Its teams can afford to keep their home games off the air because the fans will still be interested and will have many more opportunities to make it to the stadium.
The 500, though prestigious and still popular, isn’t what it used to be. The biggest names in the sport are no longer racing here on Memorial Day weekend because bigger paychecks and better marketing opportunities await them elsewhere. And though this event occurs only once a year, I’ve seen ESPN’s anchors spend more time building up and breaking down a single Monday Night Football game.
As IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard attempts to return IndyCar racing and its biggest event back to its former glory, his level of success will largely depend on his ability to draw new, younger fans. The longtime, die-hard 500 fans can’t keep going to the race forever. Just like cigarette companies, IndyCar needs to recruit its next generation of customers today, but it will have trouble doing that if it most people here can’t watch its biggest event.
I didn’t get hooked on basketball as a kid by attending games. I became a fan by watching Reggie Miller at home. If parents don’t take their children to the race – likely a good decision considering the atmosphere – why would the event mean anything to them when they’re older?
My father made a good point that, if the race were on TV, the track would miss out on many walk-up ticket sales. That would surely be true, but aired live or not, I can’t see the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as anything but packed as usual on race day. The party, after all, will always be there.
To me the issue of an Indy 500 blackout is one of short-term versus long-term revenue. Keeping the race off the air will put more people in the bleachers and a few more drunks in the Snake Pitt, but it does nothing to replenish the 500’s local fan base. Step One in returning the race to its former glory is securing its next generation of longtime fans.
Think how many potential fans missed Sunday’s epic finish because it wasn’t on TV.
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