NFL-Style Local TV Blackout Would Help NASCAR's Empty Seat Problem at Indy

Geoffrey Miller@@geoffreymillerContributor IJuly 31, 2013

Diminishing crowds at the Brickyard 400 might mean the race's local TV blackout should come back.
Diminishing crowds at the Brickyard 400 might mean the race's local TV blackout should come back.Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Sports fans hate TV blackouts.

In fact, two of the first three suggested results on Google for "sports blackouts" prove it: "Sports blackouts are stupid" and "sports blackout lawsuit" come in as two of the first three. They aren't exactly endearing terms.

And who doesn't agree? The blackout rules enforced by Major League Baseball's mishmash of official broadcast markets routinely shuts out fans unfairly, and the NFL's requirement of a regular season game sellout plus gerrymandered coverage maps is often even worse.

Those examples make it hard for me to come to my conclusion after yet another sparsely-attended Brickyard 400.

A local TV blackout for NASCAR in Indianapolis is needed.

Now before you get too heated, you need to know two things: First, I don't think a blackout of the race in the Indianapolis market is the cure-all for whatever ails the Brickyard 400's once-golden appeal. And second? I would imagine NBC's recent $4.4 billion deal has some pretty stern language preventing a Sprint Cup race (and the associated advertising sales) from being shown anywhere on tape-delay.

Still, stick with me. This blackout idea is worth discussing.

Tuesday, ESPN's television ratings of the race both nationally and by individual markets were revealed. The race improved modestly nationally from 2012 on television, likely due to Sunday's race not competing on television with the Olympics, like last year. But the race broadcast saw a drastic jump in viewership (more than 25 percent) in the Indianapolis market alone.

For NASCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, that should say one thing: A solid interest in the race still exists locally, and those fans just aren't buying tickets.

For the future of the event, that seems to be a big problem.

Less than a decade ago, the 400 had reached a level not far from the legendary Indianapolis 500 held at the same track. Fans—more casual than hardcore—packed every seat in the place that holds more than 220,000.

It was the big late summer event in Indianapolis. It was a big event on television. People knew about the Brickyard. The race had its own aura, its own buzz.

Now? It's almost sad. The fans that attended Sunday's race undoubtedly noticed they were outnumbered by swaths of available metal seating. Many had to have the feeling that they had missed some sort of memo that the Brickyard wasn't the "in" thing to do anymore. Sure, many still want to come and enjoy a sport they love. But others? That lack of prominence and importance has to be poisonous.

With a local television blackout, the speedway would force the hand of fans that have decided to enjoy the 400 from the comfort of the couch. Undoubtedly, a legion of fans would be royally ticked. But that would soon pass.

After all, the Indianapolis 500 remains a blacked-out event in the Circle City to this day. A tape-delayed version of the race is shown in the evening following the track's largest event. In fact, the same method was used at IMS for the first seven NASCAR races ever held at the facility.

It was only in 2001 when the Brickyard 400 blackout was lifted, among changes that moved the race from its traditional first-Saturday-in-August spot on the calendar to the last Sunday in July. Those are just two of the many changes and trials that NASCAR's second-most prestigious race has gone through in the past decade in a half.

Now IMS is trying to find more changes to the event in a bid to restore its luster. Lighting the 104-year-old track appears to be coming by 2015, along with deeper discussions about how to make the track and NASCAR race cars more pass-friendly.

At what point does IMS stop thinking about new tricks and do a little more focusing on the effective old ones?

No, a blackout in a local market isn't ideal. It's a sure-fire way to rile up passionate fans in a not-so-good way and maybe even keep new fans from experiencing NASCAR.

But IMS and NASCAR have reached a critical juncture. Appearances are everything to potential marketers and to potential fans. An empty Indianapolis Motor Speedway doesn't convey a message of importance. It certainly doesn't indicate growth. And without marketers and fans, NASCAR isn't growing.

Enacting a local blackout policy for the race like the one used from 1994-2000 might encourage a legion of fence-sitters to buy tickets and restore the big event feel. Tie it together with the can't-miss-event of lights coming to Indianapolis, and suddenly those renewing ticket scrolls could jump again.


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