West coast swing ratings could shape future INDYCAR schedules

The NTT IndyCar Series is about to wrap up their 2021 season next week on the streets of Long Beach. First up is the penultimate race of the year this weekend in Laguna Seca. In saying that, we can’t stop from looking ahead to 2022 either. With NASCAR unveiling their schedule on Wednesday for next season, open wheel fans are now left pondering what their next year slate will look like.

Early indications are showing that the season will end two weeks earlier than this one if everything comes to fruition. Laguna Seca would be the season finale at it will end on Sept. 11. That’s partly due to Long Beach moving back up to their traditional April date as well as a couple of other factors.

The first factor is the NFL. Mark Miles has been vocal that the best time for INDYCAR to end is around Labor Day weekend. That’s due to not wanting to go head-to-head against the NFL. While INDYCAR fans undoubtedly would love to go well into the Fall before throwing the checkered flag on any given season, stats say otherwise.

That leads to the other factor that ties this all together and that’s TV. How this relates is, TV is your money maker. They drive a lot of decisions for you. When the NFL and INDYCAR go head-to-head, the ratings take a hit. Miles is 100% right that aspect. So for NBC Sports, why put a race on network NBC or even NBCSN when the ratings are going to be significantly worse in September and October than they’d be in the summer?Does it serve INDYCAR good to go into the Fall? Photo Credit INDYCAR Media Site

They signed a long term extension this past July to be the sole TV provider of the series. They’re going to want the best ROI. With NASCAR running their final 10 races of their season from Labor Day weekend on, the space for INDYCAR isn’t as high.

We know NFL has Sunday Night Football from a window of 7 p.m. ET on every Sunday from the second weekend of September on. That means the only Sunday window for INDYCAR would be a day time race. If they want to be on network NBC, they have to hope NASCAR isn’t racing on Sunday.

That’s why the last two weeks work in the sense that NASCAR has raced on Saturday night. That allowed INDYCAR to be on network NBC for Portland and Laguna Seca.

Next year, you get a day race on Sept. 11 at Kansas for NASCAR. They’ll be at Bristol on Saturday Sept. 17, then Texas on Sunday Sept. 25. From all of October to the end of their season in November, every race is on a Sunday. You can rest assured that NBC Sports is going to want NASCAR on network NBC for their playoff push.

That squeezes INDYCAR to being done in September but how early is too early? Labor Day weekend would give them space on network NBC before the Southern 500, but is that feasible? The week after, they’re either getting bumped to NBCSN or would be forced to end the year on Sept. 18 which would seem better for all parties since NASCAR is on Saturday night and INDYCAR can end the year on NBC in a lead in to Sunday Night Football.

That’s the logistics, but lets dig deeper. Last Sunday’s race at Portland drew 670k viewers on network NBC. It also went head-to-head against the NFL. This was the lowest rated INDYCAR race all year on network NBC. That’s not a fluke.

By comparison, earlier in the year, INDYCAR drew the largest watched Indy 500 since 2016. They were averaging 1.316 million viewers prior to this. It was the best draw since NBC Sports gained the exclusive contract in 2019 and tops since 2017.

Ratings were up.

The fall out occurs when the NFL starts up. Last year, Mid-Ohio 2 went against the NFL’s Week 1 and they only had 638k watching. St. Pete in October of last year had 675k.

So, why would INDYCAR and NBC Sports willingly have big numbers and gains year or year from the start of the season though August but only let them take a nosedive from September on?

This three week stretch we’re in the middle in was going to pave the future schedules and it’s proving that everything we’ve known about going against the NFL is true — you don’t. Barring over a million people tuning in on Sunday and next weeks race on NBCSN to close out the season drawing over a half a million people, I think the vision and path is clear – INDYCAR is going to always end by the middle of September.

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