Ed note: Yes, we know. We're supposed to cover Indiana sports. But sometimes we feel the need to say something about sports in Indiana. This weekend will mark the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500, and Ben Raphel is dang tired of your anti-competitive television rights policies, son.
Earlier this year, the NFL announced that it was finally getting rid of its arcane television blackout policy, one that would prevent games from appearing on local markets if they weren't sellouts. Hey look everyone, Roger Goodell did something right! Finally, Raiders and Jaguars fans in Oakland and Jacksonville can see their terrible local teams play terrible games on television!
You know what isn't a terrible event though? The Indianapolis 500. But unfortunately, it still has the same blackout policy that it's had for many years, similar to what the NFL used to have. Thus, if you live within the Indianapolis television area, including if you're at IU or in Bloomington, you cannot watch the race until later in the evening.
I understand that IMS uses the blackout to get people out to the track to witness the race live. But in the year 2015, this outdated policy needs to be put to rest.
In the past 20 years since the CART/IRL split that decimated IndyCar racing, TV ratings for the Indy 500 have gone down. The 1995 race, chronicled wonderfully in this oral history on the IMS website, garnered a 9.4 TV rating, and that was without one of the sport's biggest stars, Al Unser Jr., who failed to qualify for the race. The next year, the two series split off, and by the time CART drivers finally came back to Indy in 2000, the race fell to a 5.5 TV rating. Last year's race got a 4.0 rating, and while this was up from the 3.7 the previous year, it still paled in comparison to 20 years ago, and was below the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR race that always airs later in the evening. Yet, the blackout persists in the area that would help TV ratings the most - Indianapolis itself. With better TV ratings, the 500 in turn could get better advertisers, and help draw interest to the IndyCar Series on the whole.
In addition, the blackout and tape delay is no longer a viable option with today's technology. Blacking out the race locally won't keep fans from finding out the result. 20 years ago, it was not as easy to access information about the race during the day while the race was going on. Now, you can check how the race is going on your smartphone or your Apple Watch. Also, intrepid fans who are blacked out might go so far as to find an online stream to watch the race. And with the success of Periscope during the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, you can imagine that enterprising spectators will attempt to use Periscope to broadcast live from the track.
The main question about lifting the blackout is whether or not live attendance go down because the blackout is lifted. IMS seats over 250,000 people on race day, and even more if you include the infield. It's a lot of people in one place. But I don't think attendance will go down just because you can watch the race live in the area. Fans will still come from all over, from inside and outside of region, to attend the race. I think the audiences for those who attend the race in person and those who'd prefer to watch on TV are not one in the same either. Colts and Pacers ratings don't suffer because the games are on TV locally. So why penalize race fans in the Indy region who don't wish to brave the crowds or can't happen to make it to IMS that weekend? In addition, with the Brickyard 400 later in the summer and the Rolling Stones concert on July 4, there will be other opportunities for fans to get to IMS this summer.
The best solution could even be to do a complete 180 on television coverage. Why not do what Louisville does for the Kentucky Derby, and have extended local coverage in the area? Already, WRTV and other networks are on-site in the morning before the race; however, once the race begins, they shut everything off. Why not continue this with race coverage throughout the day and after the race? The increased coverage could only serve to help unite Indianapolis and not divide those who do or do not attend.
The Indy 500 is a great, uniquely Indiana event that has some wonderful traditions associated with it. Bump Day. Carb Day. Singing "Back Home Again in Indiana." Kissing the bricks. Drinking milk in victory lane. They're all great traditions and shouldn't go away. But one tradition that needs to go is the local blackout. IMS, it's time to end this decades-long restriction and let Indy residents watch the game on television.