Is ESPN Giving Up on IndyCar?

If you’ve been paying more attention to the sports media landscape than I’ve been covering for you, you know that ESPN this past week let loose with a barrage of layoffs, firing over a hundred people including a number of prominent on-air and online personalities. Obviously, this is in part ESPN attempting to trim the fat for a cord-cutting future, one where live event rights to compel people to sign up and stay signed up for cable, or any future direct-to-consumer offering, are the most important thing for the future of the business and all else is just gravy, something only to be risked if they make enough money to justify it, a future where linear television exists primarily as a conduit for popular live events and anything else is just filling time. Hence, heavy cuts to ESPN’s journalism operations, which don’t help ESPN collect higher subscriber fees or appreciably boost ratings, and studio analysts, which are mainly relevant if at all as programming bracketing live games, especially with highlight shows like SportsCenter being less relevant with highlights being widely available online, but comparably fewer cuts to live game analysts and announcers. But not all sports are created equal. ESPN makes these cuts on the heels of a multi-million dollar agreement with the Big Ten that hasn’t even been officially announced yet, one that to an outside observer makes little sense in the context of the layoffs, but which ESPN sees as critically important, as high-value programming driving subscriptions and eyeballs and which, even splitting the contract with Fox, deprives Fox or any rival of that programming that might bestow money and credibility on them and potentially allow them to move closer to on par with ESPN (the impending launch of the ACC Network, on the other hand, looks all the more questionable). But less popular sports, especially those sports that require a large amount of personnel separate from or superfluous to your other sports, might not be worth the expense.

To my knowledge, no more than two play-by-play men have been confirmed to be fired as part of the layoffs, one of them being longtime auto racing announcer Allen Bestwick:

Before Bestwick, the last two announcers of the Indianapolis 500 were Marty Reid and, in an infamous one-year experiment marred by over-emphasis on Danica Patrick, Todd Harris. Neither is still with ESPN. During ESPN’s most recent stint covering NASCAR races, the three lead announcers for the Sprint Cup series were Dr. Jerry Punch, Reid, and Bestwick. Punch is also among those that were fired. As Bestwick’s tweet indicates, he’ll continue to serve as a lame duck for the rest of the IndyCar season, including the 500 (as will Punch), but after that? Quite possibly the only personality ESPN has left with auto racing announcing experience is Paul Page, who called the 500 all but three years from 1988 through 2004, and who currently is reduced to calling the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest and nothing else. Even discounting the play-by-play spot, if ESPN can’t replace Punch the 500 will have fewer than three pit reporters for the first time at least since ABC started airing it live, and hiring someone new would seem to defeat the point. And next year is the last year of ABC’s contract to air a grand total of five or six races, which raises the question: why would ESPN invest money in a sport when they just fired its play-by-play man and best pit reporter (as well as main alternative for the play-by-play spot) as part of attempting to cut their expenses to the bone?

ABC has felt like it’s been on its way out as a television partner of the IndyCar Series since the then-Versus network took over cable coverage in 2009; that it would renew its relationship in 2011, after the Comcast-NBC merger that would have allowed Comcast to unify coverage under one roof if ESPN didn’t want to, was somewhat surprising, but with the subsequent departure of NASCAR and the NHRA from ESPN leaving those five-six IndyCar races on ABC as the only motorsports content ESPN produces, it may be an expense ESPN feels it can’t afford when only the 500 truly produces appreciable numbers, even with Bestwick and Punch broadening their repertoire into college sports in recent years. About the only reason to keep it around is to keep ABC’s status as the only television partner the 500 has ever had, but that hasn’t stopped many other longstanding associations from changing hands in recent years – perhaps most pertinently, the move of golf’s British Open first to cable as the only home of live coverage and then to NBC, ending its long relationship with ABC and bringing major golf back to NBC after that network had its own long relationship with the US Open ended in favor of Fox. It’s easy to see ESPN throwing up its hands and letting NBC have full rights to the entire series, including the Indy 500 with coverage potentially hosted by Bob Costas or Mike Tirico, and Bestwick and Punch joining NBC’s team for IndyCar, NASCAR, or both. ESPN’s relationships with the British Open and NHRA were both bought out a year early as the new contracts began, and ESPN attempted to do the same with NASCAR; it’s easy to surmise that ESPN would not only be willing to give up IndyCar rights but surrender the final year of its deal similarly, and thus leave ESPN without any motorsports coverage for the first time practically since its founding.

All this brings me to one last important point. I’ve mentioned before what a boon the sports TV wars have been for smaller leagues and conferences that have been able to get television exposure and revenue that would have been unthinkable ten years ago, even if on relatively obscure networks. Now, however, the most immediate victims of cord-cutting might be those smaller leagues – or perhaps more to the point, mid-tier leagues like IndyCar that don’t move the needle but attract considerable expense regardless. If the firing of Bestwick and Punch suggests ESPN won’t even come to the table in the next IndyCar negotiations, IndyCar’s best bet to attract much of a rights fee in its next contract might be dependent on whether or not Fox is interested in sweeping in and picking up the rights, and Fox may balk at airing the 500 and risking a rain delay that bumps up against the NASCAR race the same day. (NBC also airs Formula 1 from Monaco the same day, but that may be less of an issue.) Otherwise, barring a surprise CBS-Turner combined bid, NBC might be able to essentially name its price, similar to where it found itself with NASCAR when ESPN and Turner abandoned ship on the sport. ESPN’s newfound frugality is very bad news for entities that don’t offer enough high-quality content to justify increased rights fees or a significant number of maintained subscriptions. It reduces the number of outlets available to them and forces them to find shelter with entities that remain vulnerable to suffering even more than ESPN if the linear cable market contracts further. If you’re banking on increased rights fees but your next contract negotiation is even a year away, and you’re not one of the major college conferences, pro leagues, major golf competitions, NASCAR, FIFA, or the Olympics, it’s time to ratchet down your expectations considerably.