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IndyCar to blame for Canadian TV schmozzle

Norris McDonald
Written by Norris McDonald

Let’s cut to the chase.  IndyCar, and IndyCar alone, is responsible for the mess that can laughingly be called a Canadian TV deal.

Yes, Rogers Sportsnet shares some of that blame but when all the dust settles, IndyCar has to carry the can.

Here’s what happened (and I know I’m talking in code but anybody coming to this late will just have to catch up). I pieced this timeline together after talking to multiple sources.

The contract between Sportsnet and IndyCar ran out following the 2018 season and would have to be renegotiated. This happened just as there was a change in senior management at Sportsnet and all programming and spending put under review. At or about the same time, IndyCar took its TV marketing “in-house.”

This IndyCar TV marketing department was – apparently – very blasé about a TV deal for Canada – assuming, presumably, that a new arrangement with Sportsnet was a no-brainer. As a result, they didn’t look at alternatives. I know, for instance, that nobody from IndyCar ever approached TSN.

When they did get around to calling Sportsnet – not that long ago – IndyCar was shocked to learn that Sportsnet wasn’t interested. The review I referenced several paragraphs ago had determined that IndyCar was on the chopping block. To make matters worse, none of the people IndyCar talked to at Sportsnet were auto racing fans, so the series didn’t have a champion.

IndyCar then did what it should have done months earlier. It contracted with a Canadian who knows his way around. It took some time, but this guy was finally able to make a deal but it was bare-bones bottom. Even then, Sportsnet would not agree to put the series on TV (except for the Indy 500 and the Honda Indy Toronto), assigning all other races to the online streaming service Sportsnet  NOW+, which costs $200 a year plus tax (on top of whatever Rogers customers are paying for cable) and Sportsnet WORLD, a premium TV channel that costs about as much as NOW+. They wanted any moneys gained to offset their costs with an eye to breaking even.

If IndyCar had contacted Sportsnet earlier to get the lay of the land, there might have been time to save the day by approaching TSN or CBC (if they had been aware of those alternatives), or by hiring my Canadian friend months before they finally did. If IndyCar wants to grow interest in the series in any country, they must have the races on “free” TV. Of course, if they really cared about Canadian fans, they would have been on this long ago.

Ironically, the Canadian TV “deal” was announced on the same day that Lewis Hamilton was complaining that a move away from “free” TV would prove detrimental to the growth of Formula One.

When I say Rogers Sportsnet bears some of the blame, it’s because of their insistence that the races be shown online only. With eight or nine channels, they have room to put the series on regular TV and they know it. This Sunday, for instance, when the St. Pete season opener gets the green flag, Sportsnet 360 will be showing taped professional wrestling that was originally seen live on Sportsnet on March 5.

Hopefully, IndyCar fans will raise enough of a fuss that Sportsnet will give in and agree to air the races. But that assumes IndyCar fans are sufficiently passionate to keep up the pressure. You can do your bit by sending an email to feedback@sportsnet.rogers.com requesting that the races be shown on TV.

Meantime, you have to wonder what Honda Canada thinks of all this. Honda, title sponsor of the Honda Indy, is heavily involved with Rogers and the Blue Jays. Do you think Rogers would continue to keep the races off regular television if Honda asked them to reconsider?

And what about Green Savoree Racing Promotions, owners of the Honda Indy Toronto? They need IndyCar on television to help sell tickets to their July event. And James Hinchcliffe? Hinchcliffe is paid by Honda Canada as well as other Canadian companies – Petro-Canada, for instance – and his income, in part, depends on exposure and his ability to represent his sponsors in person and on television. 

In the end, I hope Sportsnet changes its mind. Meantime, IndyCar has to take a close look at itself to determine how this happened in the first place. 

nmcdonald@thestar.ca