IMSA CEO Ed Bennett believes its new TV deal with NBC Sports is a “paradigm shift” and will further elevate the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s reach in the U.S. through “fully distributed” network and cable channels.
The sanctioning body announced Monday a six-year exclusive deal with NBC Sports, beginning in 2019, that will include digital rights on the NBC Sports App and NBCSports.com for live streaming of every WeatherTech Championship race.
It brings to an end a long-term partnership with FOX Sports, which had been the home of the WeatherTech Championship since its inception in 2014, and in previous guises, both Grand-Am and the ALMS.
Bennett admitted the still-limited distribution of the FS2 cable channel played a factor in its decision to make the switch to NBC, which features several widely available channels including NBC and NBC Sports Network.
“We’re very appreciative of everything FOX has done, going back to SPEED, which pre-dated them. They were with us in the first five years in the modern IMSA,” Bennett told Sportscar365.
“It was a tough decision; we talked to a lot of people. But you have to do what’s best; it’s our fiduciary responsibility to all of the stakeholders and everyone involved.
“They’ve been a good partner for so long but I think for us it was a chance to elevate distribution between more network hours on NBC, but also a fully distributed linear cable channel.”
The six-year-deal, which locks in TV coverage through 2024, will see at least three races broadcast live on NBC, with the majority of the others on NBCSN.
However, Bennett wouldn’t rule out “a couple of hours” per season aired on alternative networks, such as CNBC, due to scheduling conflicts, particularly during NBC’s Olympic coverage.
Additionally, each Michelin Tire SportsCar Challenge and Prototype Challenge presented by Mazda race will also be aired on NBCSN in two and one-hour “cutdown” formats, respectively, similar to what’s currently seen on FS1 and FS2.
The challenge series races, meanwhile, will continue to be streamed live on IMSA.tv, as well as WeatherTech Championship qualifying.
Bennett said its single-make series, such as Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama and Lamborghini Super Trofeo North America, will also have the option for it races to be included under the new NBC partnership.
“It’s a big paradigm shift and another piece to the puzzle of further growing IMSA,” Bennett said. “It sets us up pretty well for the next six years.
“We’re big into long-term partnerships and stability, and has always been something that various forms of sports have suffered from short-term partnerships.
“NBC is a promotional power house. The distribution and the marketing, I think even on the digital side through them, to the extent if there is any channel changing in the long races, you stay connected no matter what.”
Bennett believes NBC’s existing partnerships with NASCAR and IndyCar will also provide cross-promotion opportunities.
NBC, FOX Were Leading Candidates
While discussions accelerated about six months ago, he admitted NASCAR’s existing partnerships with FOX and NBC put both networks in pole position for the new deal.
“It did seem like the place to start,” Bennett said. “You’re going to have serious conversations to see if there was an interest and opportunity for a partnership. Not that you couldn’t have done a partnership with somebody else.
“In my mind, that helped, that we would have the connectivity with one of our larger NASCAR partners.”
Its six-year deal, which syncs with NASCAR’s master TV agreement with NBC, could see new talent in the booth and on the pit lane, although Bennett admitted they are still in early discussions.
He did, however, confirm the races will continue to be produced by IMSA’s in-house team in North Carolina but with a “much different” look and feel, particularly with TV graphics.
“We’ve educated them on the [TV] talent IMSA currently has on the FOX platform,” Bennett said. “They’ve got talent on their side of the aisle as well.
“Ultimately on the linear side, which is traditional, it will ultimately be their call in terms of talent.”
While initially evaluated, Bennett said they quickly ruled out moving to a digital-only platform, largely due to production costs that wouldn’t have been absorbed by its current advertising partners.
“We’ve spent a lot of time between linear vs. digital and what can be in one bucket or the other, or in both,” he said. “We feel very confident the way we have it framed.”
Canada TV Deal in the Works
With NBC’s partnership being for the U.S. market only, Bennett said they are still working out a TV package for Canadian viewers, which had previously been included in the FOX Sports deal.
“We have a chance to figure that market out,” he said. “That will be a change from the past. We’ll be free to do a deal.”
Bennett indicated the TV deal would likely utilize the IMSA.tv world feed, rather than a syndication of the NBC Sports broadcasts.
He said a similar strategy also applies to other countries and territories.
“We’ll continue to do whatever makes the most sense; whether it’s the IMSA digital platform or have a linear partner in the market.” Bennett said. “It’s a case-by-case [situation] but those are all independent of the domestic deal with NBC.”