Two years of proverbial growing pains for both IMSA and FOX Sports, under new guises, have led to the decision to revamp the way WeatherTech SportsCar Championship TV coverage is presented for 2016 in North America.
IMSA had to adjust from two prior eras with either or both of the GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series and the American Le Mans Series.
Meanwhile IMSA’s place on the new FOX Sports 1 network (FS1) wasn’t as prominent after its prior branding as a motorsports-focused SPEED channel.
Initial optimism about how the new, then-TUDOR United SportsCar Championship was presented turned to reality once numbers failed to improve in a second year and costs escalated in an evolving industry.
As IMSA vice president of marketing David Pettit explained, the thought process to change began at the start of the 2015 season, with the year-end results then leading to the measures implemented for 2016 and formally announced on Saturday.
“It literally started over a year and a half ago, was the first conversations about, ‘How do we rethink what we’re doing?’” Pettit told Sportscar365.
“From our standpoint, the TV we’ve been doing has been the way it’s always been.
“I think everything has been evolutionary in transition since both FOX has changed from SPEED, and our change, which was the new championship, merging American Le Mans Series and GRAND-AM.
“As part of that, we both had to find our way. The understanding with FOX is that they were rebuilding itself; they had a lot to learn along the way.
“There was a hope and expectation that ’15 would be different than ’14. But as we got through ’15, it just felt like we weren’t really moving enough.”
Ratings reportedly fell in 2015. Pettit didn’t relay specifics, but the obvious hit came with a reduction in the number of network races on FOX Sports.
“’15 did not improve from ’14, bottom line,” Pettit admitted. “We had three network races in 2014. We ended the season on a high in ’14, with two network broadcasts right in-between NFL programming.
“Outside of that, the FS1 side of it just didn’t grow. It remained flat for us. In the second year, we’d hoped FS1 would grow as well. We weren’t able to garner that position from them.”
The changes come not just in the broadcast presentation, but also in the dynamics of where the content originates.
On the commentary team, Greg Creamer takes over the TV play-by-play announcing from Bob Varsha. It was a late change, reportedly coming only in December before being announced on Saturday.
“I wish things with Bob had been different, but I don’t blame Bob for any of it,” Pettit said.
“It came to a point in time where things happened, and he was very surprised by it. I sincerely regret that that came out about Bob that way.”
Meanwhile Creamer and color analyst Calvin Fish – who’ve worked together for years in various sports car series – will call races from FOX Sports’ Charlotte studios while Brian Till and Justin Bell will handle pit lane reporting duties.
Till will likely carry the lion’s share while Bell’s role will expand to more lifestyle-focused features.
Jamie Howe may still fill in if needed for conflicts, and is headed for FOX’s new coverage of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.
According to Pettit, the move to Charlotte and the cut down on on-site production costs is what will allow for the new content IMSA hopes to showcase during its FOX shows in 2016.
“We’ve added a producer on both sides. The only difference is instead of the truck being here, the truck’s in Charlotte,” Pettit said.
“The travel cost becomes so much when you look at bringing a truck down. We can drive down the costs enough to free up for the aerial cameras, bringing the executive producer on board, bringing in Justin and extending beyond that.”
Pettit said he expects some races where talent will still attend the event prior to the race itself – FOX and SPEED did that at the 24 Hours of Le Mans for a number of years – and also said there could be a digital pre-race show beyond FOX.
“We have to find a way to reinvest. You can’t just keep bolting things on without recalibrating everything,” Pettit said.
A contentious topic in the paddock has been the marketing spend for GT manufacturers committing to become an IMSA Official Automotive Partner. Pettit said part of the new TV strategy is aimed at ensuring a better ROI for the manufacturers.
“Trust me, that drove a lot of what we’re trying to do as well, knowing what all the manufacturers we have on board in GTD and GTLM,” Pettit said.
“The new investments made in GT, with all the new cars there, means we know there’s an expectation.
“We have to grow this sport, too. We have to provide the proper balance between the classes to give them the exposure opportunity.”
Pettit outlined two examples of note. One was the potential of a manufacturer having a new product launch being used as a showcase piece; the second is seeing WeatherTech or another partner of note be able to advertise a specific WeatherTech Championship-set piece in another medium.
“It could be a case where a WeatherTech Championship ad could be taken out of broadcast to promote the race,” Pettit explained.
“That counts into the entire commitment made to the series. That wasn’t an option in 2015. In 2016, it is.”
Another sore point was the perceived frequency of commercials, although Pettit said the number has remained constant at 17 minutes per hour of programming.
“It’s 17 minutes as it has always been, every series, every race, on every cable channel,” he said.
“In ’14, there were points it was commercial, 30-second break, commercial. It felt worse. How do you expect your talent to stop-start, stop-start, and carry a storyline with racing action going on?
“The good news is FOX has been working with us aggressively with a number of our partners, to take a number of advertising out of broadcast to (help) promote the series (elsewhere).”
Pettit also outlined included a new working relationship with FOX L.A. rather than FOX New York for programming, which is aimed at reducing head-to-head TV conflicts with other motorsports series.
The Creamer addition may “recalibrate the booth” to “change the energy level,” Pettit said, although specifics are still being finalized.
It’s a lot to digest and the end result won’t be known for some time. But Pettit said the changes were more or less inevitable following the months of dialogue.
“We’d been looking at it for quite some time,” he said. “It started last year. Some changes were made end of last year.
“We had to find better ways to engage and entertain our fan base.”