It wasn’t easy, but it was good. And the numbers? Well, they were better than good.
That was the year-end theme from NBC after its first season as the sole broadcast partner of the NTT IndyCar Series. NBC Sports Group’s coverage of races across broadcast, cable and internet vehicles brought every on-track moment of the 2019 season to viewers, resulting in across-the-board increases in viewership and enthusiasm for more coverage in 2020.
The highlight of the season was NBC’s largest undertaking -- wall-to-wall coverage of the 103rd Indianapolis 500. It was a daunting first-time task for the network’s experienced sports team, but it went off without a hitch.
“We really lean into big events,” said Sam Flood, NBC Sports’ executive producer. “We want to make big events bigger, and it started years ago with our Olympic coverage, storytelling, making you care. You think about the Mario (Andretti) documentary we aired prior to the 500 -- all it was about is making people care more about the people in those cars. Then the event becomes bigger based on the relationship we build with the audience, with the stars and then the place.”
The documentary, “Drive Like Andretti,” a moving look at the life story of the legendary racer, was shown before the race. Overall, the Indianapolis 500 broadcast drew 5.5 million viewers, an 11 percent increase from 2018.
“We're thrilled to be able to embrace the event -- make it bigger, grow the rating,” Flood said. “... We had a great deal of fun producing it, and we were a little nervous all week long about the weather, which is one of those things you can't control. We're not an indoor sport, and as we all know in racing, you want blue skies and fast cars, and we had both of them, and we were thrilled to accomplish what we did at the 500.”
Coverage of the 500 included Mike Tirico as the host of the race, along with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick as analysts. Their lead-in coverage set the stage for NBC’s IndyCar team of on-air talent, including anchor Leigh Diffey and commentators Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy.
Among other key races shown on NBC -- which, as an over-the-air network reaches a far larger audience than cable partner NBCSN and internet partner NBC Sports Gold -- was the season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, which crowned Josef Newgarden as season champion. Overall, eight events were on NBC, up from five in previous years.
“To have eight IndyCar races on NBC broadcast has really made a big, big difference,” said Jon Miller, NBC Sports’ president of programming. “… To have it be so close and come down to the wire really bodes well for us, and I know that next year is not that far away. We've already started planning on ways that we can do things to grow it even further.”