Indy 500 Blackout – its continued existence is nonsense, particularly with COVID restrictions in place
by Kent Sterling
May 24, 2021
The same debate rages every year in central Indiana – should the Indy 500 live and local TV blackout be permanently lifted?
Twice in recent times the greatest spectacle in racing has been available to television viewers in the city where the race is taking place. Last year when no one was allowed inside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and in 2016 when the race was sold out, Indy residents were able to watch the race live. In other years, the only mass media were allowed to broadcast the race on the IMS Radio Network.
Of course, local live TV blackouts from sporting events are idiotic. Therefore, with the exception of the Indy 500, they no longer exist. Power outages push the gate instead of improving it. NBC’s broadcast of the Indy 500 is a love letter to the event and will pique the interest of young Hoosiers and make them more likely to compete in future races. Instead, those in power have embraced the arcane notion that a blackout will force fans to watch the race to buy tickets.
The NFL and NHL believed it too. Then they found out what was already obvious. TV is an extended commercial for participation in the events it broadcasts. People watch and say to themselves, “This looks like a fun way to spend a few hours! I want to get there! Let’s buy tickets! “That’s why all similar blackouts passed a generation ago. But for some reason this lingers as a ridiculous ode to bad business practice.
For younger viewers, their understanding of the blackout is stricter and more unsettling. If an event isn’t broadcast live, it doesn’t exist. They are not more likely to buy tickets – they refuse to believe the race is on. Instead of looking at the Indy as a cool event and fun way to spend the day leading up to Memorial Day, they choose another option.
The decision on whether Indianapolis Motor Speedway will lift the live blackout has yet to be made even though the race is only six days away. It’s easy to argue that a COVID-controlled presence limit of 135,000 should make this the easiest of all calls. With the 135K tickets gone, the race is technically a sell-out. So who would benefit if Indy residents were prevented from watching the race live? This argument, lost in the weeds, is unnecessary as the blackout contradicts logic as a concept.
IMS President Doug Boles told WISH-TV yesterday that the blackout had not been discussed and that a decision would be made this week. Knowing how detailed Boles and Penske are, I don’t think so for a minute. The longer they step the can down the street, the more heroic their gesture of access – and the more money the wireless network can charge for their spots.
Again, nobody benefits from continuing the blackout. Nobody. With live TV, national ratings will be higher, more tickets will be sold, and the coolness of the Indy 500 will be shared with a generation of Hoosiers who otherwise would never know they exist. Yes, the wireless network may lose a pretty steep surge of 10 ratings and 60 shares in the Indy market, but what does that mean in a big way for IMS owner Roger Penske?
The longstanding traditions of the Indianapolis 500 can be curious to the point of confusion, but Penske is one of the clearest thinkers in the world. I assumed when he bought the speedway and all of its assets, he would reduce the blackout on the first day. Not far away. We can only hope the logic wins year after year before the latest live and local TV blackout is considered obsolete in American sports media.