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INDYCAR 2011 - Battle of the Networks' Stars?

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Jack Arute's empty pit lair (Photo: Dale Nixon)
Jack Arute's empty pit lair (Photo: Dale Nixon)

Lost within the hubbub and silly season questions of who will drive what for whom and where, battle lines are being drawn for what promises to be the first of many skirmishes between the now-monolithic sports broadcasting hub of ESPN/ABC and the upstart and (soon to be re-badged) Versus Network.

And it appears as if the Indy 500, and INDYCAR series itself, will be ground zero.

The first big shot was fired when Comcast Corp., parent of Versus Network, grew peacock feathers that would make Natalie Portman envious with the acquisition of the NBCUniversal group. The deal, with a cost of a cool $13.45 billion dollars - depending on which report one believes (yes, as Dr. Evil would say, BILLION) - was completed on January 29 after the requisite tango with pseudo-"concerned" FCC regulators.

The keys to the sports franchise of the combined media goliath were promptly handed over to longtime NBC Sports Group chairman and Olympic uber-bidder Dick Ebersol, who dispatched the upper executive hierarchy of Versus and installed his own trusted lieutenants.

Ebersol has long hung a bullseye on ESPN (itself a part of ABC and owned by the Disney Group) and immediately declared that the Versus Network, holder of a 10-year contract with INDYCAR, would be undergoing some changes. This could include rebranding of the channel (perhaps as SNBC or NBC Sports Channel), along with importation of some of NBC's key sports faces to big events. Does that mean Bob Costas will be at the Indy 500? Perhaps.

(Interestingly, the whole NBC/Comcast combination seems to be the end result of Comcast's own failed hostile takeover attempt of Disney in 2005.)

While prevailing logic seems to dictate this would be a good thing for INDYCAR exposure (and theoretically open the series up to more NBC network coverage), it has certainly stirred up a hornet's nest at ESPN/ABC. One casualty will be the mutual cooperation between the Versus and the ESPN gang. Traditionally, IndyCar event broadcasts would be staffed mostly by a crew of series veterans that rotated between the networks - depending on which covered the races - and included a steady core group of IMS productions folks, freelancers, and of course, the contract talent. As a result, viewers would be treated to familiar Versus faces like Lindy Thackston and Jack Arute in ABC's Indy 500 broadcast coverage in 2010. This crossover bridged the gap between Versus' qualifying content and ABC via ESPN's imported race-only team.

But as the cold war between the two networks heats up, it appears those familiar faces could be left in Gasoline Alley for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Curt Cavin already tipped that the ABC/.ESPN Indy 500 crew is going to be Eddie Cheever, Scott Goodyear and Marty Reid in the booth, with Jamie Little, Rick DeBruhl, and Vince Welch in the pits. Cavin also reported that Welch would go into the booth to replace Reid (NASCAR schedule conflict) in New Hampshire. Off camera, ESPN is tipped to be bypassing the usual consortium of local crew in favor of trucking in its NASCAR production unit.

The Versus side has also undergone a shakeup, perhaps as a result of NBC's new management strategy. Thackston will be returning, but longtime booth talent Robbie Buhl is also rumored to either have jumped or been pushed out in favor of his own Dreyer & Reinbold team ownership obligations. NBC veteran Wally Dallenbach will be replacing Buhl as color analyst in the booth, while his NBC colleague Marty Snider will join Thackston and Kevin Lee on pit road.

But not all of the word on the Versus side is about the crew and potential name change. There is a persistent rumble that is much, much more serious; that NBC Sports has little interest in IndyCar and the low ratings and high production costs. While the move from ESPN to Versus has been criticized time and again, if the series does not receive adequate partnership and promotion from the NBC Sports brass then things could get worse before they get better. In that case, it is imperative that Randy Bernard use whatever means necessary to get the network involved. If not, that 10-year contract could be an albatross for both sides.

Regardless of the talent shakedown, things might also look different shortly, as ESPN/ABC's IndyCar contract expires in 2012. While series majordomo Bernard has expressed interest in multiple entities splitting the series schedule, the idea of moving coverage to an NBC/Versus umbrella is also theoretically appealing. Except, of course, for the fact that the revenue produced in a new contract with one broadcaster would not maximize the potential revenue of a bidding war between the networks.

Therein lies the rub of the entire situation. INDYCAR wants to cash in on the upward trajectory of the series (and the introduction of the new cars), while ESPN/ABC and Versus/NBC appear content to fight their own turf wars in the bigger arena of market share.

Will the machinations be good for INDYCAR viewers? Will the network competition produce greater innovation than a camera on a zip line? It's too early to tell.

But the behind the scenes, the emerging battle for sports network superiority will make for some interesting viewing. Assuming, of course, that viewers tune in at all.