Buoyed by first-race viewership, INDYCAR and NBC Sports can't wait for May

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ST. PETERSBURG, Florida -- The similarities between the Kentucky Derby and Indianapolis 500 are clear. They’re held in the same geographical region around the same time. They’ve both been running for more than a century. They both draw large crowds and enormous attention.

And now they’re both part of the same TV family.

Sam Flood, executive producer and president of production for NBC and NBCSN, is enthused about the possibilities for NBC’s take on the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge in May. It’s a first for the network, which began its first year of full-time coverage of the NTT IndyCar Series with Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

If viewership of that race is any indication, the NBC Sports Group and INDYCAR partnership is off to a great start. The total audience delivery (TAD) across NBCSN, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app on Sunday was 502,000 viewers, making it the most-watched season opener telecast by NBC Sports. The TAD was 94 percent higher than NBCSN’s first race telecast in 2018 at ISM Raceway in Phoenix (the second race on the season schedule) and was up 42 percent on NBCSN Sunday afternoon races shown last spring. The metered market rating of 0.38 saw an increase of 6 percent from the most recent NTT IndyCar Series opener shown on NBCSN in 2013.

It has everyone at NBC Sports Group and INDYCAR, sanctioning body for the NTT IndyCar Series, eager for the possibilities with the Indy 500 in May.

“You always want to do the biggest events,” Flood said Sunday during a press conference before the race. “(Indy) is a big one. This is one that you circle and are excited about and you want to put the NBC stamp on it. We're excited with what we can do with a huge spectacle.”

NBC secured the broadcast rights to the Kentucky Derby in 2001. At the time, it was a brief race-day show. Now, it covers much of race day, with periphery programming and promotion leading up to the annual iconic horse race at Churchill Downs in Louisville.

“There are races and then there are events,” Flood said. “(Indy) is an event. What we're able to do with the Kentucky Derby – when we first had it, it was an hour-and-a-half window. We're now on the air for six hours on race Saturday. That's what we think we can do (with the Indy 500), continue to build the energy, excitement and passion for the sport.”

Flood, who oversees all aspects of sports production for NBC and NBCSN, has won 29 Emmys and three Eclipse Awards. The networks have received positive reviews for their coverage of the Olympics, National Hockey League, Tour de France, NASCAR, French Open and horse racing’s Triple Crown, among other events.

Like the Olympics and the Tour de France, the Indy 500 is a sprawling event covering weeks. The challenge of bringing it to life in high-definition intrigues Flood and his NBC colleagues.

“We're going to lead in with much more programming,” Flood said. “The schedule will come out soon. We are filling multiple windows, particularly the week leading up to it with special shows from Indianapolis, special content, including a documentary movie we're releasing in early May.”

Included in the coverage will be NBC Sports Gold. The INDYCAR Pass subscription service debuted its extended flag-to-flag NTT IndyCar Series coverage with the St. Petersburg season opener that included all practices and qualifying.

“Offering as many ways as possible to reach fans is important to us,” said Mark Miles, president and CEO of Hulman & Company, which owns Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR. “I want to comment on and really thank all the people who have made NBC Sports Gold possible. It was launched this weekend. From everything I gather, the reviews have been fantastic. It's a Herculean effort to get that off the ground on the date as promised.”

The Kentucky Derby is a natural fit with the Indy 500. The Derby held on the first Saturday in May; Indy is held on the last Sunday of the month, with the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS road course sandwiched in between. All three air live on free-to-air NBC network. NBC executives plan to meld the coverage together and cross-promote the events with others on its networks throughout the month.

“One of the great things about May is that's a special month for NBC (and) NBC Sports,” said Jon Miller, president of programming at NBC Sports. “There's no month that's any bigger because we start off with the Derby on the first Saturday in May, we have the (soccer) championship in the Premier League on the second weekend in May, we have the Preakness on the third week in May, then throughout the month of May we have the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs. We have all of these more key big, live events we get to use as a platform to drive everybody to Memorial Day weekend and the 500.”

Included in the on-track coverage will be external coverage designed to draw casual fans deeper into the event. Mike Tirico recently was named as host of NBC’s race coverage, and the network plans to add celebrities to the mix in the lead-up to the May 26 race.

“We're also trying to infuse some of the celebrities that maybe rest in our ecosystem that are outside of sport, whether music celebrities (or) actors – bring them into this event as well because we know the event … is beyond sports,” said Jenny Storms, chief marketing officer for NBC Sports Group. “It's culture. In the seven to 10 days leading up, you're definitely going to see a combined push.”

As of Sunday’s season opener in St. Pete, the plan for May is fully underway.

“Our team has been working tirelessly putting together a plan, figuring out the stories we're going to tell, figuring out how to make sure those at home have the best seat in the house,” Flood said. “If you can't make it to the track that day, you're going to have an incredible experience on the television and we're going to work hard to make sure that happens.”

Prior to May, however, come three more NTT IndyCar Series that will air on NBCSN. First up is the INDYCAR Classic at Circuit of The Americas (1 p.m. ET March 24), the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park (4 p.m. April 7) and the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach (4 p.m. April 14).

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