Ah January; the start of a new year for making resolutions at starting new. This month marks start of the racing calendar, with this week’s Roar before the 24 in Daytona. Yes, I know AMA Supercross starts tonight in Anaheim, but really for most gear heads, the Rolex 24 kicks off the season. This year marks the anticipated return of the Ford GT to series after a nearly decade away. This year also marks the adoption of the FIA GT3 rules for the GT Daytona Class, with the inclusion of Lamborghini, McLaren, Mercedes, Nissan, and Bentley eligible to run. Another development is the dissolving relationship between IMSA and their television partner Fox Sports, making a dire situation much worse.
On Monday, Racer.com’s Marshall Pruett reported major changes to the TV side, principally the lack of them for the upcoming season. With ratings dipping as low as 10,000 viewers on Fox Sports 2, the heads at IMSA decided the best way to improve ratings is by cutting costs; reducing the number of production staff at the track, taking control as the director of race broadcasts, and most shocking of all, removing Bob Varsha from the broadcast booth. He has covered IMSA in some way shape or form since late 1980’s with the Camel GT Series. To my knowledge, he is steadily one of the biggest proponents of the series; so it feels like a total slap in a face. Varsha for his part later told RACER.com that the change came as “a complete shock to me.” As Pruett writes, the decision to remove Bob Varsha laid in the hands of IMSA. In place of Varsha will be long-time Grand-AM broadcaster Greg Creamer with a returning Calvin Fish in the booth while Brian Till will be the sole pit reporter for the entire season, aside from the endurance rounds. Another component to this change is the strong possibility of Creamer and Fish calling the race from the FOX Sports Headquarters in Charlotte.
This begs the question of where exactly is American Sportscar racing in 2016? Yes, the introduction of the new Ford GT should spark some interest, but for the IMSA Weathertech Championship to succeed long-term, it needs better manage the way it market itself. When ratings dip into the five figure range, marketing is impossible. This is not to say the horrid rating are the total fault of IMSA, that falls on Fox and there hop-scotch approach to the coverage. I’m convinced that during the Rolex 24, there will no less than four network changes, from Fox to Fox Sports 1, 2, and IMSA.TV. It’s easy to see why so many fans take to Twitter and Facebook complaining they can’t find the race on any platform. IMSA does deserve some blame based on their belief of that Fox would give them proper TV time after SPEED Channel was changed to Fox Sports 1 in 2013. That has not been case as most races are shuffled off to Fox Sports 2 while FS1 covers NASCAR, Baseball, and Big East (not really Big East) Basketball. Much of the manufacturer participation with IMSA is predicated on being able to market their product and promote technology, much the case with the American Le Mans Series. That has not been the case so far with the Weathertech Championship.
What is there to do? The direction of the race production now falls solely with IMSA, it wont be far-fetched to assume that at some point in the near future, the only place where you can watch is the IMSA website, not a problem for a tech-savvy generation but a royal pain in the ass for anyone over the age of 40. The sanctioning body could negotiate a new contract with a different network like CBS Sports or NBCSN. NBCSN could do a good job, but their motorsports schedule includes NASCAR, F1, INDYCAR, Pirelli World Challenge, Global Rallycross, and the Dakar Rally. That alone makes scheduling races for live coverage a nightmare, especially in the summer months. The most logical choice is CBS Sports (I’m not mentioning MAVTV!), a network starved for live programming and could give IMSA all the airtime they want. There’s a catch though, not many people watch CBS Sports aside from those few Trans-AM fans out there and anyone who likes Doug Gottlieb. Not an ideal situation to be sure, but a platform for IMSA to grow the series for 2017 and beyond. Whatever the decision, if IMSA overplays their hand, they could leave their fans quite literally, in the dust.