Jim Bleeke, a lawyer in Indianapolis, has a tradition. Each year, he attends the Indianapolis 500 — some three hours of racing, plus prerace festivities and the hours it takes to commute to and from downtown. Then, he and his family return home, cook out or gather with friends — and watch the race on TV.
“My wife is like: ‘We were just there,’” he says. “‘Why are we watching it again?’”
That evening viewing, though, is a ritual in central Indiana and the only way to watch the race on TV there. For decades, the race has not been broadcast live on local TV, in an effort to encourage residents to attend. For locals, going to the race or listening on the radio — or both — and then watching the evening replay have become part of the fabric of the Indy 500, as much a tradition as the winner chugging milk at the finish line.
Travel anywhere in the area on race day, and you can hear the call emanating from radios, on boats, at the lake, at cookouts. And at night, those same families gather around the TV. Bleeke recalled going to a wedding one year where the race, on tape delay of course, was on at the bar. Guests still congregated to watch it, even though many of them had been at the track.
The practice is a relic of a bygone era. For large parts of the 20th century, teams and leagues protected ticket sales by not showing home games in local markets. The NFL only just recently removed its hometown blackout rule that required a team to sell out to air the game on local TV. Major League Baseball has blackout issues in some areas related to TV contracts with cable companies. Both have been major headaches for fans.
But in Indianapolis, the blackout is just part of the scenery.
“It comes up every year,” said Doug Boles, president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “A handful of people ask about it, a story gets written, and that’s it.”
This year, the conversation — it’s hard to call it a debate — has been rekindled on some online message boards and sports talk radio. That’s because for the past two years, the race was available to locals on NBC’s streaming service, Peacock. But the network now has the technology to broadcast the race nationwide but prevent it from reaching the Indianapolis area. It has done so at the speedway’s request.
For Boles, protecting the sanctity of the spectacle is at the heart of the blackout. The Indy 500 is advertised as the largest single-day sporting event in the country, drawing more than 300,000 fans each year. If the race were to be broadcast in Indianapolis, the crowd could shrink, ultimately undoing perhaps the race’s best selling point.
“What makes us special is our size,” Boles said. “On Indy 500 Sunday, over 300,000 people show up here. To keep that electricity going, you have to have a full venue. It’s not about revenue. It’s about the perception that a full venue presents.”
Bob Kravitz, a longtime local sports columnist at the Indianapolis Star and now at the Athletic, agreed.
“When you don’t have a big TV contract and one event that has to sustain you for the whole year, I can accept the argument that you need the blackout,” he said. “I think it’s about keeping the speedway solvent, keeping IndyCar solvent. Outside of Indianapolis, no one gives a crap about IndyCar.”
The Indy 500 was first broadcast on TV in 1949. It was seen live in Indianapolis that year but not again until the 100th running of the race, in 2016. For a while, there was no national broadcast; in the 1960s, it was available with a ticket to a movie theater. ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” began broadcasting the race on tape delay in 1965 and for many years wouldn’t show it in central Indiana until later in the summer. Since 1986, the race has been shown live in most of the country.
Hoosiers tell stories of vacationing in Louisville for the weekend to watch it on TV. Others recalled hearing of local bars that found ways to use their satellite dishes to crack the signal. The bars quietly spread the word to patrons that they would have a live feed of the broadcast, but they couldn’t advertise too loudly. One Indianapolis bartender, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told The Washington Post this week that while the bar is slow during the race, there are still people who come in asking for it to be turned on the TV.
In 1986, the race was first shown on tape delay on the evening of race day; it was broadcast live for the first time in decades for the 100th anniversary because the speedway announced it sold all available tickets. But the track does not release an official capacity, or official attendance figures, because it sells seemingly an endless supply of general admission infield tickets.
When NBC acquired the broadcast rights in 2019, the network asked about lifting the blackout, but the speedway held firm. (In 2020 and 2021, the race was also shown locally because of the coronavirus pandemic.)
Indianapolis is a small TV market, but NBC would not mind the extra viewers. In 2016, the year the race was at full capacity and broadcast in town, total viewership nationally was 6.9 million vs. 6.4 million the previous year. The local rating in Indianapolis jumped from an average of 12.3 the previous three years to a 33.6. The city’s average viewership went from 138,00 in 2015 to 361,000 in 2016.
Kravitz thought a pay-per-view model might be fair and wondered about a segment of the local population who can’t afford a ticket to the race or can’t handle what can be a grueling day at the track. But, ultimately, no one seems all that upset. Gregg Doyel, a columnist for the Indianapolis Star, wrote several years ago that the track’s greed was driving the blackout, only to change his mind this year and write in favor of it, to preserve the mystique of the race and economic benefits that come with it.
The other argument for TV is reaching more fans, and potentially new ones. But Bleeke is convinced the best way to make a race fan is to get someone, regardless of age, to the speedway. “The military goes down the straightaway, the introduction of the drivers, the playing of ‘Back Home in Indiana,’ ‘God Bless America’ and the flyover. For me, that is as special as anything. Our entire group tears up every year. Three-hundred thousand people go silent, and there’s just a bugle playing taps.”