When the American Le Mans Series announced a 2011 television package devoid of live broadcasts, many thought it was the end of televised racing as we know it. The ALMS will “broadcast” (if that word applies) its races live on ESPN3.com, a website operated by ESPN. ESPN3.com describes itself as “a broadband network for live sports programming [that] harnesses the quality ESPN has built through its TV networks and delivers online sports programming to fans through a rich, interactive, and easy-to-use experience.”
Oh. Got it. We need a computer to watch a live race (because we’re old, and we have a regular TV thingy). Otherwise, it’s tape delay all season for the ALMS. If it wasn’t for the web-friendly alternative, “tape delay” sounds like a trip into racing’s television history. As it stands, to watch a race live you’ll need a high-speed internet connection and something better than a computer screen to enjoy the action (or get one of those Apple TVs).
By contrast, the competing Grand-Am series has a television schedule with seven live broadcasts of its races. These are seen on SpeedTV, which purportedly is available in 82 million households in the United States.
The reality of this fight is about which sports car series will dominate the next 10 years. At the moment, the ALMS has the cache of Le Mans, the world’s greatest endurance race and a legendary event since the early part of the 20th century. The ALMS has an open formula that fosters innovation and clean technology, with large manufacturers like Audi, Porsche, Mazda and Peugeot.
The Grand-Am series features a spec formula for its prototype classes, although BMW, Porsche, and Lexus supply engines to the series. But Grand-Am has one thing the ALMS lacks: a big NASCAR cousin. Grand-Am is a NASCAR property, owing to the influence of Jim France, a member of the France family that controls NASCAR and International Speedway Corporation, which operates many of NASCAR’s biggest tracks. Thus, Grand-Am finds itself hitched to the fastest wagon in sports, and it’s on live television.
So while the ALMS struggles to fill a grid, the Grand-Am seems to have a formula that – if unspectacular – is working. In 20 years time, some may call Scott Atherton a pioneering genius for putting the ALMS online when others were shackled to old-style broadcast networks. After all, we live in the age of Apple TV and Google TV, where the difference between television and internet is fast become a blur. We view entertainment in a time-shifted world of DVRs, TiVos and tape delay. Maybe someday the timing of the actual broadcast, and its medium, will be irrelevant.
But not today. Today it feels like the ALMS just made itself a little bit less accessible. And the Grand-Am just drew a little bit closer.