Coronavirus is hitting sports hard, but through the many event postponements, whispers of rescheduled dates and fan prayers, the virtual world is kicking into overdrive to fill the gap in live entertainment. iRacing is at the epicenter.
The sim racing game, which launched its first eSports series -- the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series -- in partnership with NASCAR in 2009, was well-positioned to fill the gaps in sports entertainment. Drivers across all levels of NASCAR have access to simulator rigs and the iRacing infrastructure was already in place to quickly launch a virtual series featuring the sport's stars.
Since NASCAR announced it was postponing its season March 13, iRacing has launched at least nine new series and is broadcasting live events in partnership with Fox and NBC. Events for each new series, which include motorsports partners such as NASCAR, IndyCar, SCCA, FR Americas, Supercars and World of Outlaws, are now broadcast on major cable networks almost every day of the week.
"Three and a half weeks ago I was an executive producer of a software company and now here I am," iRacing EVP and executive producer Steve Myers said. "I'm an executive producer of a software company and a broadcasting company."
Myers took a break from his calls with network heads and autosport leaders, which he said keeps him working for 12 hours a day, to speak with The Charlotte Observer about potentially over-saturating our screens with races, limiting lineups and the future of iRacing post-pandemic.
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Alex Andrejev: I want to start by asking about these recent viewership numbers for the Pro Invitational. It's been in the 1.2 to 1.3 million viewer range. What do you make of those numbers? Is that what you expected?
Steve Myers: I'll be honest with you, I don't know if I've had an expectation. This all happened so fast that it's really been hard to pay attention to anything other than the next day and executing what we need to get done for the next TV show. Between the eSports races that are on our digital platforms and new shows, we're so busy coming up with a plan and learning what we did from the previous week, it's been hard to actually appreciate and study what's been happening. I'm surprised by the fact that everything so dramatically went from where we were to where we are, but I'm not really surprised that people have tuned in and watched it. NASCAR fans particularly are so loyal to the sport and care about their stars so much that I'm not surprised they took a chance on watching this and seem to enjoy it. I think with everything that's going on, being able to have two hours to sit back and watch something that's live and kind of forget about the pandemic, from that aspect, I'm not surprised the number is so good because there really is so little going on the world to make people happy right now.
AA: What's iRacing's philosophy when it comes to adding these new series? How did all these events come about?
SM: The NASCAR one was obviously the first one. That came about because I think Fox really wanted to do something. They were looking at the big picture going, 'This could be a significant amount of time that we're away and this is our kind of window of television. We've got a big investment here and we should try to do something.' So I think that was a natural (progression), especially since we already had a really great relationship with NASCAR and we'd seen growth in our eSports series in the last two years. It went so quickly because all the relationships were there, the drivers were there, the relationship with NASCAR was there. The Fox piece was the new piece. We had given them some content for their studio shows last year, so we developed a small relationship, but I think the fact that they can now have this window on Sundays where they're desperate to have some content, I think that was an easy decision (for Fox). I think once people saw what NASCAR did, everyone was like, 'Whoa, that was pretty cool.' And then in fairness, we've had a relationship with NBC through last year, so in a lot of ways, the work that we did with NBC set us up in a position to be able to do what we did with Fox this year.