With 5,000 grandstand seats unsold, 345,000 expected, IMS won't lift Indy 500 blackout

INDIANAPOLIS -- Sunday's crowd at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 108th Indianapolis 500 would stand as the second-most-populated city in Indiana, and at an expected mark of roughly 345,000 tickets sold -- 15,000 more than a year ago -- the crowd will fall just a few thousand ticket sales shy of 2016's sellout crowd.

And yet, IMS officials say their stance on keeping in place the central Indiana blackout of the live broadcast for those living in areas linked to Indianapolis and Lafayette NBC affiliates remains unchanged. A Penske Entertainment spokesperson confirmed the news Friday night, noting that lifting the blackout "was on the radar as a consideration" if IMS completely sold out its grandstand tickets, which the track was on pace to do in early May. The recent pace of ticket sales over the last week has slowed, though, as the likelihood of inclement weather for Sunday has increased.

Indy 500 results: Live results, starting grid, news

IndyCars drive in a grid formation as the green flag signals the start of the 107th Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, May 28, 2023, at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
IndyCars drive in a grid formation as the green flag signals the start of the 107th Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, May 28, 2023, at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

As of Wednesday afternoon, IMS president Doug Boles told local media that the Racing Capital of the World still had roughly 5,000 grandstand tickets left for sale.

Since the track's complete sellout in 2016 that led to a lift of the blackout for the first time since 1950, Boles has said Penske Entertainment officials knew a day would soon come where they would have to decide what to do with the blackout in a world in which IMS sold all its reserved grandstand seats but was still selling general admission tickets through race day. Up until a few days ago, it looked as if that would be this year.

Two weeks ago, track officials said they expected IMS to sell its final reserved grandstand seats sometime during race week, when there were roughly 12,000 left and just under 20 days until the green flag. Those sales continued trickling along, with only 8,000 left as of 500 qualifying weekend and 6,000 left on Tuesday. Should the weather shift over the next 48 hours, there's reason to think IMS could sell many, or perhaps even all, of those 5,000 grandstand tickets by Sunday afternoon, but decisions on the blackout have typically become final (at least publicly) Thursday or Friday of race week in recent years.

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Who can still watch the Indy 500 live in Indiana

If you live outside the central Indiana or Lafayette markets, you shouldn't be affected by the continuation of IMS' blackout of the live broadcast of the 500. Of note, those living in or around Evansville (WFIE 14), Fort Wayne (WPTA-DT2 21.2), South Bend (WNDU-TV 16) or Terre Haute (WTWO 2) will still be able to watch the race Sunday afternoon, starting with NBC's pre-race coverage at 11 am with the green flag at roughly 12:45 p.m. and the checkered flag whenever Mother Nature allows that to be.

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History of the blackout in central Indiana

Central Indiana race fans could first watch the 500 on live TV in 1949, not long after the first television set went on sale in Indianapolis. In the leadup to the race that year, IMS agreed to a live broadcast of the race in order to help spur TV sales.

The city's first TV station, WFBM-TV, aired the race live in 1949 and 1950, and leading into the 1951 edition, there had been talk about starting a nationally syndicated broadcast. Instead, IMS officials opted to eliminate live TV coverage altogether out of the fear that "live local television coverage would hurt gate attendance," according to an IndyStar story at that time.

That same reasoning keeps the unusual blackout in place to this day.

You had to be at IMS to see the race live until 1964, when some movie theaters and other venues across the country gained permission to air it for paying customers. Elsewhere, it aired on a three-day embargo. From 1965-70, recorded highlights of the 500 aired the following weekend on ABC's Wide World of Sports. In 1971, the 72-hour embargo was lifted, and the Greatest Spectacle in Racing was shown tape-delayed in an edited three-hour broadcast in prime time across the country -- except for Indianapolis, where it wasn't shown until July 4.

Live coverage of the race began in 1986 and has continued since on ABC and now NBC, but up until 2016, local fans still could not watch the race live.

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History of recent Indy 500 ticket sales since 100th running

In the leadup to the 500's 100th running, IMS sold its last reserved grandstand seat the first week of May, and during race week, the track announced it had ceased selling general admission tickets for the infield, believing it had reached a capacity where selling more would ruin fans' collective experience due to crowding.

Ticket sales dropped off notably, as expected, in 2017 but have grown steadily since. After IMS held the race in 2020 with no spectators due to the the COVID-19 pandemic and permitted 135,000 in 2021, roughly 325,000 came for the 500's grand re-opening in 2022. Last year, Roger Penske told reporters his track hosted 330,000. As of the first week of May, IMS had sold 15,000 more tickets at that point than it had at that same time a year ago, a pace it has kept up with the rest of the month, despite fewer sales than expected overall.

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When the blackout has been lifted

Since track officials banned the live broadcast of the race in central Indiana starting in 1951, the race has aired live four times in and around Indianapolis:

  • 2016: Full venue sellout led to blackout lift.

  • 2020: With no fans allowed to attend because of the pandemic, IMS allowed a live broadcast.

  • 2021: After permitting a cap 135,000 fans in the wake of the ongoing pandemic, IMS lifted the blackout once all those tickets were sold.

  • 2022: The traditional blackout was still in effect with the track back wide-open, but NBC had not readied its Peacock streaming service to be able to block the relatively small geographic location from not obtaining the live race feed.

What if the Indy 500 is moved to Monday?

With the threat of scattered rain and thunderstorms throughout the day Sunday, IMS and IndyCar are facing the very real threat of holding the 500 on a Monday for the first time since 1997. Should that happen, NBC will have a big decision to make. According to its online forward-looking broadcast TV schedule, the network is set to air opening matches of the French Open Monday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on NBC.

With only 60-70% of its more than 10,000 employees and volunteers it utilizes to run 500 race day smoothly still able to work on Memorial Day, Boles said in a radio interview Friday morning that IMS would not be able to start a Monday edition of the race any sooner than it typically would on a Sunday. Those lower staffing levels would lead to longer ingress times for fans returning to the track, making an early start a tough puzzle to execute. With that in mind, NBC would have to decide whether to keep its French Open programming in place on NBC, or bump it to USA Network to the benefit of the Indy 500, if the race gets postponed a day.

If the 500 is unable to run on NBC on Monday, USA Network would be the likely landing spot, though an NBC Sports spokesperson declined to elaborate on the network's contingency plans for this weekend. "We are aware of the weather reports and will announce any programming changes at the appropriate time," the spokesperson said in a statement to IndyStar.

Whether a Monday race broadcast would continue to have a local blackout in place or not is unclear.

How to listen to the Indy 500 live on the radio

Fans still wanting live coverage of the Indy 500 of some sort can listen to the IndyCar Radio Network broadcast of the race on 93.5 and 107.5 FM in Indianapolis. The Network's broadcast is also available in 32 Indiana cities, 26 states, on Motorsport.Radio and in the United Kingdom. SiriusXM subscribers can also listen to Channels 85 and 218 to follow the 500 live on the radio.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: IMS enforcing local blackout for Indy 500 just 5,000 tickets short of grandstand sellout