Dirtvision and the Evolution of Streaming Race Broadcasts
To us at The Drivers Project the recent World of Outlaws Race broadcast from Knoxville seemed like a really big deal. As recently as 2 months ago no-one could have envisioned a World of Outlaws Sprint Car Race with NO FANS IN THE STANDS yet being broadcast. On May 8,2018 it happened. It remains to be seen just how big of a game changer the race was and we wanted to hear from the players involved. Fortunately, Dirtvision General Manager; Lindsey Howard as well as World Racing Group Director of Broadcast Services and Technology; Brian Dunlap took time out of their schedules to answer our questions. Their answers were both informative and thought provoking as well as giving a hint to the future.
TDP: First of all, congratulations on the Knoxville broadcast. From everything we have seen on Twitter it sounds like a ton of logistical hoops had to be jumped through. Can you give us an idea of what some of those “Hoops” where?
-LH: For sure. From a logistical side of things, there were logistics we knew we would need to work around, but there were also those day-of ‘surprise’ hoops, too. For instance, to enter the facility, all staff, crews, and drivers had to go through a screening that included having your temperature taken, a written questionnaire with some current health questions, and everyone had to wear a mask at all time, with the exception of commentators while on the mic alone. Because there were no fans in attendance, we had to also shift our focus to what would look the best on only a broadcast. In a sense, this was great, as we could run the show at a pace better for a broadcast than for present fans, but man, it was also an odd feeling.
-BD: From the broadcast standpoint one of the biggest hurdles we had to overcome was simply convincing ourselves that the approach we were taking was the right move. On paper everything new we tried for the night made sense, but with each new thing you introduce you also introduce 10 more things that could go wrong. We spent a lot of time not only developing Plan A, but also making sure we were ready to pivot and roll with plan’s B, C & D as well.
TDP: The Knoxville Broadcast seems like it might have been a “game changer” for Sprint Car Racing – right up there with Jan Opperman pounding on the USAC guys back in the mid 70’s or Ted Johnson no longer selling China – am I being overly dramatic – or was their a seismic shift for the WoO and the sport on Friday May 8, 2020?
-LH: It’s hard to tell right now. The Monday after the event, when our entire team was back in the office, we had the conversation that we probably won’t all grasp the enormity of this #RETURNtoRACING for years. It’ll be one of those moments you look back on and think, “wow, we did THAT”. At the same time though, it allowed us to push the limits of our abilities and of our Studio’s abilities that will surely set the stage for our future broadcasts, whether short- or long-term.
TDP: When Dirtvision was first conceived, I am assuming nobody had any idea how important it would be in 2020. Part A: At the start, was Dirtvision seen as a potential profit center or just something that was a basic requirement of a racing organization that wanted to be taken seriously in the early 2000’s?
Part B: Was Dirtvision seen as a “Loss Leader” or was expected to be Profitable out of the box?
Part C: Where there people in the room that could foresee that Dirtvision would be important not only for WRG but also for sponsors, teams and fans?
-LH: I can’t speak on all of this, particularly Part A, as I didn’t come around dirt-track racing until around 2010, and really didn’t know much about the Outlaws until a few years after that even. Part B) But live streaming as many events as we do, some of them still aren’t necessarily profitable. Between equipment costs, server costs, employee salaries, and more, costs add up quickly when broadcasting across America and Australia, but we’ve been able to work out a business and subscription model that works well for us currently. The neat thing about being in our position is we’re constantly able to look at potential changes and see what will work – we’re always trying to improve our product and give users the best bang for the buck. Part C) We have a great team of executives backing DIRTVision in Brian Carter (CEO of World Racing Group) and Ben Geisler (CMO of World Racing Group) who have always seen the potential to grow the streaming platform right along with sponsors, teams, and fans.
One of the coolest moments after announcing “Every World of Outlaws Sprint Car Race Live” back in 2018 was hearing that Daryn Pittman gained a full-time ride with Roth Motorsports because their owner would now be able to watch their car on DIRTVision.com when they couldn’t make it to the track. We knew the potential growth that sponsors could see when being broadcast around the world, but I’m not sure we expected a story like Pittman’s to come out of it right away.
BD- Speaking to points A & B, I don’t believe we ever viewed it as a “Loss Leader” so to speak, as lean as margins are in this industry it’s hard to really have Loss Leaders like that. Early on it was more of a side project, we ran the business unit with existing bandwidth and resources to keep overhead low.
From a management perspective standpoint vision of the potential the product carried has always been there. It really took technology development and adoption to get to the point we are at today.
TDP: I remember reading sometime back in the 80’s – words to the effect that “The World Of Outlaws was having trouble gaining owners because, “Who wants to spend a $100,000-250,000 a year on a team, that they will only get to see run a few times a year”. When Daryn Pittman tweeted something along the lines of, Dirtvision was a ‘Godsend” because his owner can now watch all of the races. Was Pittman’s observation an eye opener to the Dirtvision team or was that part of the plan all along?
-LH: Guess I jumped ahead on this one! Long story short: growing sponsorship relationships, enhancing the fan experience, and benefiting the teams was always part of the plan when broadcasting full seasons, but Pittman’s story still felt like a “we’re really doing it” moment for all of us.
TDP: At the turn of the century it looked like the sky was the limit in terms of television with TNN partnering with The World of Outlaws. Obviously, the sale of TNN and the ever shifting world of television broadcasting put an end to that. That being said, WRG still seems to be working with traditional media (i.e. TV). Do you see a dual Television/Dirtvision strategy continuing?
-LH: Working with CBS Sports Network over the past years for our tape-delayed shows have been fun. The shows give fans something to look forward to during the traditional off-season, but we know it’s not the same as watching the event live. As we’ve grown our Studio the past two or so years and have now used it for live CBS Sports Network iRacing shows, I think it’s grown our potential to be able to work with live TV sometime in the future.
-BD: I continue to see the dual strategy remaining in effect for the foreseeable future. The expansion of DIRTVision really allows us to leverage our investments in assets and resources to produce network TV broadcasts more and more efficiently.
TDP: I think everyone has a story of internet misery when trying to watch a live race – broadcast freezing – poor internet connection at the track etc – most of these problems are now history. If the Knoxville Covid event would have happened 2-3 years ago would a streaming broadcast have worked? Would the then unknown technological challenges along with the inexperience of the Dirtvision team at that time have been so great that today we would be talking about crashed servers and what a disaster Friday night was? I guess I am saying was timing everything??
-LH: Timing definitely helped. We’ve never had as strong of a team in place as we do today, and that played a huge part. From Justin beefing up the website server, to Rob running Studio operations, to Hank & Alex on site, and more – we’re a strong team, and I hope it shows. Plus having Brian Dunlap as our technology guru is an enormous plus. I can’t say the show would have been a disaster 2-3 years ago, but it would not have been as well put-together as it was this year, to say the least.
-BD: Every race we broadcast only makes the next broadcast better so timing certainly played a factor. Our team meets each Monday morning to discuss the weekends broadcasts, what worked, what didn’t, and what we learned to make the future broadcasts better. We kind of run our team like a typical race team and it’s important to continue to learn what works, what doesn’t, and always be evaluating how you can be better.
TDP: Related to the above – Dirtvision seems like a wonderful product that WoO fans can use and enjoy – That being said – It doesn’t seem to be much of a tool for bringing in new fans – are we reading that right or does it actually work to attract new fans?
-LH: I think over the years, we’ve been working to become more new-fan-friendly. Our entire Vault is free for all users, which is a great way to jump in and see if dirt-track racing interests you. Since we began pushing all of our broadcasts out of our studio in North Carolina, we also now have the capabilities to push videos to social media in real-time during events. While it’s not watching the full show, it’s a great way for new fans, or busy fans, to still follow along with the event.
-BD: Looking at DIRTVision and its role in the organization holistically, it is a huge asset in providing resources for things such as network TV broadcasts, and avenues for event promotion and ticket sales.
We all work hard to bring in new fans, but also know it’s important to keep existing fans engaged. DIRTVision has been an outstanding tool for that continued fan engagement. For example, a 90+ race schedule the World of Outlaws can be a hard series just to stay up to date with as a casual fan. As we get those casual fans engaged by watching night in, night out, it keeps the series top of mind and they tend to make sure they don’t miss a race when the series rolls into their hometown. We have seen the average number of tickets purchased annually increase from subscribers within our DIRTVision database.
TDP: The elephant in the room is a always money. I don’t want to know the numbers (Feel free to share them though!). Could the World of Outlaws work as a PPV model as its only revenue source along with what it receives from its marketing partners? Do you still need your other revenue sources to remain viable i.e.: Sanctioning fees, march sales etc?
-LH: I’m not savvy to the finances of the entire WRG company, but I think WRG is bigger than many people realize.While DIRTVision and productions are now a large part of our company and sponsorship has always been important in motorsports, ticket sales, sanctioning fees of all DIRTcar tracks, and merch sales are still bigger, as a whole. WRG isn’t “only” the two World of Outlaws brands, so we have a lot of moving pieces to keep, well, moving all year long. On the other hand, during the pandemic, DIRTVision has allowed WRG to try new things, like the #RETURNtoRACING events since with none- to limited-ticket sales, streaming revenue is of upmost importance.
TDP: Another money question. Dirtvision is an incredible bargain – You can watch all the races you want for a month at a fee equal to about 1-2 grandstand tickets. Somehow though it still seems like, “Well, there goes another $40” – Some people are always whining (Me included) – Is there any possibility that with some real growth in numbers the fees will come down – making Dirtvision even more attractive? Or is the fee structured to be somewhat desirable and yet, if the WoO is running close to home you will still drive to the track for the real thing?
-LH: I think our goal has always been to get to a price-point feasible for the majority of our current and potential fans, but that, of course, takes growth. A step we’ve taken to give our subscribers even more content is combining what used to be the Late Model Fast Pass and Sprint Car Fast Pass into one all-access Fast Pass, as well as adding weekly racing from Knoxville Raceway, Attica Raceway Park, and Williams Grove Speedway, plus full seasons from Australia. Along with that, I’m not sure that the price point has much to do with not driving to the track. Streaming has proven time and time again that there’s nothing that can replace seeing a race in person, and some of the most rewarding comments we receive from fans are along the lines of, “I saw XYZ racetrack on DIRTVision, and now I plan on going next year!”
TDP: What’s next? Is Dirtvision the future for the foreseeable future for WRG, or do you folks have something else up your sleeves?
-LH: Growth. Growth is always on our mind, plus we always have a few things up our sleeves. Some are small changes or advancements that viewers may barely notice, and some are changes that are long-term and will take some time to develop. Right now, I’m pretty stoked about the apps we’re working on. After a couple of hiccups last season with them, we’ve seen real progress the last few months, and I’m so excited to see what viewers think of them when we get to that point. For reference, mobile apps will be released first, followed by the OTT apps (think Roku, FireStick, etc.).
TDP: Recently Dirtvision added Australian coverage to its broadcasts. What was the plan there? To add value for US subscribers, or to tap into the Australian sprint car market? Or was it to screw up Dirtvision employees’ sleep patterns?
-LH: I think it was all three if we’re being honest. Haha! We really wanted to bring dirt-track racing to fans all around the world, year-round, and nowadays, that’s possible. The racing Down Under is fantastic: from Perth Motorplex running Sprints, Late Models, Speedcars, and more, to the Ultimate Speedway Challenge running at 4 tracks across Australia, to the Grand Annual Sprintcar Classic at Premier Speedway, there’s something for everyone to enjoy. Plus it introduces new drivers to new and long-time fans of the sport, so that’s neat to see unfold, too. Running these events from 1:00AM – 10:00AM Eastern was definitely an adjustment, but honestly, the race world is used to overnight drives from track to track, so it wasn’t too different from what our sleep schedules were used to.
TDP: Any other comments?
-LH: Dirtvision is a team – and I want to make sure the other team members get a “shout-out” beyond just Brian and myself, they include: -Ross Wece: Manager, Broadcast Services -Rob Blount: Live Broadcast Specialist -Hank Silver: DIRTVision Producer -Mitch Mabry: Media Specialist -Alex Borland: DIRTVision Producer -Jaxon Steele: Camera Operator
The Drivers Project is a media collective devoted to North American open-wheel racing.