Tuned Out

Super GT’s reluctance to broadcast its own races outside of Japan has created a pointless mess that hurts its own pursuit of international growth.


I could tell you so many great stories about this weekend’s opening round of the Autobacs Super GT Series held at Okayama International Circuit. There’s just one problem: I didn’t get to watch it. Not because I didn’t want to. Of course I did. I just…couldn’t watch it. At all.

NISMO TV, who with the help of Radio Le Mans had become the unofficial broadcast partner of Super GT outside of Japan, were not able to broadcast this season’s first race on their YouTube channel. With Super GT not having a television broadcast carrier outside of its home country since their short-lived arrangement with Motors TV ten years ago, and with the series itself not offering any sort of official live streaming options in its place, there was no legal way to watch the race unless you lived in Japan.

If you lived outside of Japan, where you cannot get the J Sports multiplex of networks on cable or satellite providers, and you cannot pay about ten dollars to watch a livestream of the race on Niconico – which is not accessible to prospective viewers outside of Japan – your only option to watch the race live, as it happened, was on an illicit TV streaming site, with low-quality pictures and enough invasive pop-up ads and potential trojan horse viruses to make your computer’s hard drive burst into confetti.

I wanted no part of delving back into that hole again. And at least one top person at RLM had re-iterated the point that illicit streams ultimately make it harder for their Super GT broadcasts on YouTube to happen again in the future – much like rampant piracy of anime makes it harder for studios to produce additional seasons of popular shows. (Trust me on this, me and all my friends are total nerds, and we do the right thing by streaming our anime on Crunchyroll, who paid me a sum of literally nothing to say that.)

Just one problem: When NISMO’s official Twitter account is posting GIFs of the race almost as they’re happening, complete with “J SPORTS 4 LIVE” watermarking in the upper right corner – but they’re not streaming the race themselves on their YouTube channel, where in the flying Fukuoka Prefecture are they getting the streaming video footage to convert to GIFs?

Also, having already announced that they wouldn’t be broadcasting the race this weekend, what good would it do for NISMO to keep posting infographics reminding everybody when the race starts so they can be on time to not watch the race on NISMO Dot TV?

To put it simply: Super GT’s broadcasting situation outside of Japan is a sorry, rotten, horrible mess.

There’s only so much that can be gleamed from the four-minute highlight video of the race that was posted on Super GT’s seldom-used official YouTube page.

About the NISMO team opening their 2016 season with a victory in the first round. About Tsugio Matsuda moving into sole possession of first place on the all-time wins list, and how NISMO could become the first team to win three consecutive GT500 titles this year. About how great Katsumasa Chiyo looked in his GT500 debut, and how Ryo Hirakawa has the potential to be a major star in the European Le Mans Series this year. About how Honda got their teeth kicked in like a penalty shot, and Mercedes’ 1-2 finish in the GT300 category.

And so, so many other storylines that I just cannot delve into with the level of depth that I like to do without having seen the race unfold as it happened. As of right now, I’m still waiting for the full race to hit an accessible part of the internet, and acknowledging that there is no legal, ethical way to watch it outside of Japan.

Still, it could be worse. Even with the smallest capacity of any Super GT circuit, Okayama International Circuit still opened the gates to 19,000 enthusiastic race fans for Sunday’s race. Unlike some other GT racing series with a top class comprised of high-powered silhouette cars, which didn’t even open to the public this past weekend.

But still, it’s not good. It’s well below par, and it’s even below inadequate, what’s being provided to the international Super GT fanbase.

And I don’t blame the folks at Radio Le Mans. Yes, I’ve had issues with the NISMO/RLM-produced Super GT broadcasts before – ever since the partnership began with the 2014 Suzuka 1000km, which was a very, very last-minute, spur-of-the-moment deal.

The pictures are pretty low-quality. The commentators, who call the race off-location at RLM’s studio at the ideal time of Stupid O’Clock (GMT), have no pit reporter on-site to work with, or any access to live timing and scoring. That makes their job much harder to do effectively. It is by all accounts, very much a makeshift operation, but since 2014, it is Super GT’s only officially-sanctioned, legal broadcast available to the international audience.

A broadcast that still draws a very large audience for its timeframe, gets a ton of social media engagement, and most importantly, grows and maintains Super GT’s coveted international audience. No joke, friends of mine who didn’t even watch racing before NISMO and RLM broadcast every race of last season, were regular viewers of the Super GT broadcasts by the end of the season! Even if it was just to see the cars sponsored by Vocaloid character Hatsune Miku, mobile game Love Live! School Idol Project, and Neon Genesis Evangelion‘s flagship mech, EVA Unit-01.

And now, we don’t even have that to watch. And Super GT doesn’t have its coveted international audience.

As someone who’s invested more time than he realistically should to try and promote the series, this breaks my heart about as bad as my last bad break-up.

In absence of Super GT, I watched quite a bit of the Blancpain GT Series Sprint Cup opener from Misano, Italy. I watched it for free on their official YouTube channel, where commentators Jack Nicholls and John Watson have every bit of vital info that they need right at their fingertips. And, a breakthrough for the American audience – the GT World YouTube broadcasts were not geo-blocked like they were last year – and the series still broadcasts highlights on CBS Sports Network and its fourteen households!

Should also be said, the racing was quite good in Misano – a packed grid, several new cars, top-caliber teams, brilliant young drivers showcasing their talents – top-level GT racing organised by Stéphane Ratel is back to being a big deal, just as it should be.

And that brings me back to Super GT, where I’ve seen over the last two years that the racing is just as good. Out of personal bias, I’d say it’s even better.

You have the most competitive GT300 field in series history, a second division that is no longer second-rate competition, but filled to capacity with truly world-class drivers driving the newest GT3 race cars and original Japanese racing concepts fielded by top-caliber teams.

And of course, GT500 is everything the conceptually similar DTM wishes it could be, in terms of racing action, pure speed, and driving standards and talent. As it stands, the only sports cars in racing that are faster than the GT500 field are the three hybrid LMP1 machines from Porsche, Audi, and Toyota. And there’s a real manufacturer rivalry that still exists here, that’s all but died off elsewhere.

Super GT has a marquee 1000km event in Suzuka every August that should be promoted as the big race, just as the Bathurst 1000 is in Australia, and a list of alumni filled with prolific F1 stars, Le Mans champions, and many other great, legendary racing drivers from home and abroad that they can celebrate and claim as their own. Did anyone reading this know that “Mr. Le Mans” himself, Tom Kristensen, was a Super GT driver in the mid-’90s before I finished this sentence?

Super GT has all the potential in the world to explode in popularity in the West, especially with the planned unification of GT500 and DTM regulations, known as “Class One”, set to happen in 2017 2018 20xx the near future. But thanks to the NISMO/RLM blackout this weekend, that potential is momentarily stifled. And who knows if it’ll be able to get back to where it was last year, if it comes back in May for the Fuji 500km race?

The series will go out of their way to promote the acquisitions of star international drivers like former F1 Grand Prix winner Heikki Kovalainen, European Formula 3 championship contender Nick Cassidy, and Nissan GT Academy alumni Jann Mardenborough. They’ll pull out all the stops in their lone fly-away race in Thailand to make sure that it’s run as a marquee event. They’ve made “Fun Books” with all the basic rules and details of Super GT, and awesome promotional videos for the international audience – my goodness, they even got four-time and defending champion Ronnie Quintarelli to play an elderly version of himself for one of those!

But they don’t realize that without giving us the ability to watch the race, and to get engaged in the series regularly, all of those star aquisitions, all of the fly-away races and cross-promotional exhibition events, all of those videos and fun books, will mean absolutely nothing. Nil. Nada. Squat. Frick All.

Super GT’s English web portal is seldom and tardily updated, articles are written like the editor just ran Google Translate and called it an evening, there’s no original content, and very minimal information is available. They have no official Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram presence whatsoever, all while NASCAR and IndyCar in the ‘States have embraced it with open, loving arms. Thanks to their TV deal with J Sports, all race broadcasts and series-related TV shows stay locked down to cable/satellite television or internet pay-per-view only.

And with all the damn cheek, like the heavy-handed copyright enforcement wing of the Formula One World Championship – which has proven far more effective at its job of removing any F1-related video content they themselves didn’t upload, and sending cease & desist notices to sim racing developers, than the actual F1 governors and Strategy Group members are at their job of, you know, RUNNING THE DAMN SPORT – Super GT and J Sports are quick to shut down any unauthorized uploads of their races, even if it’s the only way to watch them in the US, UK, Australia, etc., and even if they won’t offer it to non-Japanese fans themselves.

It feels like their own version of the Sakoku Edict of 1635, the series of laws passed under the Tokugawa Shogunate period that closed the island nation of Japan to the outside world out of fear of growing Catholic influence from Europe. Something that anyone fluent in Japanese history knows to heart, just like if you need to protect your stuff from criminals, you hire a samurai.

Is it out of an irrational, yet understandable fear of Super GT falling into the clutches of the bad parts of big-time Western circuit racing, like pointless gimmicks, sterilized regulations, and questionable driving standards? Trust me when I say that the existing product needs none of that, and the many devoted fans of Super GT are so very thankful that it goes on as it is. Just trim some of the downforce off the GT500 cars, and y’all are golden.

Back in the day, of course, Super GT – then known as the JGTC – saw it gain tons, upon tons of exposure through its inclusion in massively popular racing games like Gran TurismoForza Motorsport, and the many failed titles inspired by them. Even if you’d never heard of the All-Japan Grand Touring Car Championship, if you played one of those titles, you knew what the Castrol TOM’s Supra, the Raybrig NSX, and the Calsonic Skyline GT-R were, and you probably wanted to drive one for real, or at least see where they raced.

Ironically, pay-per-view video offered through one of Gran Turismo 5‘s now-defunct online services was one of the few ways international audiences could actually watch Super GT races, in full, outside of Japan.

That’s long gone, as was the Motors TV deal, and the short-lived highlights show on Speed Channel in the US narrated by the single most Bogan Aussie announcer dude who ever lived. And for this past weekend, so is Super GT on YouTube presented by NISMO TV and Radio Le Mans.

And while all this is happening, Super GT is still missing out on a prime opportunity to expand its audience while proving that such an endeavor is both worthwhile and profitable.

Pay-per-view motorsport is by no means overwhelmingly popular among race fans. The billion-dollar shift to the high-priced pay-TV multiplexes is already stunting Formula 1’s global viewing audience, and MotoGP’s as well. The World Endurance Championship’s paid subscription model for live video broadcasts isn’t entirely popular by any stretch. Ideally, racing fans would love their racing available on as many free-to-air platforms as possible. Our wallets are tight, and often filled with more moths and tumbleweeds than dollar bills or credit cards that didn’t get maxed out already.

But with these subscription-based internet broadcast models, it almost always means access to enhanced timing, scoring, statistics, and telemetry. Right now, Super GT’s Japan-only, iOS-exclusive, payware timing app doesn’t really offer anything that other series, like the lower-level 24H Series will be happy to give away for absolutely no cost.

These subscriptions also mean a large archive of previous broadcasts, available to watch on demand. They mean crystal-clear HD pictures, enhanced coverage from a larger team of broadcasters, potential for original content, and the ability to watch on any connected device.

Japan’s biggest pro wrestling promotion, New Japan Pro Wrestling, can owe its explosion of popularity in the West to making its major cards available overseas; first via internet pay-per-view, then through NJPW World, their new premium video site. On the same J Sports network that shows Super GT, WWE is also a staple of their programming – another company that is restructuring themselves around their own premium video service, the WWE Network.

The WEC, MotoGP, WRC, WTCC, V8 Supercars – all of them offer premium video services with monthly or yearly subscriptions and many of the afore-mentioned perks that come with it. Plus a few others unique to their respective brands of racing.

And if it would guarantee that there was a consistent, legal, broadcasting outlet for the series that benefits it in the long-term, and truly demonstrates that there is a market for Super GT in North America, Europe, Africa, South America, Australia, and the remainder of Asia? If it meant being able to watch any Super GT race on-demand in HD? If it meant not just an English-language commentary team, but an expanded English-language commentary team with pit reporters and the like?

Then, yes, I would absolutely and without hesitation subscribe to and support a premium video streaming service with my hard-earned money, no matter the cost, and watch Super GT racing that way.

And I know I would not be alone in my sentiments. Sure, not everyone would be happy with it, just as the move to premium streaming services isn’t always embraced by anime fans – but everyone I know that watches every new episode of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure every Friday like it’s a major holiday, is watching it on Crunchyroll because they know that’s the method that’s going to best ensure that future chapters of the series are animated.

I would easily take that option if Super GT finally decided it’d be a good idea to stream their own races, but opted not to just stream their races on YouTube for free the way that Blancpain GT does. Mind you, this would certainly be the ideal way to do it, to please all audiences in a time where top-quality, live, and free racing action is becoming increasingly scarce.

Anything at all, really, to avoid being plunged back into the dark ages of illegal streaming, like many Super GT fans based outside Japan were essentially forced to do this weekend, even knowing how much it hurts the series’ prospects of ever having another English-language broadcast.

Hopefully, NISMO and RLM can come together to broadcast the Fuji 500km – a traditional staple of the Super GT calendar since its first full season, a race with a history tracing back to 1971. Hopefully, Sam Collins’ insight will not be truncated to just a few live tweets, but he can instead return to his role as a brilliant technical analyst. And I can go back to spending some late nights talking about a series, that in my heart of hearts, I love more than any other, and would go out of my way to promote at any opportunity – especially to my friends who love racing and want an alternative when the mainstream options become stale.

But Super GT does not profit from these broadcasts. They know that. I’m sure everyone at NISMO and RLM knows that too. Yet, they still want to grow their international audience, at least at face value. They should, because the product is amazing.

So surely they must know that they must offer a video streaming service of their own, like the series they aspire to compete with. Either free of charge, or premium. So that it never, ever has to come back to their races only being available on illicit stream sites outside Japan. So that the bungled arrangement between NISMO and RLM doesn’t repeat itself later this year. So that fans can continue to fall in love with the series just as I did, by watching the races and becoming invested in the teams, drivers, and manufacturers that are the stars of the show.

They must do this, or else Super GT risks losing their international audience entirely – and if they do, they would lose it for no good reason at all.


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