NASCAR’s New Network Partners, Good Or Bad For Viewers?

Taking the green at Daytona

(WOMR file photo)

As was announced earlier this week, ESPN is getting out of NASCAR, NBC is getting in, and Fox is being Fox! So who here are making the good moves, who are making the bad moves and, most importantly, are any of the the moves good for fans?

Any analysis of the situation must, obviously, start with an examination of the current and future strengths of NASCAR as a product. That is: Just how popular is NASCAR among race fans? They are , after all, the potential customers for the goods and services that networks advertise during races and around the sport in general. Therefore, any success of this sport, and its coverage, will be determined by the satisfaction level of its fans/consumers.

There is little doubt that the sport does not enjoy the high flying status it enjoyed eight, 10, 12 years ago. During those best of times, there were waiting lists for seats at 100,000-plus race tracks and, seemingly, every weekend produced new Nielsen records.

It was really hip to be a REDNECK NASCAR FAN! The racing and drivers were not only discussed and analyzed at Waffle Houses and barber shops, but around office water coolers, as well as neon-lit clubs.

The sport of NASCAR responded in a number of ways. Among the responses was a decision to expand: Geographically – with the addition of races to places like Fort Worth, Kansas City, Chicago and Las Vegas – and demographically as it took steps to attract new and younger fans.

With Brian France taking over for his father, Bill France Jr., the whole of the product was re-examined, and changes were made to everything from equipment to rules, to officiating and marketing.  Can we say Car of Tomorrow??  How about the Gen 6 car?

Many of the changes – in product and attitude – were made much to the chagrin of the old school, Southeastern  fan base. Suddenly, that fan base, feeling jilted, became a fleeing fan base.

That, combined with a number of other factors – such as the economy and, perhaps, the questionable loyalty of the new demographic – led to decline in both gate and TV viewership. It was a very significant decline!

That decline may, or may not, have bottomed out the last two years. Signs are mixed about that right now and clearly, with television contracts coming due the last couple years, future dealings with broadcasters would be held on a somewhat uncertain soil.

In 2012, much to the surprise of many observers, Fox extended its deal with NASCAR for an additional eight years. According to the SportsBusiness Journal, Fox increased its payment to NASCAR by approximately 36 percent, from $1.76 billion for their current eight-year deal, which expires in 2014, to $2.4 billion from 2015-2022.

A possible explanation for the increased payments to the series is the Fox decision to develop its own all-sports network, FOX Sports 1 – a network which will need programming.

NBC has also launched NBC Sports, also an all-sports platform for the broadcasting giant. NBC Sports, also in need of programming, has so far, demonstrated a commitment to the NHL and soccer. Adding NASCAR, even in its current state of popularity flux, makes perfect sense at this time.

NBC admitted Tuesday that cutting a deal with NASCAR is a bit of a gamble. “This is a bet on growth,”(emphasis added) said Mark Lazarus, chairman of the NBC Sports Group, who was running Turner Sports when TNT first linked up with NBC. “This is a bet that there is more audience out there.”

And ESPN getting out? The guys in Bristol are still the kings, by a country mile. Even though they do still have to push things like poker and softball to fill time. It is tough to imagine that ESPN does not have a very solid plan to replace NASCAR – especially considering that races are held during times of the day and year when other major sports are doing their things too.

Bottom line: Don’t feel sorry for any of the broadcasting parties involved in Tuesday’s announcement.

But what will it all mean to fans who could care less about the invisible financial aspects of the deal. Those race fans could care less which number they punch into their remotes on Saturdays and Sundays.

As mentioned previously, ESPN is the big cheese, the big kahuna, the big dog. The Bristol, Conn. based giant has platforms dealing with its platforms. Radio to a magazine and everything in between. It’s SportsCenter results program is beyond assault by any current or in-the-works competition that anyone could possibly dream up. ESPN has developed its own stars, style, and a sense among fans that it absolutely essential to day-to-day living!

ESPN is so powerful that it doesn’t just cover sports, it creates them.  Can we say X Games?

But ESPN has never really thrown its full weight behind NASCAR. It gives better play to tennis, and for that matter, the Little League World Series than NASCAR. That goes for Sports Center, the mag and its talk shows. You can watch a panel of “edgy” blathering, or blithering heads, who spend more time in nice restaurants and hair salons than at sports events, or debate the minutia of the Australian Open tennis pairings for hours on end.  But discussing racing, any racing? Very close to zip, nada, zero!

Do not think that race fans notice that!  You can bet your sweet bippy that they do!  The absence from the ESPN Sports Center is not lost at all on the hardened race fans, be it NASCAR, open wheel dirt cars, or IndyCar fans!

From the perspective of the couch potato and computer-desk chair, it has become clear that ESPN has shuffled racing, as a beat, further, and even further,into the background.

Is this an effect of racing’s slide in popularity, or a cause of it? Both, probably. But definitely not great for race fans in the short run!

NBC, meanwhile, has shown signs that racing might be viewed as a more precious asset. It’s coverage of Formula 1 on race days has been good. The network showed care and skill by hiring the best in the biz, Aussie Leigh Diffey, to be its lead voice. It also brought in former race car driver, David Hobbs, a wonderful analyst.

NBC Sports will need to add several higher gears, plus an overdrive, to its coverage in 2014 as it lays the ground work for NASCAR coverage in 2015. It will need to start getting serious about non-race day programming and coverage on its website, as well, two things that remain neglected in F1 and IndyCar coverage.

But the potential is there for NBC’s re-entry into NASCAR to be a good deal for fans.

But again as I have mentioned, NBC will most definitely need to pick and choose, very carefully, how the network re-emerges into the NASCAR scene.  They, NBC, will have to be very cognizant of their previous mistakes, noting not to commit those very same errors as it re-emerges on the NASCAR scene.  NBC and NBC Sports can emerge as a major network player with NASCAR, and jump start their entry into competing with ESPN and the FOX conglomerate of sports networks, proving that NBC Sports could be a worldwide powerhouse!



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