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NASCAR Network Surfing: Good Or Bad For Fans?

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, July 26 2013

NASCAR's future may depend on better coverage with its new 'broadcast' partner. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Brian Lawdermilk)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

ESPN is getting out of NASCAR, NBC is getting in and Fox is 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, it seems, 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 the potential customers for the goods and services that networks advertise during races and around the sport in general. Hence, success of the 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 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 hip to be a NASCAR fan. The racing and drivers were not only discussed and analyzed at Waffle Houses and barber shops, but around office water coolers and neon-lit clubs.

The sport 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 (remember the Car of Tomorrow?) to rules and officiating and marketing.

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

That, combined with a number of other factors – such as the economy and, perhaps, the capricious loyalty of the new demographic – led to decline in both gate and TV viewership. 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 uncertain soil.

In 2012, 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 it own all-sports network – 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 sense.

NBC admitted Tuesday that cutting a deal with NASCAR is a bit of a gamble. “This is a bet on growth,” 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 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. Who could care less which number they punch into their remotes on Saturdays and Sundays.

As mentioned, ESPN is the big cheese. 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. 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; see X Games.

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

Many of the bigger offices – the ones where the course is charted at ESPN – are populated with former daily newspaper sports people. That has been good for the product overall as newspaper journalists, especially those who worked dailies back when the inkies cared, came to television having been exposed to positive things like ethics and professionalism.

But that has also worked against auto racing. Newspaper people never really embraced racing. They covered it pretty well during the good times, but always while holding their nose. They never understood the sport or its fans. They never cared to. It was a sport sitting outside of newspaper editors’ stick-and-ball comfort zone. When, in 2008 and 2009 newspaper whacked away at staff as its solution to slumping profit, it was auto racing that got whacked hardest.

ESPN right now has a wonderful corps of writers covering racing for its website. Solid, solid pros like Terry Blount, Ed Hinton and David Newton. But they have seemed, this season, to be making fewer and fewer visits to race tracks.

From the perspective of the couch and computer-desk chair, it has become clear that ESPN has shuffled racing, as a beat, further – 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 – Leigh Diffey – to be its lead voice. It also brought in David Hobbs, a wonderful analyst.

NBC Sports will need to add several higher gears 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 – 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 to win the “bet” that Lararus and his network are taking, they are going to have to pump resources and, especially, care and feeding into its racing product. Because cultivating the sport and growing it will not be the result of capricious rolls of the dice. It will be the result of taking the right real-world steps. NBC cannot simply recycle the way it did motor racing back between 1999 and 2006 because it did not do it well back then.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, July 26 2013
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