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ESPN and Turner Sports will be out of the NASCAR business after next season, ending associations with the sport that go back three decades. NASCAR plans to announce this afternoon a new rights deal with NBC for the second half of the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series seasons -- a package that previously had been held by ESPN. Beginning in '15, NBC will share NASCAR coverage with Fox, which signed an extension with NASCAR last year. Financial terms of NBC's deal were not available, but sources familiar with it said it was as much as a 50% increase from what ESPN paid for the Sprint Cup series and half of the Nationwide Series. Turner's package of six Sprint Cup races, as well as the first half of the Nationwide Series, remain available, according to sources. Fox is considered a likely bidder for both those packages. Turner and ESPN, which are in the seventh year of eight-year agreements valued at $2.74B overall, had an exclusive negotiating window with NASCAR that ended July 14. When they did not finalize extensions, NASCAR turned to NBC.
INTERNAL DEBATE ABOUT LEAVING ESPN: Sources familiar with the organization said there was a debate about leaving ESPN. There was concern the move would hurt the sport's exposure to casual sports fans who watch "SportsCenter," "PTI" and other ESPN programs. But sources said NASCAR execs made the choice to go with NBC for several reasons beyond its willingness to outspend its competitors. NBC's broadcast plans are not known, but the network had been pitching NASCAR on returning the Sprint Cup series to broadcast TV and could air races on Sunday afternoons on NBC prior to its "Sunday Night Football" broadcast. It also offered a chance to cross-promote NASCAR with the Olympics. Lastly, the sport's leaders have a level of comfort with NBC Sports Group Chair Mark Lazarus, who previously worked with NASCAR when he was president at Turner Sports. Lazarus consulted NASCAR on its upcoming TV negotiations when he was at Atlanta-based CSE before he joined NBC. NBC was disappointed when it lost NASCAR to ESPN in '06.
NOT WILLING TO MEET NBC'S OFFER: ESPN and Turner both were interested in keeping the rights, but were not willing to pay as much as NBC was offering, sources said. Turner only had six races, which did not help increase cable license fees for TNT. ESPN has focused on more populist sports, like college football and basketball. Both networks suffered through ratings declines recently -- this year was Turner's lowest rated. They also complained that NASCAR, more than other sports, was hurt by the economy, making ad sales more of a challenge. Turner Broadcasting President of Sales, Distribution & Sports David Levy said, "Turner Sports is proud of the partnership we've built with NASCAR over the past 31 years and the role our company has played in helping to grow the sport. We think NASCAR is an attractive property, but we are disciplined in our approach to negotiating sports rights and could not come up with a business model that was financially prudent for our company."
Political analyst Nate Silver, lauded in recent years for his accurate projections, yesterday said he will take his popular FiveThirtyEight blog from the N.Y. Times to ESPN, launching it in an independent voice similar to the Bill Simmons-led Grantland. Silver on a conference call said he is moving to a “dream job” at ESPN. Silver said, “The more we thought about it, the more excited I became. What I’ve done for politics at FiveThirtyEight is an approach we think is applicable to lots of areas. It’s not just going to be a politics site or a sports site. There’s lots of potential in business and economics.” ESPN President John Skipper said, “Nate has a really unique blend of creativity, journalism and statistical analysis that he can bring to ESPN.” Skipper added Silver’s blog will stay on the Times' site “probably through the end of August” and then launch as an ESPN-owned property. Silver said ESPN is buying the URL and the FiveThirtyEight trade name, which differs from his current deal with the Times. He added it is "not a pure licensing deal," but is a "more all-in partnership." Silver upon launch will be named Editor-in-Chief and will assemble a staff similar in size to that of Grantland’s -- in the “small dozens.” Silver said he has not made a decision on any hires. Skipper: “Politics remains at the core of what he does, so that’s going to be important. I think the range of topics will be quite wide.” Skipper quickly shot down rumors of Silver being a regular contributor to the new weeknight ESPN2 show “Olbermann,” saying web-based content will be Silver’s initial priority. He will, however, appear on ABC News during election season. Silver said, “I do think longer term there are so many resources here in terms of television, in terms of film, also a little bit in different products that we’ll have a lot of choices to make. We haven’t discussed which programs I’ll be on.” Skipper would not comment on the exact length of Silver’s deal, but called it a “long-term” agreement (Josh Carpenter, Staff Writer).
TV ROLE: The HOLLYWOOD REPORTER's Michael O'Connell noted ABC News President Brian Sherwood yesterday was "mentioned several times," but outside of Silver appearing on ABC News during the next election cycle, there was "no elaboration as to any on-air presence." Silver said, "I plan on spending a bunch of time with Bill (Simmons) in the coming months." Silver noted that it may "take up to a year before they're fully up and running" (HOLLYWOODREPORTER.com, 7/22).
NOT THE RIGHT FIT IN N.Y.? N.Y. TIMES Public Editor Margaret Sullivan wrote Silver's "ability to drive traffic -- especially among young, non-newspaper readers with his FiveThiryEight blog -- was unmatched, and probably will remain so." However, Sullivan wrote, "I don’t think Nate Silver ever really fit into the Times culture and I think he was aware of that. He was, in a word, disruptive. ... Nate disrupted the traditional model of how to cover politics." Sullivan added a number of "traditional and well-respected Times journalists disliked his work" (NYTIMES.com, 7/22). Silver yesterday regarding Sullivan's comments said, "I would say I love the people at ESPN, but this culture stuff at the Times was not a big factor in the decision" (Carpenter). Silver: "I'm interested in running a website, building out a business here, and having my opportunity to weigh in on different topics. I'm not interested in who I'm getting a beer with. I have plenty of people in my social circles for that" (NYMAG.com, 7/22).
ATTRACTIVE SUITOR: In Akron, George Thomas writes the fact that ESPN is "brokering in microsites that cater to their most talented individuals, such as Bill Simmons with Grantland.com, makes working there attractive, especially to Silver." It is a "brilliant move on the part of both parties involved" and Skipper, who has "landed Keith Olbermann and Silver in subsequent weeks, has "every right to be ecstatic welcoming a different journalistic perspective to the network’s sports coverage" (AKRON BEACON JOURNAL, 7/23). MEDIA BISTRO's Gail Shister writes Silver's "migration from the New York Times to ESPN represents more than a new URL -- it augurs a sea change in the news business itself" (MEDIABISTRO.com, 7/23).
Fox Sports yesterday announced the on-air teams and studio hosts for its '13-14 college football coverage. The net's "Fox College Saturday" pregame show will air a two-hour edition from 10:00am-12:00pm ET on Fox Sports 1. Erin Andrews will host alongside Eddie George, Joel Klatt, Petros Papadakis, Mike Pereira and Clay Travis. College football games on Fox will be preceded by a 30-minute edition of the show with Rob Stone hosting alongside George and Klatt (Fox Sports). SB NATION's Steve Lepore wrote, "One interesting aspect of Fox's pregame show is the goal of making the panel geographically diverse in order to claim balanced coverage of all the conferences, not just those Fox has broadcast rights to" (SBNATION.com, 7/22). George said when asked about FS1's chance to compete with ESPN head-to-head, "If it doesn't work this year, they'll reconfigure it next year and figure it out. One way or another, I think Fox will be a player because they're in it for the long haul. ESPN and GameDay, they're woven into the fabric of college football tradition. That's the tradition but what we want to offer is another alternative. There's nothing wrong with going with Pepsi after having Coke your [whole] life. It just gives a different flavor. We all know what the tag line for Pepsi is -- the choice of a new generation. Fox is doing the same thing. That could be what Fox is, it just gives you another flavor" (NEWSOK.com, 7/22).
Some TV insiders believe ESPN analyst Ray Lewis "could do for the NFL what Charles Barkley did for NBA telecasts," according to Richard Deitsch of THE MMQB. Lewis "met with other networks, but ESPN appealed to him for a variety of reasons, including the prospect of non-Sunday work assignments." Lewis will travel to the "MNF" site "each week to serve as an analyst for 'Monday Night Countdown.'" He also will "work eight Sundays at ESPN’s studios in Bristol, Conn., appearing on the network’s 'Sunday NFL Countdown' pregame show." Lewis will make his "debut the morning of Sunday, Sept. 8." Lewis in June "started working at his home in Baltimore with an ESPN talent coach, learning how to sit for a broadcast, how to breathe and pause properly, and how to modulate his voice levels at the right moments." He said of delivering criticism when criticism is warranted, "I would come from the most honest point ever. Period. I don’t care if it is wrong or right. ... I’m there to pay attention and give insight on the game and on each player and coach." He said that with off-the-field issues he will "be cautious in talking about individual cases." Lewis, when asked if he should be a part of any studio conversation about Aaron Hernandez said, "It would only be to give a brief explanation on what you know." He added, "Having gone through the things I have been through, what I learned from that is everybody has something they want to say. ... You can’t speak about something you do not know. Give your opinion, and keep it moving from there." Lewis is "strictly an ESPN studio host for the moment," but ESPN NFL Senior Coordinating Producer Seth Markman said that he is "strongly considering using Lewis to work the opening round of the 2014 draft" (MMQB.SI.com, 7/22). In Baltimore, David Zurawik asked, "Will Ray Lewis be successful in making the transition to ESPN analyst?" It is "not as automatic and easy as some might think." Zurawik: "No one is a 'natural' on TV. Is Lewis willing to put in the time it takes not to be a TV bust?" (BALTIMORESUN.com, 7/22).
It seemed the Bengals franchise was "setting itself up for further embarrassment" by agreeing to participate in HBO's "Hard Knocks" in '09, but the team "received the type of positive image makeover that is usually scripted on other reality television shows," according to Alex Marvez of FOXSPORTS.com. Considering "how positive the experience was, it makes sense that the Bengals were willing to return" for this year's edition of "Hard Knocks," set to debut on Aug. 6. Bengals Owner Mike Brown said, "What we found when we did that show was people saw us differently. They saw us more positively. They saw us as just people. We would like our new guys to be seen that way by Bengals fans and develop a bond with our players. That’s a good reason why we did this." But Brown "does worry that a negative perception about the Bengals still exists to some extent despite the franchise placing a greater emphasis on drafting 'sound' players rather than taking greater risks on talented-but-troubled prospects like in the past." He said, "We sometimes are portrayed as almost villainous. The players are sometimes thought to be selfish or even criminal. I’m going to the far end of the spectrum there, but we get some very difficult criticism. I’d like to think we aren’t that way. It isn’t that we’re anything so special but we’re just ordinary folks if you will. If people would come and look, I think that’s what they would see. I think for the most part that’s what they did see. We surprised people a little bit.” Marvez notes "Hard Knocks" already has "started filming off-field vignettes" featuring Bengals players, and "more footage will come" after the Bengals open training camp tomorrow (FOXSPORTS.com, 7/22).