SBJ/February 28 - March 6, 2005/Media

Speed Channel, NASCAR Images may share a new home

Two motorsports-related media companies are searching for new homes, with the potential for collaborating on a 125,000-square-foot hub in the Charlotte area opening as soon as 2007.

Speed Channel, owned by News Corp., and NASCAR Images, a joint venture between the stock car sanctioning body and News Corp., have outgrown their existing facilities in the city, as Speed Channel now occupies 19,000 square feet and NASCAR Images, a film archive and video production company, has 30,000 square feet.

Speed Channel works closely with NASCAR Images on much of the network’s stock car programming. “The idea that could make financial sense [for building a new headquarters] is that we’re together,” said Jim Liberatore, Speed Channel president.

Neither Liberatore nor Jay Abraham, chief executive at NASCAR Images, has any estimate on what a new facility might cost.

For Liberatore, a decision on what to do next must come by midyear. Speed Channel’s lease runs out at the end of 2006. Since the network was acquired by News Corp. for $750 million in 2001 and relocated to Charlotte in February 2002, its staff has grown to 66 employees, up from 44 three years earlier.

Industry experts predict the News Corp. stakes in both Speed Channel and NASCAR Images will persuade the two companies to share a new home.

Abraham declined comment on NASCAR Images’ size and scope, but industry analysts say the company employs 90, with plans for additional staff expansion.

Sites for a possible new hub have not been determined.

H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, president at Speedway Motorsports Inc. in Concord, N.C., just north of Charlotte, said: “We would like to see them in this part of town. The biggest thing, though, is to make sure we keep them somewhere in North Carolina and don’t let them slip across the border.”

The speedway executive acknowledged earlier discussion about potentially pairing a Speed Channel location with the upcoming bid for a NASCAR Hall of Fame in uptown Charlotte, but he said land costs complicate those talks.

Industry consultant Terry Hanson, a former executive at Turner Sports, said pairing a Hall of Fame with expansive TV venues uptown may not be far-fetched. A similar strategy worked at the PGA Tour hub outside Jacksonville, where a museum and TV production facilities are housed near a signature course that hosts the golf circuit’s version of an all-star event, the Players Championship.

“Since the city is trying to hang on [to the NASCAR all-star race], this could be an ideal combination,” he said. “Having the sport’s broadcasting partners added to the mix makes perfect sense.”

Both media companies want to stay in the region, since NASCAR’s teams and business concerns are concentrated in and around Charlotte.

“What makes the most sense is to be closer to the track, the drivers and all the rest,” Liberatore said. “But it will come down to 10 percent what makes sense and 90 percent what we can afford. That’s just how it works.”

NASCAR-related shows account for 60 percent of Speed Channel’s programming. At NASCAR Images, all of its work — spread across DVDs, production and event-planning — is focused on NASCAR.

Hanson and other experts say the relocation of the two media outfits presents an opportunity for business recruiters and local governments to support the burgeoning sports media industry here.

Liberatore and Abraham, the executives at Speed Channel and NASCAR Images, both anticipate staff increases in the coming years. For Speed Channel, which is comparable in size to The Golf Channel in cable household distribution, rapid growth has made the network a $1.3 billion property in value, according to a 2004 Credit Suisse Boston report.

Liberatore hopes the network can expand its reach to compare with ESPN2, Spike TV and The Learning Channel, which all reach 88 million U.S. homes or more. TNT reaches 88.8 million homes and ESPN is seen in 89.1 million, according to Kagan figures compiled in December.

Erik Spanberg writes for The Business Journal in Charlotte.

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