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Zane Stoddard, who heads NASCAR’s Los Angeles office, was in the process of pitching an original Web series to a digital production company two years ago when he got an email with video of a teenage race car driver named Dylan Kwasniewski. The footage was gripping.
It told the story of a 15-year-old whose quest to reach NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series was continuing despite the fact that his father, the former president of Las Vegas’ Hard Rock Casino, had recently committed suicide.
Forget the original series, Stoddard thought. He picked up the phone and called Larry Tanz, CEO of Michael Eisner’s digital production studio Vuguru, and told him he wanted to shelve the original programming ideas NASCAR had pitched Vuguru and develop an unscripted reality show on Kwasniewski instead.
Dylan Kwasniewski, the star of “Flat Out,” caught the eye of NASCAR’s Zane Stoddard.
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES FOR NASCAR
Vuguru, which was behind the breakout Web series “Prom Queen” that drew 30 million viewers, had never developed an unscripted show, and Tanz was skeptical of the idea. But he changed his mind after he learned more about Kwasniewski.
“We were captivated by the story around Dylan,” Tanz said. “We figured if we were going to try something new and take a chance, who better to do it with than NASCAR. It just seemed like a good bet.”
NASCAR and Vuguru produced a webisode on Kwasniewski, 17, and AOL early this year bought the series. The show, which is called “Flat Out,” will be announced this Tuesday during an AOL upfront presentation to advertisers. AOL plans to begin airing episodes this fall on its AOL On Autos and AOL On Sports channels.
“Our users really respond to stories about remarkable and real people,” said Karen Cahn, general manager of AOL On Original Video. “When we learned about Dylan’s story, it’s pretty remarkable. He’s had a huge amount of success at a young age, and he’s trying to balance racing with being a teen. We think our readers will love to learn about him.”
The deal with AOL for “Flat Out” is the latest in a series of successes for NASCAR’s Los Angeles office. Since Stoddard joined NASCAR in 2010 from the NBA, the sport has garnered more than 200 million impressions a year through entertainment programming and media coverage. The number of impressions is up from 20 million a year before he arrived.
The increase reflects a change in strategy at NASCAR’s Los Angeles office. When the sport opened the office in 2000, it focused on getting NASCAR exposure in movies and succeeded in being featured in box office successes like “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” “Cars” and an IMAX film that ran nationwide. The Los Angeles office also arranged occasional driver appearances on TV.
Under Stoddard the office has flipped those priorities. He’s pushed staff to get drivers and the sport into TV shows, award broadcasts and digital programs first and made movies a secondary focus. The early results of the new strategy have been evident everywhere from NASCAR-themed episodes of “American Pickers” to a NASCAR story line in the show “The Glades.” The office also has sold nine original projects since 2011.
“The gestation time for feature films is two to three years, and they’re difficult to plan around,” Stoddard said. “It’s just that we’re investing our time into things that more readily address our strategic priorities, and television has a quicker turnaround.”
Stoddard’s emphasis on TV is taking on new importance as he pushes the Los Angeles office, which has eight employees, to concentrate on pitching shows, movies and integrations that fit with the sport’s recently developed industry action plan, which is focused on appealing to kids, attracting Gen Y fans and developing Hispanic and multicultural followers.
The office has had some early success with those efforts. Before Nickelodeon’s “Kids Choice Awards,” it successfully pitched the network on adding Danica Patrick to its “Favorite Female Athlete” category. She won the award last month and appeared at the event, allowing NASCAR to get one of its star drivers in front of the kids it hopes to convert into fans in the future.
Another effort ahead of the March race in California also succeeded in getting the sport exposure in kids programming. NASCAR brought Trevor Bayne and four other young drivers to Los Angeles prior to the race and took them to meetings with top executives at CAA, MTV and Disney, companies that Stoddard described as “three of the most influential in entertainment.” Bayne went on air with Radio Disney during the visit and impressed executives enough to have them invite him to be a presenter at the Radio Disney Music Awards last Saturday.
“The entertainment business understands the attributes of our sport — speed, danger, rebellion, independence — but they don’t have as much of a personal affinity for it as they do with other sports, so we have to take our story to them,” Stoddard said. “Those are examples of us doing that.”
As NASCAR has looked to reach Hispanic and Gen Y audiences, it has looked beyond TV to digital programming. It developed a Spanish-language digital soap opera for Univision.com that features a female race car driver caught in a love triangle with a pair of racing brothers. The three, five-minute episodes will air online and then re-air on Univision May 5, giving NASCAR a chance to put its sport in front of Hispanic viewers.
Stoddard and his group will continue to work on other shows and movies. He said they have four movie projects and seven TV projects in development, including an animated TV show and two multicultural programs. NASCAR is continuing to work with a writer on a biographical movie about Bill France Sr. that could feature Vince Vaughn, and it’s working with TNT on an unscripted show about Richard Childress and his grandsons, Austin and Ty.
“We find ourselves with the need for our business to find new audiences,” Stoddard said. “Everything comes off of that.”
NBA franchises posted record revenue at the turnstiles this year, as teams reported more per-game gate revenue for the 2012-13 season than in any prior campaign, according to league officials.
The NBA declined to disclose the specific amounts, but it did report closing out its regular season this year with a 6 percent increase in average per-game gate revenue, surpassing the record that came from the NBA’s lockout-condensed season last year.
On the flip side of the league’s season-ending report, television viewership for the NBA declined across ABC, TNT and ESPN this year compared with both the shortened 2011-12 season and the most recent prior full season, 2010-11.
Backed by an 88 percent season-ticket renewal rate, total gate revenue climbed well past the $1 billion mark this year, league officials said. More than 20 of the NBA’s 30 teams saw an increase in average per-game gate revenue, with more than $100 million in revenue coming from the sale of new season tickets.
“Full [season tickets] drive the gate, and we are better at pricing up on the highest-demand games to capture revenue, and we are better at pricing down on the lesser-demand games to drive additional sales,” said Chris Granger, executive vice president of team marketing and business operations for the NBA.
Nearly all of the NBA’s 30 teams have instituted variable and dynamic pricing strategies.
“We are still in the infancy of pricing, and that is why we are seeing such an improvement in revenue,” said Adam Kanner, former NBA executive and current chief executive officer of ticket reseller ScoreBig.com, which counts NBA teams as clients. “It is great that the NBA is waking up to the opportunity that better pricing provides.”
Average regular-season attendance for the NBA this year was 17,348 per game, up 0.4 percent from last year. The Chicago Bulls led the league with an average of 21,877; the Sacramento Kings ranked last, at 13,750.
Among other metrics, total team sponsorship revenue climbed by 4 percent compared with the full 2010-11 season and by 20 percent compared with last year’s 66-game schedule.
As for TV, NBA Commissioner David Stern said that last year’s lockout-condensed season affected this year’s NBA TV audience.
“The ratings are down a bit because they were super-juiced by the lockout in a way, but most important is that the story lines are great,” Stern said.
On TNT, viewership was down 20 percent this season after two seasons of record audience numbers (see chart). But the NBA on TNT this season generated the second-highest viewership of any full season, ranking behind only the 2010-11 season.
“There were some anomalies that have impacted the schedule, and one was that we had a Christmas Day game last year, and that was a big spike for us,” said Christina Miller, general manager of NBA Digital and senior vice president of strategy, marketing and programming for Turner Sports. Miller also pointed to Hurricane Sandy as a factor, as it temporarily knocked out television viewership across the Northeast just as the NBA season was starting, in October.
The NBA on ABC saw viewership drop 14 percent over last season and 8 percent over the 2010-11 season. On ESPN, viewership dropped 5 percent compared with last season and 11 percent from the 2010-11 season.
Doug White, senior director of programming and acquisitions for ESPN said “it is hard for us to be disappointed” given a long-term view of the numbers. “The league has been on a nice rise over the past several years,” he said, “and they will continue in that direction.”
On NBA TV, viewership was flat compared with last season but up 33 percent from the full 2010-11 season. The network since November 2010 has added 8 million homes to its distribution footprint and is now available in 61 million homes.
The NBA’s digital properties also saw gains this season, including new highs of 6.6 billion page views and 3.9 billion video streams on NBA.com.
The NFL does not plan to stop handpicking prospective owners in the wake of the federal investigation of Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam’s private company, sources said last week.
The NFL chose and encouraged Haslam on the Browns purchase. Prior to that, the league did the same with Shahid Khan and his acquisition of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Khan and Haslam, the league’s two newest owners, were the first to emerge from a recent league initiative led by Eric Grubman, NFL executive vice president, to pair specific wealthy individuals with teams for sale. Before Khan and Haslam, typically a selling owner’s investment bank would find buyers, and then the NFL would screen those candidates.
“The NFL is likely to try to be involved in these transactions as they have for the past several years, because it gives membership and league staff the best opportunity to get to know new owners before they take control,” said a source close to the NFL.
Both Khan in 2011 and Haslam last year were quietly introduced by the NFL to the selling franchise owners, and deals flowed from there before any notice went public that the clubs were for sale. In Haslam’s case, the league contacted him last June; he met with Browns’ then-owner Randy Lerner in early July; and the duo announced a transaction the following month. (Haslam was already a minority owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, so the league knew him from that involvement as well.)
A former NFL official said that while a timeline of that nature may seem rushed, it’s not out of the norm. This type of quick succession could also prove advantageous if an owner were to die. The death of an owner without a potential successor already lined up could leave a team run by an estate for a period of time.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell last week said the league had no inkling of the April 15 FBI raid on Haslam’s Pilot Flying J in Knoxville, Tenn., and the subsequent lawsuit accusing the company of defrauding trucking clients. Haslam has denied the FBI’s allegation that he knew about the alleged fraud.
The U.S. Golf Association is releasing a coffee-table book next month and debuting a documentary about the U.S. Open in June, giving it two new platforms on which to show off its historical photos, footage and artifacts.
The book, “Great Moments of the U.S. Open,” contains hundreds of photos and stories from 28 memorable victories, from Billy Burke in 1931 to Rory McIlroy in 2011.
The coffee-table book will sell for $35 at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and USGA.org.
The book’s authors, Robert Williams and Michael Trostel, work in the USGA’s museum.
“The book leverages the abilities of the museum staff with the artifacts, the photos and the memorabilia that bring the game to life,” said Sarah Hirshland, the USGA’s senior managing director, business affairs. “We’ve been actively looking for more ways to utilize this enormous depth of content, and this is part of redoubling our efforts to drive awareness and tell the key stories of the U.S. Open and golf.”
The 208-page book, 10-by-10 inches in size, will sell for $35 at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and the USGA’s own website, USGA.org. There will be 20,000 in the first run.
Also key to the USGA’s “content delivery strategy,” as Hirshland put it, is a documentary on the 1971 U.S. Open, won by Lee Trevino at Merion, site of this year’s Open. The one-hour documentary, produced by Golf Channel, will run on NBC before the third or fourth round of the U.S. Open in June. It will run on Golf Channel another seven times.
Hirshland, who joined the USGA from Wasserman Media Group in September 2011, came out with the association’s first major film project last year when it teamed with former HBO Sports producer Ross Greenburg to make a documentary on the 50-year anniversary of Nicklaus’ first U.S. Open championship. That one-hour film ran on NBC prior to the final-round coverage of last year’s Open.
For the 1971 Trevino story, Golf Channel’s production team, led by Keith Allo, vice president of programming and original productions, is handling the assignment. Costs for such a project typically run in the $500,000 range or more.
Hirshland said the USGA is partnering with Chevron to develop golf-themed video and print content to support Chevron’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) initiative. The association also is working with corporate partner Rolex on a four-part documentary series that will air in international markets later this year.