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The final days of Speed
Passion of employees, viewers powered motorsports channel
Published August 5, 2013, Page 1
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Later, she posted the photo on Instagram with a simple caption: “Going to miss seeing this sign.”
The image and words captured the way that Morrison and many of her fellow Speed employees feel this summer. These are the final days of Speed. In less than two weeks, the 24-hour network no longer will exist in its current form. Many of its employees will be looking for new jobs.
Speed’s owner, Fox Sports, has decided there is more money to be had in a multisport channel. It will shutter the motorsports channel and convert it into Fox Sports 1 on Aug. 17.
The move brings an end to Speed’s nearly 18-year reign as the only motorsports channel on U.S. television. The move takes Charlotte’s only national cable channel dark. And it eliminates the only place in NASCAR’s backyard where people could spend their entire day talking about and working exclusively on TV motorsports.
Speed did not offer the best-paying jobs in cable. It was not the most-watched network in sports. But it was a place where people lived their passion — an office where Formula One wonks, motorcycle gearheads, NASCAR nuts and car-collection zealots gathered daily to determine how their passions played across the country.
Speed paid staff with a different type of currency — the type of stuff former Speed President Hunter Nickell called “psychic income.”
“It’s what made it exciting and fun, so when the end comes, it’s deflating,” said Nickell, who’s now with IMG College. “That isn’t questioning the business decision. The business decision makes sense.”
But it does explain why Morrison and a host of others have been snapping photos of the Speed sign outside the network’s headquarters. They will miss working for a network they loved.
Speed will sign off at 6 a.m. ET on Aug. 17 following a re-air of NASCAR Sprint Cup qualifying from Michigan International Speedway. At that point, the channel will simply morph into Fox Sports 1, ending a tumultuous 10 months during which employees’ emotions went from hope that there would be work for Speed staff in Charlotte to the reality that the Queen City didn’t fit into Fox Sports 1’s overall plans, at least not yet.
The brainchild of former ESPN President Roger Werner, Speed launched as a channel run by motorsports enthusiasts for motorsports enthusiasts. With some of the country’s biggest cable operators as initial investors, including Cox, Times Mirror and MediaOne, the channel had little trouble cutting deals with distributors.
The initial channel, known as Speedvision, debuted to 3.2 million homes on the last day of 1995 and targeted 18- to 49-year-old men who read the 200-plus national magazines devoted to motorsports, cars, planes, boats — just about anything with a motor. It featured lifestyle programs, news, live and taped competition, and was viewed by Werner as an immediate success.
“That original channel was the most successful consumer product that I’ve ever been associated with in 40 years of being in the packaged goods and media business,” Werner said. “That product resonated with its target audience like nothing else I’ve ever seen. It was immediately demanded by the target audience. We literally lit up phone banks and generated tremendous press and tremendous interest.”
Fox took control of the channel in 2001, renaming it Speed. The acquisition coincided with Fox’s initial six-year deal to broadcast NASCAR races, reported at the time as roughly $200 million a year, and indicated how bullish Fox was on the sport. As a result, Fox ramped up Speed’s focus on the sport, adding NASCAR shoulder programming and live truck races. It relocated the network from Stamford, Conn., to Charlotte, the home of most of NASCAR’s race teams and many of its drivers.
Speed’s distribution expanded to 50 million after Fox’s acquisition and increased to 70 million by 2007. It was doing well enough that in 2008 Fox built the network its own state-of-the-art studio in north Charlotte. It had three stages, control rooms outfitted with sophisticated Sony production systems and dedicated fiber that connected to a national control room in Los Angeles.
The new studio represented more than just the latest technology. For Speed’s 100-plus full-time employees in Charlotte, it was the first time everyone worked under the same roof, and it fostered a sense of camaraderie among the staff. Walking through the office, it was easy to overhear people talking about their favorite type of racing.
“NASCAR was the source of the majority of our motorsports ratings points, but that didn’t mean we wouldn’t have intense battles within our team about how we should cover open-wheel racing versus NASCAR,” Nickell said. “That didn’t stop anyone from being intense about wanting to cover more of other motorsports.”
But just a couple of months later, Speed’s fortunes changed.
In November 2008, ESPN bowled over Fox with a four-year, $495 million contract for the BCS — a bid that was $100 million higher than Fox’s. At the time, Fox Sports executives decided that they needed a multisport cable channel — or, more specifically, the affiliate revenue from such a network — to remain competitive with ESPN.
Fox Sports had three options. It could launch a new network, it could convert an existing network or it could acquire another network.
It wasn’t long before Fox Sports executives focused their sights on Speed. The well-distributed network was in about 73 million homes at the time and received 19 cents per subscriber per month. It had room to grow.
Rumors that Fox might convert Speed into an all-sports channel didn’t sweep through the network’s Charlotte headquarters until early 2012. Most staff members became aware of the possibility after reading media reports, which said that Fox executives had told Major League Baseball, the Pac-12 and other properties that they were planning to turn Speed into a multisport channel.
The news rocked the staff.
“There were a lot of people who moved from Connecticut to Charlotte and grew [the network] to what it is today,” said one former employee. “To possibly lose that was hard.”
The rumors persisted all year. Fox Sports executives addressed them in person last December when Fox Sports’ top two executives, co-presidents Randy Freer and Eric Shanks, traveled to Charlotte for an all-staff meeting. They assured Speed employees that the Charlotte production facility would play an important role in Fox Sports 1, according to Speed employees who attended the meeting. The executives said they would come back early next year to update the staff on their plans.
|Speed carved out its niche as all motorsports all the time, and NASCAR was only the beginning.
“I was excited about the prospect of doing other sports. Other people were worried because all they had done is racing, and they didn’t know what that would mean for them,” said Scott Orner, a freelance director on the show “NASCAR RaceHub.”
Optimism about the future rose when workers began overhauling Speed’s three studios. One of the studios, which housed a set for “NASCAR RaceHub” and “Wind Tunnel,” was cleared at the beginning of the year. Those shows were shifted into the network’s two other studios, and the staff began to watch for what type of set would replace them.
Would it be college-themed? Or baseball? Or just an all-sports news set?
But months went by and the studio remained empty. Employees grew more concerned.
“There started to be talk that they wouldn’t be bringing in as much work as they were planning,” Orner said.
On March 10, more than five months before Fox Sports 1’s debut, the company issued a press release announcing its first day of programming on the new channel. Speed employees pored over the schedule. There was seven hours of NASCAR programming scheduled around a truck race in Michigan and a UFC fight in Boston. But the release alarmed some employees.
“Nothing was mentioned for Charlotte,” said one employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “That’s when we all started getting nervous.”
In a statement last week, Fox Sports said, “Change in the workplace is challenging, and every job lost in a transition of this type is significant. We’ve been as fair and communicative as possible given our plans at each step along the way.”
Fox brass returned to Charlotte for an all-staff meeting June 27. By then, Fox’s plans for Speed’s studios had changed. Scott Ackerson, Fox Sports’ executive vice president of studio production who was based in Los Angeles, met with the staff in the empty studio. He told them that two of Speed’s staple shows, “Wind Tunnel” and “Speed Center,” a motorsports highlight program, were being canceled. The shows rated poorly and brought in a much older demographic than Fox wanted for Fox Sports 1. Ackerson also announced that “NASCAR RaceHub” was going to be cut from an hour to a half-hour.
The meeting lasted less than 10 minutes. Many left it concerned that they might not have a job come August.
Speed Executive Vice President Steve Craddock relayed the news to freelancers two weeks later. He stood in front of a white board in a Speed conference room. He recounted Ackerson’s visit and explained what it meant, according to a video of the meeting that was viewed by SportsBusiness Journal.
“With ‘Speed Center’ going away and ‘Wind Tunnel,’ there’s going to be less work,” Craddock told the freelancers.
Later in the 30-minute meeting, he added, “I can tell you that I have no idea what is going to happen in the next year. … Based on what [Shanks and Freer] said, this was a great place to make TV. It really came down to they ran out of money in starting this new network, to do all the things they had in their mind that they said they wanted to do, primarily a morning news show. They were going to do a morning news show here from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., and they just don’t have it in the budget to do that.”
Craddock took questions after he was done speaking.
An employee asked: Will there be cuts?
“I’m not so sure they’re finished making cuts here,” Craddock said. “That’s not to create fear or worry or concern. I just don’t know. If you look at the number of shows needed and the number of people … it’s hard to say. Scott [Ackerson] is still fighting for shows. Or at least jobs. I’m not so convinced they won’t say, ‘We need to do a college basketball show here.’ There’s a studio. There’s a lot of good people.”
Fox Sports, which declined to make any executives available, said in its statement: “Looking at this project as a whole, we’ve placed those displaced in new positions as often as possible, and the net job-gain at Fox Sports in the past six months is significant, including several new departments in Charlotte. We still expect Charlotte to be an integral part of Fox Sports 1 going forward, especially around our expanded NASCAR race package.”
On an overcast morning in Charlotte last week, the parking lot at Speed began to fill up shortly before 9 a.m. Employees climbed out of their cars and walked toward the office. Backpacks were slung over their shoulders. Lunch coolers were in their hands.
Fox began letting Speed employees go over the last few months. Others know their final day is later this month. But the parking lot remains full because Fox has begun hiring new staff, mostly in a graphics division that will remain in Charlotte and will be focused on developing promos and graphics packages for Fox Sports 1.
A Fox spokesman last week declined to comment on the number of Speed employees who had been let go or the number that had been hired.
Some Speed employees are frustrated with how the last year has played out. They’re annoyed with how little information they received. They’re hurt that Charlotte’s only national cable channel is going away. And they chafe at the unfulfilled promise that they would be a prominent part of FS1.
“You could have had a great news show out of Charlotte,” said one employee. “Instead, they paid a boatload for NASCAR, for the NFL, for baseball, for talent. I don’t get having a building sit empty.”
Others, like Adam Alexander, who was an on-air host for “Speed Center,” will be working on Fox Sports 1. Alexander will be calling college football games for the new channel.
“It’s not easy to lose your job,” he said. “It’s opened up some good opportunities. But there just aren’t enough holes for everyone.”
Many remain hopeful that changes and Fox Sports 1 eventually brings more studio work to Charlotte.
“It wasn’t personal,” Orner said. “It was a business decision. I’m hopeful there will be more work. It’s a great facility. It’s put out a great product for years. People higher up at Fox understand that, and I’m hopeful that once there’s more work that comes to Charlotte I can be a part of it.”