SBJ/Oct. 7-13, 2013/Media

NASCAR stays course with TV partners

Opts not to make early move to Fox, NBC

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EDITOR’S NOTE: After this story was filed on Thursday, NASCAR over the weekend rejected a formal proposal from its broadcast partners that would have seen Fox and NBC begin televising the sport in 2014. NASCAR’s VP of Broadcast and Production Steve Herbst said, “While we were humbled by the desire of NBC and FOX to start 12 months early, we now consider this matter closed and look forward to finishing our current agreement in 2014 with our great partners at FOX, Turner and ESPN.”

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ESPN, Fox, NBC and Turner still are trying to work out a NASCAR deal to have Fox and NBC take over the sport’s media rights a year early.

The media companies sent NASCAR a formal proposal that would have Fox and NBC begin broadcasting the sport a year early. But the sport’s top executives remain skeptical that any change will happen next season, saying it “fully expects to be back with our current broadcast partners, Fox, Turner and ESPN, in 2014.”

The proposal, which was put together by the media companies, would let ESPN and Turner forgo the final year of their contracts and end their partnerships with the sport after this season. Financial terms of the proposal weren’t available. But sources said that if NASCAR approved the plan, Fox would take the first half of the Nationwide Series from ESPN, NBC would take the second half of the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series from ESPN. Fox and NBC would split Turner’s midseason, six-race package.

In a statement emailed last week, Steve Herbst, NASCAR vice president of broadcasting and production, said, “As happens with all sports every time there’s a lame duck year, networks frequently explore the possibility of beginning their term earlier.

NBC has told us they are very eager to return NASCAR to its network, and Fox has shown tremendous interest in starting to broadcast the NASCAR Nationwide Series a year early. We’re thrilled about those networks’ excitement for the sport but know potential agreements like this one seldom get done. We fully expect to be back with our current broadcast partners, Fox, Turner and ESPN, in 2014.”

At a conference last week, NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus spoke of the difficulties getting four networks to reach an agreement, on top of getting NASCAR to buy into it, along with teams and sponsors. “The longer it goes, the harder it gets,” he said.

Representatives from Fox, ESPN and Turner declined to comment.

Media companies often hold informal conversations about exiting deals early, but they rarely result in formal proposals. In the past decade, no rights holder has exited a media agreement with a major property early.

TV companies that lose rights to a sport a year before their contract ends typically ride out the final year of their agreement as a lame-duck rights holder. But NASCAR has found itself in a unique situation. Fox and NBC are eager to start their deals early, and ESPN and Turner are interested in exiting the sport before their contracts end.

Talks started in August when Fox and NBC signed new rights agreements with NASCAR for $8.2 billion from 2015 to 2024. Fox, which has televised the first half of the Sprint Cup season since 2001, picked up rights to the first half of the Nationwide Series and three more Sprint Cup races, while NBC picked up the rights to the second half each of the Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup Series.

Fox is interested in getting rights to the Nationwide Series next season to help it program two new sports channels. The launch of Fox Sports 1 and 2 has left it with 48 hours of programming to fill a day, and it’s been acquiring rights for everything from golf’s U.S. Open to USA Rugby matches to fill it.

NBC Sports thinks adding 13 Sprint Cup and 19 Nationwide Series races would allow it to expose NASCAR fans to NBC Sports Network and give the cable network another asset to leverage in carriage negotiations with cable and satellite companies next year.

The company would be able to promote its NASCAR programming during next year’s NFL playoffs and Olympics, which typically deliver some of sports’ highest ratings.

Both ESPN and Turner declined to submit final bids for NASCAR TV rights in August and have expressed interest in exiting their deals early. Doing so would allow ESPN to eliminate production costs and shed its roughly $270 million annual rights fee for NASCAR. For Turner, it would complete the gradual unwinding of its ties to the sport, which began in early 2012 when it sold the rights to NASCAR.com back to NASCAR.

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