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Volume 22 No. 19
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Fox eyes shift of future Cup races to Speed

Fox has held informal discussions with NASCAR about a new TV rights agreement that would allow the network to put some of its Sprint Cup races on Speed.

David Hill, Fox Sports chairman, said Fox would like to see some of the 13 regular-season races it televises on Speed. A Fox source said the company could ask for as many as six races for the network.

Fox is five years into an eight-year, $1.76 billion contract with NASCAR that mandates Fox televise all of its Sprint Cup races on its broadcast channel except for two non-points, specialty events — the Sprint All-Star Race and the Gatorade Duel from Daytona, which air on Speed. If it wants to move regular-season Cup races to Speed before its contract expires in 2014, it would have to amend its agreement. Fox sources were skeptical such a move would be made before the contract ends.

Hill: “Speed is the default NASCAR network, and it might be logical to assume they might have certain aspirations to a channel.”
“It would be very good for Speed to put Cup races there,” Hill said. “You can see that when the All-Star Race is on it, and I’d like to put another couple of races on Speed if we can. That’s just part of the dialogue, so we’ll see.”

Steve Herbst, NASCAR vice president of broadcasting, said in a statement that NASCAR is in constant discussions with its partners but he declined to address the specifics of the Fox conversations.

The talks come a year after NASCAR agreed to let ESPN shift the majority of its Chase to the Sprint Cup Championship coverage from ABC to ESPN. Ratings on ESPN, which showed 14 races, and ABC, which showed three races, dropped 14 percent following that move. A similar viewership decline likely would follow if races moved from Fox to Speed, which is distributed in 78 million homes. The Sprint All-Star Race on Speed this year averaged a 3.3 final Nielsen rating and 4 million viewers, which more than quadrupled the network’s average prime-time audience. By comparison, Fox averaged a 5.0 final Nielsen rating and 8.6 million viewers for its 13 regular-season Sprint Cup telecasts.

Hill said that Fox always intended to carry Sprint Cup races on Speed, which Fox launched in 2002 after acquiring the channel, then named Speedvision, from Comcast and Cox. The company carried some Cup races on its cable channel FX during its initial 2001-05 rights agreement with NASCAR.

The move would allow Speed to use live NASCAR broadcasts to increase the license fee that cable and satellite operators pay each month, which is currently around 30 cents, according to sources. The move would amplify Speed’s on-air promotion of NASCAR races during the week and allow it to keep an audience of NASCAR enthusiasts tuning in for everything from news programs to the wrapup of that weekend’s race.

The move also makes sense for Fox, which would be able to spread highly rated sports content across two channels: one broadcast and one cable.
In addition to talking about putting Sprint Cup races on Speed, Fox has raised the possibility of making NASCAR a stakeholder in Speed and turning it into a joint-venture project. Sources familiar with those conversations said that they have been ongoing for several years.

By partnering with NASCAR on Speed, Fox could avoid competing with the property if it decided to launch its own channel. NASCAR Media Group opened a $43 million facility in downtown Charlotte in 2010. The facility has four floors of studio and production space and an extensive digital archive that would allow NASCAR to start its own network if it chose to do so. The assumption is that it wouldn’t make that decision until after its current broadcast agreements end in 2014.

“Speed is the default NASCAR network, and it might be logical to assume they might have certain aspirations to a channel,” Hill said. He added that the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball have their own networks, and NASCAR is in the same class as those leagues.

Hill stressed that the joint venture talks were casual. He said that he and NASCAR President Mike Helton discuss a variety of opportunities when they get together to shoot skeet at Helton’s ranch in the Southeast.

“The great thing about this business is it’s always fluid,” Hill said. “There’s any given number of possibilities.”