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Volume 21 No. 2


Fox has started serious negotiations with NASCAR about an early extension of its TV rights package, jump-starting a process that wasn’t expected to begin until early next year, according to several sources.

Financial terms of the talks were not available, but sources said Fox was offering enough of an increase to its current eight-year, $1.76 billion deal to make NASCAR executives consider negotiating an early deal rather than waiting a year and putting the rights on the open market.

Under its current deal, Fox pays NASCAR $220 million per year on average.
Photo by: ICON SMI
An early deal would be a departure from the current trend of leagues and teams taking their rights to the open market in the hopes of establishing bidding wars. For NASCAR, though, an early deal with Fox would guarantee broadcast distribution of its early-season races with a TV partner with whom it has a history and is comfortable. It also, potentially, would allow NASCAR to put ESPN and Turner’s packages — which represent about two-thirds of the season’s races — up for auction.

Neither ESPN nor Turner has started negotiations for their respective NASCAR packages, sources said. Both networks expect to wait until next year for talks to get serious. They both have exclusive negotiating windows that end in the spring, sources said.

Waiting in the wings is NBC Universal, a former NASCAR rights holder that has made no secret of its desire to get back into the mix. With no Sunday afternoon NFL schedule, NBC could put the end-of-season races on its broadcast channel. It also is looking for live sports programming to put on its NBC Sports Network cable channel. The presence of NBC as an added bidder is certain to push NASCAR’s rights fees higher, which is one reason why Fox is looking to do a deal early.

Fox executives, including co-presidents Randy Freer and Eric Shanks, have had several lengthy meetings with NASCAR executives, including vice president of broadcasting and production Steve Herbst, over the past few weeks for renewal discussions.

Fox declined to comment. NASCAR emailed a statement saying simply that it talks with its network partner all the time.
Several sources privy to the discussions said they were surprised at how quickly the talks seemed to progress and that the sides have explored several options.

Much of the talks have centered on Speed, the Fox-owned network that carries a lot of NASCAR-related programming. Sources said Fox is considering turning Speed into a multisport channel in the next two years and has been looking into other sports rights, like MLB, that it could place on such a channel. Speed has carried NASCAR programming such as practice and qualifying races, plus the Camping World Truck Series.

In the past, NASCAR and Fox have discussed partnering on a motorsports channel. That is another option that has been explored as the two sides negotiate.

Digital rights provide another interesting dynamic in the talks. Like all programming networks these days, Fox is looking to pick up digital and mobile rights for its races. Earlier this year, NASCAR bought back its digital rights from Turner with plans to manage its own digital business by next year. It’s unclear how that new strategy would affect its next round of media-rights deals.

Sources said NASCAR is looking at a significant rights fee increase from the $220 million per year it receives from Fox on average, even though its ratings have dropped considerably since the last time it negotiated a media-rights deal. NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series on Fox this year averaged a 4.8 Nielsen rating and 7.9 million viewers, down 14 percent and 15 percent, respectively, from the 5.6 Nielsen rating and 9.3 million viewers the series delivered in 2007, the first year of the current broadcast agreement.

When ratings were declining year-after-year between 2007 and 2010, Fox and other TV partners raised concerns about waning interest in the sport, but ratings rebounded last year and have been down only slightly this year. Fox’s commitment to the sport despite the decline underscores just how sizable NASCAR’s audience remains and how valuable the programming can be. The sport consistently delivers 4.0 ratings in the first half of its season, which Fox has the rights to broadcast.

NBC and NHL executives hailed as a success their strategy of televising every Stanley Cup playoff game in its entirety for the first time this year, even if ratings for the Final and the league’s conference championship series dropped considerably.

Viewership dropped 33 percent for the six-game Stanley Cup Final and 8 percent for the conference finals from last year. For the entire postseason, viewership on NBC, NBC Sports Network and CNBC was down 14 percent compared with last year’s coverage on NBC and Versus (1.2 million viewers compared with 1.4 million).

“There are certain things that you can control and work on, and there are other things that you deal with as they come along,” said Jon Miller, NBC Sports president of programming. “Our advertising revenue is up. Sponsorship is up. We sold a lot more inventory because we had more games to sell. On every measurable metric that we look at to evaluate our first year of this partnership, we think that it was a huge success.”

NBC has said that ad sales around this year’s playoffs were up 40 percent, and ad buyers said they were satisfied with the playoffs’ overall TV performance.

“We were happy with it,” said Jeremy Carey, U.S. director for Optimum Sports, who said he bought a lot of ad time for brands during the playoffs. “We feel like we’ve seen a lot of growth in the sport throughout the year.”

Carey specifically mentioned the Final, which despite lower national ratings hit the nation’s two biggest markets.

“We feel like there’s going to be an upside to that the following year,” he said. “It tells a good story for the sport going forward.”

NHL Chief Operating Officer John Collins echoed that viewpoint, saying the league was “delighted” with the Stanley Cup playoff ratings.

“The shared objective to grow the ratings is an ongoing discussion with our NBC partners,” Collins said. “We’re going to discuss soon how we can build on it, but there is no question that the NHL on NBC is leaps and bounds from where we were just a few years ago.”

Much of that has to do with NBC and the NHL making every playoff game available on a national platform for the first time.

“The hockey fan really got taken care of this year,” Miller said. “That’s what our goal was. That was our strategy.”

Next year, Miller said he is looking for a schedule that eliminates overlapping games, something that forced a non-sports channel, CNBC, to carry 13 games. NBC Sports executives noted that when taking away the CNBC games, which typically featured less desirable matchups, viewership on NBC and NBCSN saw a slight increase.

The league will continue to focus on figuring out ways to get fans of specific teams to keep watching the playoffs even after their favorite teams have been eliminated.

“That was why we focused on the ‘Because It’s The Cup’ campaign,” Collins said. “We want to build national scale.”

As it has in years past, NBC and the NHL fielded many complaints about the fact that two Stanley Cup Final games — included a potential series-clinching Game 4 — were on NBC Sports Network, which is in 79 million homes, as opposed to being on the broadcast network.

Miller said the cable network will continue to carry Stanley Cup Final games.

“We’re going to stay with two games on NBC Sports Network for sure,” he said. “We’ll look at what the order is and which games we put on there. We may tweak that.”

Miller and Collins seemed most energized by the buzz created in the country’s second largest media market: Los Angeles.

“Last spring, we worked with focus groups in some of the major markets,” Collins said. “Boston and Chicago, with recent Stanley Cup champions, the numbers were incredibly strong. In New York, there is so much identification with the local teams. But in Los Angeles, to be blunt, we weren’t on the radar of the casual fans. Most people couldn’t name the Kings players.”

Citing the ratings for the series-clinching Game 6, a 13.6 local rating (the highest NHL rating ever in the Los Angeles market), Collins said, “It just goes to show how much a brand can grow in a year.”

SportsBusiness Daily Assistant Editor Austin Karp contributed to this report.