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Volume 21 No. 1
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The road to TV may get bumpier

With change coming at Speed, some motorsports properties face uncertainty

Each December, executives with the World of Outlaws, a winged sprint car racing series, knew exactly which of their events would be broadcast on Speed in the coming year. But as of last week, the series was still waiting to finalize programming plans for 2013 and eager to hear what Fox Sports’ planned conversion of its motorsports channel Speed into an all-sports channel might mean for their sport.

The Rolex Grand-Am Series has a contract with Speed ending in 2013.
They weren’t alone. A host of grassroots and international motorsports series that have made Speed their broadcast home during the last decade are uncertain about what the future holds for them with the planned August 2013 switch of Speed into Fox Sports 1.

For years, Speed’s appetite for motorsports content, its distribution in 81 million homes, and its identity as a destination for motorsports enthusiasts made it a logical place for lower-tier racing series to place time buys and cut rights agreements. Now, series ranging from Lucas Oil Off Road Racing to AMA Pro Flat Track are trying to come up with alternative plans.

“Going after a traditional network makes sense for (Fox),” said Bob Patison, vice president and head of sports marketing at Lucas Oil, which owns a half-dozen motorsports series and bought 60 original hours of programming on Speed this year. “Unfortunately, it leaves out a segment of the motorsports world that may be without a home. It’s leaving a hole.”

NHRA President Tom Compton believes the conversion will divide the motorsports industry into the haves and have-nots. The haves will be the bigger, established bodies like NASCAR, the NHRA, IndyCar and others that will have more competition for their rights from all-sports channels. The have-nots will be grassroots series that lose their broadcast home.

“A lot of the smaller series depended on Speed and their thirst for that sort of content,” Compton said.

That type of division reminded Patti Wheeler, who ran the motorsports production company Wheeler Television for more than 20 years, of what happened to grassroots racing after NASCAR cut its first unified TV deals with Fox and NBC in 2001. Until then, networks like TNN and ESPN bundled NASCAR with smaller series like the American Speed Association, a Midwestern stock car series, and sold advertising across all of its motorsports broadcasts. A media buyer for Budweiser would buy NASCAR and get the World of Outlaws, Wheeler said, and that allowed TNN and ESPN to pay the smaller series modest rights fees. But when NASCAR moved to Fox and NBC, the business model no longer worked.

“It was ugly,” Wheeler said. “NASCAR got bigger and bigger. Everything else fell further behind. Now it’s going to be worse.”

Patison and Lucas Oil hope to mitigate the loss of Speed by shifting programming to MavTV, the cable channel that the company bought last year, and launching an online grassroots motorsports channel. MavTV, which is in 6 million homes, will pick up six prime-time hours of motorsports programming a week.

“Grassroots is a cornerstone of our marketing and has been for 24-plus years,” Patison said. “It is the foundation of all motorsports, and if it starts to die, it’s like the roots dying on a tree. Sooner or later it’s going to affect the entire tree. That’s why we’re fighting to preserve it.”

World of Outlaws and AMA Pro Racing are both in discussions with Speed about programming for next year. They plan to explore opportunities with outlets such as CBS Sports Network and ESPN in the future if they can’t find a place on Speed.

“Losing Speed takes away a natural home,” said Ben Geisler, chief marketer at World Racing Group, which runs the World of Outlaws. “Everyone could have to work harder to find a home for programming, but it might spread it out a bit and not have [motorsports] so saturated in one place.”

Several series aren’t concerned. The Monster Energy AMA Supercross series has a deal with Fox Sports through 2014, and Ken Hudgens, chief operating officer at series owner Feld Entertainment, said he expects it to be part of Fox Sports’ plans. The Rolex Grand-Am Series, which recently acquired the American Le Mans Series, has a contract with Speed that ends in 2013, but Grand-Am CEO Ed Bennett believes the changes at Speed and the merger of the series will create more demand for TV rights to sports car racing.