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Volume 21 No. 2
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ESPN, Turner take wait-and-see approach on NASCAR talks

ESPN President John Skipper was not in Daytona last week for the biggest race on the NASCAR circuit. Neither was David Levy, Turner’s president of sales, distribution and sports.

Even though ESPN and Turner’s exclusive negotiating windows for NASCAR’s media rights expire in late summer, the networks still are months away from serious talks, according to several sources. The exclusive window formally starts in early summer, but networks and leagues frequently start negotiations well before that time.

The fact that ESPN and Turner’s top executives were not in Daytona last week is a sign that the networks are opting to wait and see how well NASCAR’s TV ratings and ad sales perform during the early part of the season.

Publicly, ESPN and Turner executives say they are happy with NASCAR and want to keep the packages.

“There’s no secret we want to continue that conversation with these guys,” said Julie Sobieski, ESPN’s vice president of programming and acquisitions. “Our negotiating window doesn’t begin until later this year. So right now we’re excited about the start of the season and we’re putting all of our efforts toward that.”

Privately, network executives last week expressed concern about NASCAR’s TV performance, which last season posted its lowest viewership numbers for its current deals. The 2012 races averaged 5.79 million viewers, which was down 10 percent from the previous year. ESPN is less concerned with the Nationwide Series, which draws fewer viewers (an average of 1.99 million watched 32 races last season), but has been growing.

There is one big reason why ESPN and Turner may try to do deals before their exclusive negotiating windows end: NBC is waiting in the wings and has made no secret of its desire to partner with the racing circuit. NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus has a long history with NASCAR, having worked with the group during stints at Turner Sports and CSE. Sources said NASCAR also is warming to the idea of working with NBC.

The biggest question deals with the number of packages NASCAR plans to sell. Currently, Fox has 13 races, Turner has six and ESPN has 17. There’s a chance NASCAR may combine the Turner and ESPN packages, sources say.

Still, ESPN and Turner are not feeling pressure to lock down rights early.

Norby Williamson, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming and acquisitions, was the highest-ranking ESPN executive in Daytona. Jon Diament, Turner’s executive vice president of ad sales and marketing, was the highest-ranking Turner Sports executive there.

The lack of senior-level conversations last week stood in stark contrast to a year ago when Fox jump-started its negotiation with NASCAR at Daytona, ending up with a deal in October. Fox renewed its deal for eight years, paying $2.4 billion, a jump from its previous eight-year, $1.76 billion deal.