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Volume 21 No. 30
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Will ESPN leave some Nationwide rights available?

Rights to the Nationwide Series could be in play this summer when NASCAR opens its negotiations with ESPN, according to several sources.

ESPN and NASCAR have not begun formal talks about renewing a media rights package that includes the Nationwide Series’ entire 33-race season and 17 Sprint Cup races. But ESPN has had internal conversations about bidding only on the Nationwide races that overlap with its Sprint Cup schedule instead of the entire season.

The reason has more to do with production expenses than ratings points. From August to November, when it airs both Nationwide and Sprint Cup races, ESPN is able to use the same production crew, production trucks and other resources to cover both Nationwide Series races and Sprint Cup races on the same weekend.

It’s much costlier for ESPN to produce the Nationwide Series’ first 16 races during the first half of the NASCAR season, when Fox and Turner hold the rights to the Sprint Cup races held at the same tracks on those weekends.

ESPN has had rights to the Nationwide Series since 2007 and put considerable promotional and programming resources behind it. The secondary circuit aired on Fox and NBC from 2001 to 2006.

ESPN declined to comment. Formal renewal talks are scheduled to begin later this summer, and its executives have not spoken to NASCAR about the Nationwide Series.

Any move by ESPN to bid only on the second half of the Nationwide Series would allow NASCAR to experiment with new ways of selling its secondary series and offer it great flexibility.

The sanctioning body could decide to split the Nationwide package between its Sprint Cup rights holders. That would allow Fox to buy the first half of the season and ESPN, or another broadcaster, to take the second half. Such a move would give both broadcasters the type of cost efficiencies ESPN wants, both in production and advertising sales.

Fox has expressed interest in obtaining the rights to the first part of the Nationwide Series but has not had any formal talks with the sanctioning body. Fox is looking to obtain highly rated content, like the Nationwide Series, for its new Fox Sports 1 channel that is launching in August. The Nationwide Series has delivered consistent ratings over the last several years — it averaged 1.99 million viewers a race last year and is averaging 2.1 million viewers through the first six races this year. It is usually one of the highest-rated pieces of sports programming when it airs in its traditional time slot on Saturday afternoons, and it draws five times as many viewers on cable as the IndyCar Series, which is averaging 343,000 viewers through three races this year on NBC Sports Network.

NASCAR also could decide to test the market and create a separate package for the entire Nationwide Series that it would sell independently of the Sprint Cup Series. This move would allow NASCAR to bring on a third or even fourth broadcaster, depending on how it decides to divide the races.

The series has never sold rights to the Nationwide Series independently, so the value of the series’ annual rights fee has never been reported. But with a 10-month season and a consistent, weekend schedule, it offers attractive programming for various outlets.

NASCAR’s media rights are the most significant sports rights up for bid this year. They are entering a sports media market that is as competitive as it has ever been.

In addition to FS1 and ESPN, NBC has been looking to bring live sports to its 24-hour sports channel, NBC Sports Network. Turner has been adding sports to TBS, TNT and truTV. And CBS has its own 24-hour sports channel, CBS Sports Network, though the network has been reluctant to engage in bidding wars for sports rights.

NBC has made no secret of its desire to pick up NASCAR rights.

Last year, NASCAR secured an eight-year extension with Fox for the first 13 Sprint Cup races of the season. Sources value the deal at more than $2.4 billion over eight years, a sizable increase from Fox’s current eight-year, $1.76 billion agreement.

ESPN has said that it wants to renew its NASCAR deals. The second half of the Sprint Cup provides high-quality Sunday afternoon programming opposite NFL games. Nationwide Series races are held on Saturdays and bring a consistently big audience to ESPN.

ESPN also could look at the NASCAR deals as an opportunity to keep programming away from some of its upstart competitors. The channel has signed many of its sports rights deals into the next decade. NASCAR, the Big Ten and the NBA are the only big-ticket items that will be on the market in the next several years.