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Volume 20 No. 42
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NASCAR to open talks with ESPN and Turner

NASCAR opens its exclusive negotiating windows with ESPN and Turner next month, jump-starting a process that will cement the sport’s media relationships for the next decade.

The networks will open talks July 1 and have 45 to 60 days to negotiate exclusively for the rights to 23 Sprint Cup races, according to several sources. Both Turner and ESPN have expressed interest in retaining their packages, but it’s not clear how much more each network will be willing to pay.

The sanctioning body last year secured a 33 percent increase from Fox Sports for the rights to the Camping World Truck Series and the first 13 Sprint Cup races of the season, including the Daytona 500, NASCAR’s premier race. It is expected to use that increase as a benchmark in its talks with ESPN and Turner about the remaining Sprint Cup races and the entire Nationwide Series schedule.

If ESPN and Turner balk at a price increase during the exclusive window this July and August, NASCAR almost certainly will take its rights to the open market and look to bring in NBC, CBS or another network. Fox could even return to the table for those rights, especially with a new cable sports channel to program.

NASCAR’s TV ratings continue to drop among the young male demographic, a development that gives some network executives pause when looking at the new packages. Network sources said the multiyear drop in the male 18-34 demo made it more difficult to sell races and shoulder programming than it has in the past.

Still, overall ratings remain high and there would be no shortage of suitors should the exclusive window end without a deal. NBC Sports President Jon Miller said last year that the network would be interested in the NASCAR rights if they became available.

“I will say the best ratings that NASCAR ever enjoyed is when NBC and Fox shared the package [from 2001-06],” Miller said during SportsBusiness Journal’s NASCAR Motorsports Marketing Forum last fall. “We would be eager to listen and have a conversation. It’s a great property.”

Turner and ESPN are in the seventh year of eight-year agreements valued at $2.74 billion overall. Turner currently shows six Sprint Cup races during June and July. ESPN carries 17 Sprint Cup races between late July and November and airs the entire Nationwide Series season.

NASCAR and ESPN declined to comment on the negotiations.

Turner spokesman Sal Petruzzi said the network has worked with NASCAR for 30 years. He added, “We are disciplined in our approach to negotiating sports programming rights and have made smart, strategic investments in this area and look forward to future discussions with our partners at NASCAR.”

ESPN President John Skipper and Turner Sports President David Levy will lead their networks’ talks with NASCAR. Norby Williamson, ESPN executive vice president of programming, and Julie Sobieski, ESPN vice president programming and acquisitions, also will be involved.

Steve Herbst, NASCAR vice president of broadcasting and production, will represent the sanctioning body. Sports Media Advisors, a media consultancy headed by former IMG and NHL executive Doug Perlman, and Proskauer assisted NASCAR on its Fox deal and are expected to be supporting it on the ESPN and Turner negotiations.