The view from my couch

State of the Sport - Part 4

January 26, 2003

Is TV Materially Affecting the Sport?

In thinking about writing this article, I already had several thoughts about how TV is materially affecting NASCAR, but the announcement made by Bill France, Jr. and NASCAR this past week provided even more material for this topic.

In late 2000 and 2001, race fans began hearing the words "TV partners" in all the NASCAR public relations statements. Apparently, in their quest to make even more money for the France family and the ISC stockholders, NASCAR decided that they needed to be on an 'over the air' broadcast network, rather than cable networks such as ESPN and TNN. They decided it was time for NASCAR to leave its southern roots and core audience and become a "mainstream" sport to rival baseball, football and basketball. To do this, they claimed they had to be on network television. This knocked ESPN and TNN out of the bidding war for the NASCAR TV contract which began in 2001. NASCAR also claimed that it was confusing for fans to know where to look for races each weeks, with so many different networks covering them. They failed to acknowledge that a real race fan could easily find the races each week. What they really meant was the fringe fan or first-time viewer needed to see constant promotional reminders so that they might be convinced to tune into a race broadcast.

The new TV contract was awarded to a combination of Fox and NBC/Turner Broadcasting The inclusion of Turner immediately showed NASCAR's claims about no cable networks to be untrue. Fans were told that the season would be divided between Fox and the NBC/Turner group. Again, this showed the fallacy about having all the races on the same channel, so that fans could easily find them.

When fans heard that Fox (who had a reputation for hype and over the top shows) and NBC (who had almost no experience covering racing) were to be the new "TV partners" of NASCAR, they began to worry. ESPN, since the early 80s, and TNN since the early 90s, had provided high quality and comprehensive race coverage. Together they had contributed significantly to the phenomenal growth of the sport. The exposure that NASCAR racing received when all events began being televised in the late 80s attracted many new sponsors to race teams, allowing them to command the multi-million dollar financing that we see in the sport today. ESPN and TNN always mentioned the sponsors of each race team and did their best to provide coverage of all cars entered in a race.

This brings me to a disturbing trend that I see in the sport of NASCAR today. When NASCAR accepted an unprecedented amount of money for the new TV deal, they seem to accept that the new broadcast networks would actually be their "partners" from that point forward. A partner who would have a lot to say about how NASCAR did business in the future. In my opinion, the TV networks are now materially affecting the sport.

The most obvious impact of being on commercial television is evident in the way race team sponsors are now treated. If a sponsor does not also buy commercial time during the broadcast on Fox or NBC, they are rarely, if ever, mentioned by the commentators. If a team pays to have an in-car camera, fans get to see numerous shots from that car, mostly of empty track in front or behind it, but plenty of shots of that team's sponsor logo. Is this race coverage? Isn't the advertising on the cars part of what NASCAR is all about - what helped it become so popular in the 90s? Isn't this why sponsors are paying $15 million a year to sponsor a car? If they don't even get mentioned on TV, why should they pay that kind of money? It would make more sense to just buy commercial time during the broadcast than to actually sponsor a team.

I feel this is why many teams in both the Winston Cup and Busch Grand National (BGN) Series are having a difficult time finding sponsors in the last two years. NASCAR will claim it is because of "tough economic times," yet many lower-tier BGN teams were quoted in an article by Rick Houston in this week's Winston Cup Scene as saying that the fact that their teams and sponsors are never shown on TV makes it difficult to attract and retain a good sponsor. This is a very negative impact that the new TV partners have had on the face of the sport. When a long-time team owner, like Bill Davis, ran most of the 2002 BGN season without a sponsor, despite his team winning four races, something is wrong. The way races are now covered on TV has had a decidedly negative impact on team financing these days.

In addition, the new TV partners seem to have decided which teams the viewers at home want to watch. It doesn't matter who is leading the race, the viewers get to see the Budweiser, DuPont, or UPS cars running alone on the track, even if they are several laps down. Fans with drivers who are not running among the top five or have one of the sponsors paying for TV commercial time are lucky if their driver is ever shown or mentioned. I recently read an article concerning the Fox attitude about football broadcasts. Fox has stated that they show the teams that they feel will provide the most entertainment to the fans. I can only conclude that Fox has carried this philosophy over to their broadcasts of NASCAR races as well. It doesn't matter that Dave Blaney or some other less popular driver is leading the race, Fox (and NBC as well) has decided that fans would rather see coverage of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. or Jeff Gordon. Again, is this race coverage or just the networks' decision as to what they think the fans want to see? NBC is just as guilty as they hyped their portion of the season as the "Race for the Championship." During the last few races of the 2002 season, they followed Tony Stewart on the track more of the time than they did the race leaders or winners.

Another significant impact that the new TV partners have had on racing involves the changes which began in 2001 concerning qualifying and Happy Hour. I had no problem with NASCAR doing away with second round qualifying, as most teams did not improve their position during a Saturday morning run anyway. However, I have a major problem with the way TV materially affected teams' final practice sessions, traditionally known as Happy Hour. Because the networks wanted to have time to edit and add more commercials into a "package" for Happy Hour broadcasts, NASCAR made the decision to change when the Winston Cup final practice is run. Rather than the traditional time, after the BGN or other support event in the late afternoon on Saturdays, teams now get two early to mid-morning forty-five minute practice sessions. This means teams have less time to get their cars ready on Saturday morning. Rather than having all the time from the point the WC garage opened until about 3:30 or 5:00 p.m. to make changes on their cars, they now must have them ready in less than two hours in some cases. I cannot believe this doesn't affect teams, particularly the smaller single-car teams, giving the advantage to the better-financed or multi-car teams.

In addition, it provides a significant advantage to WC drivers who are running Saturday's BGN race. With the similarity between BGN and WC cars these days, this gives those drivers a chance to learn things about the track or their cars during final WC practice that their BGN crew can apply to their BGN car. Just what we need, giving more of an advantage to the "Buschwhackers" - high money teams who sweep in and cherry-pick the victories away from struggling BGN teams.

What really got me thinking about how TV is now materially affecting NASCAR is something that happened in October of 2002. Three out of the four events held that month ended up with the starting field being set by points - Talladega, Charlotte, and Atlanta. Each of these weeks, WC qualifying was affected by rain. Normally, qualifying is held around 3 p.m. on Friday. In the past, NASCAR would have still had all morning on Saturday in which to reschedule qualifying, yet with the new arrangement where Happy Hour is held on Saturday mornings, the fields for these three races were needlessly set on points. TV seems to want qualifying and Happy Hour to fit into their time schedules, so any time it doesn't, they play a very active role in whether or not these activities are rescheduled. This fact really brought home how such an arrangement could materially affect the outcome of these races or even the points championship. When qualifying is cancelled, as on these three occasions, the points leaders benefit from starting in the front of the field. Who is to say these drivers would have qualified that well had they been required to actually qualify on the track? I was particularly shocked that qualifying was not held at Charlotte in October. Because of the format there, it was scheduled for Thursday night and was stopped because of rain. NASCAR and TV did make one attempt to hold it at 8 a.m. the next morning, but because it was raining at 8 a.m., a decision was made to cancel qualifying entirely after only five minutes. What particularly disturbed me about this decision is that the Charlotte track has lights, so NASCAR had all day and all night, both Friday and Saturday in which to get qualifying run. Yet they chose not to do so. Why? Obviously, because NBC/TNT had already devoted two timeslots to qualifying and didn't feel like scheduling it yet again. This is ridiculous and really brought home to me how TV not only affecting Happy Hours and the financial stability of race teams, but where teams start in the races.

Another thing that we saw a lot of in 2002 were mysterious "debris cautions," - reasons for which TV usually did not address in most cases. NASCAR has been accused of throwing "competition cautions" in the past when someone was running away from the field or there was too much separation between cars, but never before has it seemed as likely to be true as during the 2002 season. Football has had "TV timeouts" for many years. That's fine for football, as typically there are all kinds of reasons to stop the clock anyway, but the very nature of racing is quite different. It has a much more dynamic nature, one which does not lend well to commercial breaks. And we all know that Fox and NBC have a lot of commercial time to sell to turn a profit for all the money they paid for the NASCAR contract. I can't help but wonder if some of the unexplained cautions we've had recently aren't at the networks' bidding, since they are NASCAR's new partners.

In the last few months, NASCAR has begun talking about moving more races to Saturday night starts instead of their traditional Sunday afternoon starts, again openly attributing this to the request of the TV networks. It seems the TV folks feel that more people will watch a race Saturday night as opposed to Sunday afternoon. I can only speculate then why does Fox and NBC show the Richmond and Bristol night races on their cable networks of FX and TNT, instead of their over the air networks? NASCAR has readily embraced the suggestion to move more and more races to Saturday night, with the fall Charlotte race already being scheduled for Saturday night in 2003. What bothers me about this movement is that no one seems to care about the fans attending the races in person. What if they wanted to watch the BGN race as well? I guess then they have to take an extra vacation day now to do so. Obviously, NASCAR and their TV have forgotten about the people watching the race at the track.

Lastly, this brings me to the hot topic of the week - NASCAR's announcement at the annual media tour concerning, "Realignment 2004 and Beyond." Bill France, Jr. and NASCAR announced that they are seriously considering moving events from what they call the oversaturated southeast to other parts of the country beginning in 2004. The venues of Rockingham and Darlington have been earmarked as two tracks likely to lose one of their race dates. It doesn't seem to matter to ISC or TV that these two tracks present some of the best racing on the circuit. TV has been quoted as saying they are "not interested in going to Darlington or Rockingham." Reasons cited are that they are not in big enough TV and advertising markets. Oh, I get it, TV would rather show a boring race from California or Kansas City because they can sell more commercial time there. And NASCAR readily agrees because they want to sell more seats and put more money in the pockets of the France family and the ISC stockholders.

Also mentioned in this latest announcement is that TV is interested in moving the starting times for races to 3 p.m. or later in the day, so they can get a larger TV audience. Again, no one has considered what this will do to the people actually attending the race at the track. A change of this type will make their travel plans more and more complicated. Now, instead of being able to drive or fly home after the race ends around 4:30 or 5:00, fans will be exiting the track closer to 7 p.m. Oh, but NASCAR and TV don't seem to care about the fans actually attending the races; only the TV audience and advertisers. I won't even begin to speculate about the problems this would add when there are rain delays or rainouts. I guess TV doesn't care about that; they always have their cable networks they can shift a rescheduled race to on Monday.

In Saturday's Charlotte Observer, writer David Poole speculated that NASCAR is making so many changes because they want to be able to present "a new kind of package" to the networks. He goes on to say that this all appears to be aimed at the year 2006, when NASCAR will be involved in negotiating a new TV package when the existing contract with Fox and NBC expires. Mr. Poole makes an excellent point, saying that "to bring them back to the bargaining table, NASCAR needs to be selling a product that delivers high ratings in the country's top 10 markets and hits the consumers advertisers want to reach." This is a excellent point, but what bothers me is that somewhere in their desire to please their new TV partners, NASCAR appears to not care about the quality of the "product" they may have in 2006.

NASCAR has already allowed their new TV partners to materially affect their sport in many key areas. What will NASCAR racing even look like in 2006 if more and more team sponsors disappear because they can't afford to sponsor a team and pay for commercial time on network TV? What kind of a product will NASCAR have if they abandon the great racing we see at places like Rockingham and Darlington? Many people have said that NASCAR sold their souls to the devil when they cut the deal with network TV in order to become a more mainstream sport. The things I've seen in the last two years and the changes on the horizon seem to be proving this statement to be true.

Coming Next, Final Part, What is the Future of NASCAR?

Read Part 1 - The Bad Things About Technological Advances

Read Part 2 - The Problem with Expansion

Read Part 3 - Just Plain Greed

You can send me email at cheryl@speedcouch.com.

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