FS1 Announcement Creates Challenges For The NASCAR Network
Today, Fox Sports Media Group (FSMG) announced the formation of a new nationwide all-sports channel to debut in August. By converting the network's Speed Channel, Fox will have the ability to debut in homes across the country and provide a real alternative to the ESPN juggernaut-something the NBC Sports Channel has so far failed to do. FS1 may also have a major impact on NASCAR's ability to form its own network for the foreseeable future.
In theory, the conversion of Speed TV would open the door to The NASCAR Network (TNN). The announcement of FS1 indicated that the network will be a true all-sports channel with first run sports programming ranging from Major League Baseball to NCAA Division 1 College Football and Basketball to UFC fights. While NASCAR appears to be a cornerstone brand to the new network, the history of Speed TV shows that there is a market for a network based on motorsports programming. It may not be ESPN but it doesn't need to be. Add in NASCAR's extensive tape library (something Speed never had) and televising other series' action (helping to build new stars in the process) and you seem to have a winning formula for a new network.
But there are some major holes in this idea and the formation of FS1 will only make those holes bigger.
First, the success of a NASCAR network would hinge on the ability to show first-run programming. Yes, the tape library can provide filler material. Infomercials can generate both revenue and programming for overnight hours. But having live Sprint Cup races on the schedule may be the only way NASCAR can sell this network to skeptical cable operators and achieve a broad subscriber base. Half of NASCAR's inventory of those races is already gone thanks to a lucrative deal signed towards the end of last year. So at best NASCAR can offer its potential cable partners half a season (albeit the half containing the sport's playoffs and championship).
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Second, does NASCAR really want to follow the lead of IndyCar by placing its events on a channel few receive and even less watch? Ratings for IndyCar races on the NBC Sports Network can't beat out a 25 year old Full House re-run. That's not solely because of interest; when Indy races appear on ABC or ESPN the ratings are significantly better. Part of that is simple math as the race is available to more people. But another part is promotion. Being on a major network (or the premier sports cable channel) allows cross-promotion opportunities that ensure more potential viewers actually know that the race is on. From the bottom line ticker on affiliated channels to in-event commercials during other events, being part of a major network is crucial to getting the word out about your product.
Third. going from ABC/ESPN to the 21st Century TNN is a major step backward. Before the recent ESPN contract how many times did you see race winners interviewed on Sportscenter that night? How many NASCAR highlights led off the telecast and how many drivers were featured interviews on ESPN programming? The answer is very few if any at all. ESPN is now a television partner. They have a vested interest in bringing exposure to the NASCAR product because they air a large number of NASCAR races. Take away that vested interest and you will likely take away much of the current focus they receive. ESPN would have no reason to cover NASCAR beyond a cursory report of who won the race, especially if ratings are low and public interest drops.
Finally, as noted earlier the FS1 announcement clearly indicates that NASCAR will be a cornerstone partner in the new network. In addition to 'selected' NASCAR races, Speed's popular “Raceday” and “Victory Lane” programs will be making the jump to FS1. They are established pre- and post-game shows with familiar faces that NASCAR fans are used to watching for their respective coverages. Moreover they will be aired on a network that also airs both 'selected' NASCAR races and the network partner that is paying billions in rights fees. NASCAR does not want to bite that particular hand. Yet a TNN without NASCAR pre- and post-race coverage doesn't make much sense either.
Those 'selected' races also pose a problem for NASCAR. Part of the reason why NASCAR began negotiating multi-year contracts with network partners was to ensure that race fans would be able to easily follow the sport. Instead of surfing through five (or more) different channels looking for the race, fans would know when and where to find the sport every week. Unless every non-Fox race went to this new NASCAR network (and we've already identified why this might not be a good idea) we're right back where we started with some races appearing on Fox, some on FS1, some on TNN, and some on whatever rights-holder signs with NASCAR for late-year races. Instead of switching networks a total of two times over the course of the season we could be back to the bad old days of changing weekly.
So in the short run, the establishment of FS1 creates some serious issues in terms of a NASCAR network. What can be done?
The pre- and post-race coverage is something that common sense should eventually correct. Part of the NASCAR season collides with America's sports champion, NFL football. As Fox is an NFL rights-holder, one would think that Sunday morning on a Fox Sports network would have an NFL pre-game show, not a NASCAR pre-race show. After all, when one sport draws a 22 rating and the other struggles for a 5, it's not hard to figure out which one to cover first. But maintaining the Raceday and Victory Lane programs would virtually prohibit FS1 from running NFL pre-game (and at times post-game) coverage. The choice to maintain these two programs on a season long basis does not make sense and may yet change by the time 2014 comes along.
NASCAR also needs to recognize that their long-term growth and financial stability depend on having their product available to the widest possible audience. This is particularly true of the Chase. While the ratings of the ten Chase races have never been spectacular, they have at least been available. Interesting storylines and close races have helped stabilize those ratings. But how many fans would have noticed if those races were on, say, NBC Sports TV? How many fans can even locate that channel on their cable box, much less subscribe to the tier it and other similar channels reside on? Sure, some fans may upgrade their cable plan to get the necessary access. Far more will simply find another item to watch. This is especially true of the casual fans that NASCAR is trying so desperately to reach.
So NASCAR cannot, up front, put their live races on TNN without damaging the long-term health of the product. Re-broadcasts of the races? Sure. Live action from lower tiers such as the ARCA series? Absolutely- this is a terrific opportunity to help build the next generation of stars before they reach the Nationwide and Sprint Cup level.
There is also a place for original NASCAR programming. Speed Channel made great strides on that front with its “The Day” and “The 10” series. Additional shows focusing on the lives led by NASCAR's drivers both on and off the track would also be an excellent idea. Building a personal connection with a driver is what really bonds a fan to a driver. It's the one thing NASCAR fans miss most about the “good ole days” and it's something that can be done relatively cheaply in terms of TV production costs. Get a camera crew to follow Darrell Wallace or Chase Elliot around as they try to climb the NASCAR ladder. Have another sprinting behind Clint Bowyer. You get the idea. Greater fan investment in drivers leads to more fans at the track, more eyeballs on the television, and more companies interested in advertising with NASCAR.
Can a NASCAR-oriented network work? Without question. The digital cable explosion of the last decade has created niche networks on a number of different topics. But it's a major investment- especially for a sport that has suffered immensely in the last five years. Sponsors have cut back or withdrawn from NASCAR entirely. Ratings and ticket sales have both dipped to levels not seen in a decade or more. NASCAR cannot afford to further back away from the general public by taking their product that is difficult to find if available at all.