$3 billion TV deal final proof of NASCAR's rise to heights


November 12, 1999|By Milton Kent

If NASCAR fans and drivers have traditionally been dismissed by some northerners as southern rubes, then those so-called hicks got the last laugh with yesterday's television rights announcement.

Starting in 2001, the stock car circuit will collect a reported $3 billion from Fox, NBC and Turner, effectively searing the sport into the nation's consciousness and placing it on a tier with the big four sports -- football, baseball, basketball and hockey.

As Fox Sports chairman David Hill noted, NASCAR trails only the NFL in terms of regular-season ratings and is second to football in terms of deliverance to the all-important male viewer.

"They [the statistics] tell the story of nationwide, explosive growth," said Hill.

The deal -- an eight-year pact for Fox, with an opt-out clause for NASCAR after six years -- will see the racing schedule divided between Fox and its cable outlets, Fox Sports Net and FX, from February to June.

NBC and Turner will pick up the slate in July for a six-year period, and Fox and NBC will alternate telecasts of February's Daytona 500, the first and biggest racing date on the NASCAR calendar, with Fox taking the race in odd-numbered years.

With three of the nation's biggest media giants controlling the NASCAR telecast schedule, the sport will have its largest promotional platform ever, and the opportunity to exploit it.

The package will essentially fill holes in the calendars of the broadcast carriers, giving Fox programming for the winter and early spring. NBC, which, by serendipity, will carry its first NASCAR race ever, the Pennzoil 400 (Channel 11, 12: 30 p.m.) Sunday, will have its best replacement for the football package it lost two years ago.

Indeed, the new summer and fall NASCAR package may signal the end of NBC and Turner's ruminations about starting up a new fall football league to challenge the NFL. Ebersol said the two parties will make an announcement after Thanksgiving about the future of a new league.

Left on the outside were two longtime NASCAR water carriers. ESPN currently airs more than 300 hours of racing, and while the building popularity of the sport will dictate that the cable outlet cover the races, one wonders how much enthusiasm it will bring to the mix.

Particularly stung is CBS and its cable outlet, the Nashville Network. The network's years of faithful NASCAR coverage, which included raising the visibility of the Daytona 500 and bringing the racing circuit into broadcast prime time, apparently mattered little in the negotiations.

"We made a decision that allows us to take the sport into the next millennium. This was never a money decision. It was about how we can position the sport to our fans in a whole new light," said Bryan France, whose family has run NASCAR since its inception.

As someone once said, whenever someone tells you that it's not about the money, it is about the money. Who says the "hayseeds" can't learn?

Go figure

No less an authority than Colts legend Johnny Unitas says quarterbacks in the NFL have never been worse than they are at present. Most running backs aren't having seasons worth writing home about, and the four teams that made the conference finals last year are all staggering.

And yet, people are crazier for football than they are for that Regis Philbin millionaire show. Ratings at CBS, Fox and ESPN are up substantially from this time last year, and it stands to reason that the numbers should stay at this level or go up as the weather gets colder and the divisional races heat up.

So, what gives? In the mind of Fox analyst John Madden, the unpredictability of the year has made for must-see TV.

"If anyone would have told me at the halfway point that the Giants and the Redskins would be leading the NFC East, Detroit would be leading the Central and St. Louis the West I would have gone to the bank with you," said Madden. "You have to watch it because of the unknown."

Around the dial

Indianapolis running back Edgerrin James will be the subject of two pre-game show profiles Sunday. Baltimore native Melissa Stark chats with James for ESPN's "NFL Countdown" at 11 a.m. and CBS' Craig James conducts a sitdown for "The NFL Today" (Channel 13, 3: 30 p.m.). CNN's "NFL Preview" takes a look at Packer quarterback Brett Favre's nightmarish season at 10 a.m. Sunday.

ESPN Classic has an interesting weekend of programming planned, beginning with tomorrow afternoon's marathon of women's athletics, highlighted by a noon replay of the 1994 NCAA title game between North Carolina and Louisiana Tech, decided at the horn on a controversial three-pointer. At 4: 30, Dick Schaap talks with tennis great Billie Jean King.

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