Nascars Second Class Fans

FOX's coverage of NASCAR's Winston Cup and Busch Series events has gotten generally good reviews, both here and elsewhere.

However, in a handful of major markets around the country, many fans are in an uproar about missing live coverage of races.

For example, last Sunday's race from Martinsville wasn't carried live by FOX's Boston station WFXT-TV. Instead, the station carried a Boston Red Sox game. The race aired on a tape-delay basis following the baseball game.

It's going to happen in New York City next weekend when FOX-owned outlet WNYW-TV replaces the Busch and Winston Cup events from Talladega.

And it has happened - and will happen again - in San Francisco, where racing will lose out to baseball.

The substitutions are inevitable, and yet another example of the hiccups that come along when business partners change.

Because FOX isn't a full-fledged network under FCC rules, many of its stations operate as modified independent stations, programming off hours on weekends and late nights on their own. The majors - ABC, CBS and NBC - each provide their affiliates with 22 hours in prime time, while Fox offers just 15.

The difference comes down to semantics, though it's something that plays in here.

See, as independents, many of the FOX affiliates and its owned stations around the country have pre-existing deals to televise local baseball teams. In New York, WNYW is the exclusive broadcast station of the world champion Yankees. And in many cases, the baseball deals carry clauses that require the station to air the games, no matter what.

Also, unlike NASCAR, which costs affiliated stations nothing, the baseball deals cost big bucks and tend to pull in big bucks directly to a station through local advertising deals.

The baseball contracts were in place before FOX made a network deal to air racing. Likewise, since most stations are affiliates and not owned by the network, Fox simply can't force a station to air anything.

Sure, there are financial incentives to carry network provided programming, but at the end of the day, it's up to the individual station owners.

From FOX’s perspective, it's hamstrung by the preexisting deals. New York is the No. 1 market in the country. San Francisco is No. 5. Boston is No. 6. Combined, they reach more than 11.6 million homes, meaning any ratings generated in those cities go a long way at boosting the network's overall performance.

Reduced ratings in those three cities will no doubt lower FOX’s average for those races.

Here's the rub.

Despite NASCAR's ratings growth this season, the Nielsen returns tend to support the station managers who switch to baseball rather than airing racing.

Of course, Boston, New York and San Francisco, while home to huge numbers of race fans, are far from being classified as NASCAR hotbeds.

On Sunday, the Red Sox game in Boston averaged 354,367 homes tuned in, or about triple the 100,899 homes the Winston Cup race averaged the previous week. And the tape delay of the Winston Cup race averaged 78,477 homes, about 22,000 fewer than the station's average for NASCAR, although it should be noted the race aired against CBS ratings rich coverage of Tiger Woods' chase of The Masters title.

Now, it also should be noted that dumping out of races for other sporting events is not a new trend, either. For many years ESPN would tape delay one of the Winston Cup races so it could instead air the NFL draft.

Nevertheless, before FOX’s run with NASCAR ends in July, there will be a total of nine times that either a Busch or Winston Cup race will give way to baseball in Beantown - with all of those events airing on a tape-delayed basis.

Unfortunately, many of the baseball contracts extend out multiple years into the future, meaning race fans in those markets will have to suffer with tape-delayed events.

And again, made to feel like second-class citizens.

Elsewhere: On Monday at 10 p.m. (EST), HBO's critically praised series "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel" includes an interview with Michael and Darrell Waltrip.

Michael tells correspondent Mary Carillo that Dale Earnhardt "gave me so much more than a car to do the job with. Mentally, he worked on me, tuned me up."

And Darrell talks about the final moments of the Daytona 500, when Earnhardt was killed in a last-lap crash. Waltrip, now working for FOX, said what he saw that day was unusual for Earnhardt.

"Oh yeah. Unlike anything I've ever seen before," Darrell says. "He made a sacrifice. I just like to say he was playing shepherd. He was herding his two cars to victory circle."

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