Odds And Ends
September 30, 2003 | 12:34 A.M. EST
NASCAR and SPEED Channel have been hyping the solid and improved ratings turned in by the Craftsman Truck Series so far this season. This is no small feat, especially given the fact that NASCAR voluntarily gave up more than 20 million potential households when it switched the Trucks from the ESPN networks to SPEED Channel.
The improvement is significant and borders on remarkable. For instance, the New Hampshire 200, saw a 200 percent improvement in viewership over last year’s truck race held at Texas on the same weekend. The race saw 378,000 households tune in, compared to 202,000 households in 2002, which is an 87 percent bump. This year, an average of 523,000 viewers watched the New Hampshire 200, a 113% increase over the average 245,000 viewers who saw the 2002 Texas race on the same weekend.
This year’s Virginia is for Lovers 200 on SPEED Channel saw households tuned in increase by 26 percent and total viewership go up 21 percent over last year’s numbers. Again, this is with a numbers “disadvantage” of SPEED reaching about 60 million U.S. households and the 2002 Disney networks reaching over 80 million each.
It just goes to show you what a cohesive, well structured, creative promotional campaign can do for a series. CART and IRL, are you listening? The Craftsman Truck Series is now comfortably the #3 rated motor sport on television.
Certainly, SPEED and NASCAR have some incentives and benefits that some other networks and sanctioning bodies don’t share. SPEED is owned by FOX Cable Networks, and FOX is joined at the hip with NASCAR on many fronts. The more profitable that all of the NASCAR properties can be on the FOX networks, the happier that people like Paul Brooks, Dick Glover, David Hill, Ed Goren, Rupert Murdoch, Wendi Murdoch, the new Murdoch baby, and their respective financial wizards will be.
The lessons to be learned for open wheel racing are no mystery. The IRL needs a true TV partner that shares their passion and financial incentive for marketing the series. Right now, the Disney networks feel that they have no reason and no real financial incentive to expend a great deal of energy showing promos and growing the sport. The ratings are below the Mendoza line and ABC and ESPN have far too many higher profile sports that are going to absorb all of their creative and financial energy. They pay billions for the NBA and NFL, plus they have other big time sports and higher margin original programming that will make a bigger difference on Michael Eisner’s balance sheet and income statement.
Right now it looks like the IRL is something that ABC and ESPN simply have to carry in order to get the Indy 500. With Howard Katz gone, it’s not clear how much longer that’s going to be that important to ESPN/ABC Sports boss George Bodenheimer. Don’t get me wrong, either. This is not bashing the IRL; it’s a view shared by the folks at 16th and Georgetown as well. The IRL bosses are trying, but so far they’re getting few TV takers to buy into their vision. If Mike Pearl can be torn away from wooing Al Michaels for just a few moments, maybe he can be of some help.
Turning the attention to CART for just a moment, it’s not time to regurgitate their TV tales of woe. But there does seem to be a lesson for CART in the success of the Craftsman Truck Series on SPEED, and it may be one that CART management doesn’t want to hear.
CART seems incredibly anxious to move on to a bigger and supposedly better network. SPEED is too small, they say. So, rumors have them pursuing USA Network (soon to be owned by NBC Vivendi Universal), Spike TV (a Viacom MTV network), or even UPN. These are all big names with an impressive household reach and solid ratings for many shows. Besides, some would say that the hipster Motorock concept would be much more at home on these big name networks.
Be careful what you wish for. SPEED may have 20 million fewer households, but that hasn’t hurt the NASCAR Trucks. NASCAR understands marketing, and they took fewer households as a tradeoff for better promotion, only to see it pay off in a big way. SPEED seems willing to work with CART on promotion, if only CART knew what that word meant.
The reality is that CART needs to forget about promoting fast cars, supposedly superior technology, and Sir Elton John as an after-race show. The American fan base doesn’t care. Instead, CART first needs to get America to understand that there’s a difference between Sebastien Bourdais and Sebastian Cabot. In other words, promote the drivers and give people reason to make an emotional investment in the sport. Until they do that, it’s not going to matter one bit what network they’re on. All we are saying is give SPEED a chance.
One of the other pieces of big news that so far has not generated much talk is the hire of Dick Glover as the new VP of Broadcasting at NASCAR. There is no mistaking Glover’s pedigree and why he was brought in. Even though he was most recently at ABC/ESPN, people shouldn’t read too much into that as a sign that NASCAR is somehow trying to suck up to the Disney networks in order to get a big offer when NBC/TNT’s half of the rights come up for bid in a few years.
Instead, Glover’s work spearheading an Olympics rights bid for the Disney networks is what really matters. So, yes, Glover’s expertise from ABC/ESPN will come in handy, but it won’t be to try to get a deal with Disney. Instead, it will be to get the best deal for NASCAR no matter who the network happens to be that puts together the best package.