Perfect Match

You don’t have to listen too long to figure out how NBC feels about its relationship with NASCAR. NBC Sports president Ken Schanzer sounds downright giddy when he talks about his network’s relationship with NASCAR and its ratings success on the Peacock Network. Schanzer leads off using words like “stunning” and “remarkable” when he describes “this remarkable ride called NASCAR.”

In this day and age of hundreds of TV alternatives, that ratings victory for NASCAR is especially impressive. “To date this year, our ratings are up two percent,” says Schanzer. “This is particularly impressive when you consider that, since 2000, the ratings are up 59 percent, which is why it’s the number two sport, behind the NFL, in America.”

Its reach and influence is growing in non-traditional NASCAR markets. Buffalo is up 40 percent, says Schanzer, and St. Louis, Dallas, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Providence are all examples of markets up more than 20 percent.

Citing Saturday’s first night broadcast from Charlotte for NBC, Schanzer says, “This is just one more step in this great, great relationship between us, the Turner organization, and NASCAR. We’re excited that we’re putting this in prime time.”

The TV competition will be tough on Saturday, especially going head-to-head against the Cubs-Marlins broadcast on FOX. “I think it’s going to be interesting to see how NASCAR performs,” says Schanzer. “But we’re very, very confident that we’re going to put up a terrific number on Saturday night.”

Saturday night is just one indication that NBC and TNT are sold on the benefits of night racing for TV

“NASCAR is as exciting as any sport in America,” says Schanzer. “It’s more exciting at night, there’s just something about the impact of lights on these race cars that makes it all the more dramatic.”

“Speaking for NBC and, I think, the Turner organization, we’d love to do more night racing,” says Schanzer. “There are a series of logistical issues that are attached to going into prime time . . . a whole range of things that make it complicated. From the standpoint of a television partner and the standpoint of the racing itself, we love night racing. We keep working with NASCAR to try to increase the number of prime time racing. They’re willing to look at it, but they’re very, very sensitive to the needs of the drivers, tracks, and fans.”

“It’s all wrapped up in trying to balance these very, very relevant constituencies,” he says. “We’re just one of them. You have to balance the interest of the fan, the interest of the drivers, the interest of the viewers, and come up with something that’s going to make the product as successful as can humanly be made. We’re in constant communication with NASCAR trying to figure it out, so we can make sure that all of those constituencies are well served.”

In the past, there have been rumors and possible discussion about night racing on a weekday in prime time, but it doesn’t look like that will happen any time in the near future.

“It strikes me that it would be impossible to do it,” says Schanzer. “NASCAR is a weekend that culminates in the Winston Cup race. You can’t simply isolate it on a work day . . . I can’t imagine doing it on a Monday night.”

Schanzer also gives high marks for NBC’s coverage.

“I’ve been in sports for 20 years. I don’t know if there’s any sport’s that’s as well covered,” says Schanzer. “I can’t imagine a sport that’s better covered than NASCAR, more completely covered, more interesting. I didn’t come into this a NASCAR fan. But I will tell you that sitting in front of a television watching a NASCAR broadcast, I get more interesting information in the course of a NASCAR telecast than in any sport I know.”

Despite all of this excitement about NASCAR, ratings, and night racing, NBC is less enthusiastic about the financial benefits of NASCAR on NBC’s bottom line.

“We’re getting closer (to financial success), but we’re not there,” says Schanzer. “We’re not there, we’ve got a ways to go. It’s a little complicated based on the fact that we started way behind, and the problem is trying to catch up. For us to catch up, we have to do exponential kinds of increases. I suspect we’re not going to catch up during this contract. But we’re moving forward; it’s getting better.”

NBC’s contract with NASCAR runs through 2006. So, what about future negotiations beyond that point?

“Our position on sports has been very, very consistent regarding everything,” he says. “We want to be in properties that make sense to us economically. If we can find a way to make NASCAR economical . . . We love the product. We think the product is fabulous, we just need a way to make it work financially. So, yeah, we’d love to be in it, but I can’t say what’s going to happen down the road.”

TNT TALE OF THE TAPE: Retro is in. Living in the past is hot. Whether it’s a John Deere hat with a mesh back on Ashton Kutcher or a 20-something year-old dropping 350 bucks on a George Gervin or Elvin Hayes jersey, looking like you jumped right out of 1977 is cool.

TNT is jumping on the bandwagon by celebrating like it’s that’s 70’s show, complete with a tape delay of tomorrow night’s Busch race from Charlotte. That’s right, the AOL Time Warner braintrust has declared that ratings will be higher if they don’t show the race live, instead airing it at Noon on Saturday.

This should do a lot to bring in new fans. You know, the ones the TV execs love to talk about who sit home at home with the clicker, will turn on the NASCAR race, see how awesome the sport is, and become a devoted fan.

I can see it now. Target Demo Joe Sixpack tuning in to NASCAR and saying to himself, “Wow, this NASCAR stuff is so cool. In fact, it must be so popular that it looks like this race was run at night because it’s dark outside on my TV, but it’s lunchtime where I’m at. NASCAR is so important that TNT put it on a tape delay. This is too compelling, I think I’ll forget about this big football Saturday and watch this night race in the day and run out and buy an Ashton Lewis t-shirt.”

Simply put, this tape delay is a brain cramp from the TV executives. What other sport worth its salt is subject to tape delay? In case TNT management forgot, they need to be reminded that the Busch Series is the #2 rated motor sport on television. Do they tape delay golf? College football? Their other sports properties in North America?

One side benefit to this boondoggle is that there should be no problems finding great music for one of the bumpers to commercials. The perfect song is from Ronnie Milsap: “I’m having daydreams about night things in the middle of the afternoon.”

There’s no indication where NASCAR stands on this issue. If they’re upset, they would never say so publicly anyway. There’s also a chance that NASCAR is happy with Turner’s decision, because there’s the possibility that it may deliver more households on Saturday. Then again, it might not.

Whatever the rating turns out to be, NASCAR has violated (or allowed Turner to violate) one of its core principles: “We want to grow the sport and reach out to new fans, without alienating our core fans.” I’m sorry to say, but NASCAR and TNT have alienated their core fans with this decision.






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NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2003

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