Remember? Wally Dallenbach (R) covering NASCAR for NBC (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Suddenly ESPN/ABC is a lame duck in the NASCAR world, and on the very eve of its Brickyard 400 kickoff.
A lame duck that won't reach the finish line of its current racing contract for another year and a half.
Just as the stock car racing world -- and ESPN/ABC as the sport's major television network -- heads to Indianapolis Motor Speedway to kick off the 'second' half of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season, NASCAR CEO Brian France Tuesday afternoon announced a major new TV contract with NBC, beginning in 2015.
The NBC-NASCAR deal is a socko 10-year package.
There are still some holes in the sport's new TV game plan. But essentially ESPN/ABC and Turner's TNT will be out at the end of the 2014 season, and NBC takes over that key part of the schedule in the summer of 2015.
NBC will be broadcasting seven Cup events on the network; the other 13 Cup events in the sport's second half will be on NBC's new sports cable channel, the former Versus network (principally known for its Tour de France coverage).
NBC was a major power in NASCAR racing from 2001 through 2006, a six-year run in which NBC posted some amazing ratings numbers with this sport.
During that span, though, NBC carried 10 of its then 15-race package on the network: Indianapolis, Watkins Glen, California, Kansas, Talladega, Martinsville Atlanta, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead-Miami.
Just as ESPN kicks off its half of the NASCAR stock car racing season, at Indianapolis, NASCAR announces ESPN/ABC will soon be history (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
It was in part to keep NBC interested in stock car racing that France created 'the chase,' the still controversial 10-race championship playoffs, in which the top 10 or 12 drivers just after Labor Day have their points essentially re-zeroed, to create a September-October-November 'playoff' system.
Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have dominated the 'chase,' winning five championship in that span. And they are well on their way to a sixth title this season...and they're early favorites to win Sunday's Brickyard 400, considered one of this sport's biggest events (despite its typical lack of action or drama).
The last two years or so NASCAR's TV ratings have been either flat or down.
Bringing NBC back to the sport looks like a big plus...however there could be a significant downside to the timing: how much incentive will ESPN/ABC have now to promote NASCAR for the next 18 months? Remember, when the 2006 TV ratings began to sink, France said part of the reason was that NBC was a lame duck and thus didn't have as much interest in promoting the sport. Might the same thing now happen again?
It certainly is curious that France made this NBC announcement just hours before Indianapolis is to open the ESPN/ABC part of the tour.
There are a number of issues to consider here, which will certainly be analyzed over the next several days.
One big point -- a major aspect of the ESPN/ABC coverage of NASCAR racing has been ESPN's aggressive and wide-spread internet sports coverage. Indeed, ESPN's NASCAR journalists have become the sport's primary journalists (in part because of the precipitous collapse of the U.S. print media since 2008).
ESPN, of course, covers more than just NASCAR; it has become the country's major sports outlet in general. Its NASCAR coverage has even been seen by some as somewhat marginalized by ESPN's wide-flung sports programming.
Without NASCAR TV coverage as an anchor, it remains to be seen how staunchly ESPN/ABC continues covering NASCAR on its web sites.
On the other side, NBC is trying to crank up its new NBC Sports cable outlet as a major challenger to ESPN/ABC on several fronts, undoubtedly including the web.
Still, another issue still hanging over this sport in this realm is the upcoming change in Fox' own sports cable operations. Speed has been Fox' NASCAR/racing outlet, but that channel is changing dramatically. What that may mean for NASCAR racing is still unknown.
All this is still unfolding.
Suddenly the future for top NASCAR journalists like ESPN's Marty Smith (C) is up in the air. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Here is NASCAR's official announcement:
"NASCAR and NBC Sports Group announced today they have reached a comprehensive agreement that grants NBCUniversal exclusive rights to the final 20 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races, final 19 NASCAR Nationwide Series events, select NASCAR Regional & Touring Series events and other live content beginning in 2015. Financial terms of the agreement, which runs through the 2024 season, were not disclosed.
"With this partnership, NBC’s 20 Sprint Cup race schedule includes becoming the exclusive home to the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, NASCAR’s final 10 races of the season, including its season-ending championship event which will return to network television in 2015 for the first time since 2009. Of NBC Sports Group’s 20 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events, seven will be carried on NBC annually, with 13 airing on NBC Sports Network (NBCSN). Four of NBC Sports Group’s 19 NASCAR Nationwide Series races will air on NBC, with 15 airing on NBCSN.
"'NBC is known for being an exceptional partner and delivering outstanding production quality and presentation of live sports, as well as its broad portfolio of broadcast and digital properties so we are thrilled with the commitment they have made to NASCAR and its future,' said NASCAR Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Brian France. "We know this partnership will yield great value to our entire industry, provide a premium experience to our most important stakeholders, the fans, and help us achieve a number of strategic growth objectives. Our new partnership with NBC and the recent extension by FOX validate the strength of our fan base and the many bold steps we have taken the last several years to provide fans with better, more accessible racing.'
"In addition to rights to NASCAR Sprint Cup and NASCAR Nationwide Series races, NBC has also obtained exclusive rights to practice and qualifying sessions for NBC’s national series events during their portion of the season, as well as rights to broadcast the NASCAR K&N Series, NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, NASCAR Toyota (Mexico) Series, the NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremony and NASCAR’s season-ending banquets. Further, NBC has been granted Spanish-language rights, certain video-on-demand rights and exclusive TV Everywhere rights for its NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and NASCAR Nationwide Series events.
"'Acquiring the rights and bringing NASCAR back to NBC comes at an important point in time for NBC Sports Network, NBC, and all of our distributors and affiliates,' said NBC Sports Group Chairman, Mark Lazarus. 'We look forward to working with Brian and his management team, who have brought a renewed focus to NASCAR's intersection of sports and technology.'
"'We are excited about the cross-promotional opportunities NBC provides, especially in the timeframes right before NBC's NASCAR schedule and during the Chase,' said NASCAR VP of Broadcasting and Productions, Steve Herbst. 'We're confident NBC will utilize its powerful Championship Season lineup, including the NHL Playoffs, Premier League, the French Open, the Kentucky Derby and other events, to build interest and excitement for NASCAR. Those opportunities, combined with the opportunity to lead into the number one show on television – NBC's Sunday Night Football – for select Chase races, were both very attractive prospects when considering this partnership.'"