Victory at the Brickyard, for Jimmie Johnson (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
It's the 20th anniversary of one of the most incredible sports stories in American history -- NASCAR at the hallowed Brickyard.
Stock cars at Indianapolis Motor Speedway?
Sacrilege, many insisted.
And while the action out on the track here this week may not be as sizzling as the Talladega draft, and while another Jimmie Johnson runaway could well be in the cards in Sunday's Brickyard 400, this event, on these immaculate grounds, can still take your breath away.
But, amazingly, that's not the big story here.
The headliner features someone who's not even here...and who won't even be here for nearly two years: NBC.
And the curious, very curious timing of NASCAR's announcement of a new, 10-year TV deal with NBC, beginning in 2015, leaves some scratching their heads.
Is this another example of NASCAR stepping all over a good story -- the 20th anniversary of the Brickyard -- with another story that could easily have come another day? Did CEO Brian France have to embarrass long-time partner ESPN/ABC? Is it just business?
Is it just that NBC/Comcast is so eager to push its new NBC-Sports (old Versus) cable channel that it just had to have NASCAR as an anchor to help woo others into to sign up, and just had to tell the world as soon as it could?
Or is it simple -- NBC offered a lot more money to NASCAR. NBC/Comcast will pay a reported $420 million to $450 million a year, far more than ESPN/ABC's $280 million or so each season.
That looks like $4 (B) billion...more than enough for those who remember France, in announcing that first big TV deal, insisting then 'It's not about the money,' to wince. That was just a $2.4 (B) billion deal.
Not sure if Genevieve Marie Johnson really understands this kissing the bricks thing (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
So NBC values NASCAR that much more than ESPN/ABC?
Or maybe ESPN/ABC simply hasn't produced as much as France wanted when he signed the Disney Company in December 2005, after NBC bowed out.
Did ESPN/ABC just fail with NASCAR?
Maybe ABC's pulling the plug on that Phoenix playoff race in 2008 with 34 laps still to race and the championship on the line, to switch to 'America's Funniest Home Videos,' should have been a tip-off.
NBC now would apparently be paying, essentially, $21 million to $22.5 million per race, during its 10 years to come. That's in line with the approximately $23 million per race Fox appears to be paying when it's new contract (eight years) also kicks in.
A point here: ESPN's TV ratings the past three years really haven't been all that impressive, particularly for the 10 playoff races. Last fall's chase-on-TV ratings were the lowest since that playoff format began in 2004; on average 4.2 million viewers watched each of last year's playoffs, and the Homestead-Miami finale drew just 3.4 million.
When the current deal was announced in late 2005, the plan was for ABC to carry all 10 fall playoff races; but that didn't last long. Most of those chase races were moved to ESPN three years ago.
Let's benchmark a key item in this TV game: ratings for NASCAR's 'championship game,' the Homestead-Miami finale.
NBC carried the first chase finale, in 2004, pulling a nice 6.2 rating.
Since then, though, it's been downhill for the last race of the season: a 5.9 rating for NBC's 2005 broadcast, a 4.7 for NBC's 2006, a 3.8 for ABC's 2007, a 3.8 for ABC's 2008, and a 3.5 for ABC's 2009, the last year the championship was on network television.
ESPN's three chase finales pulled a 2.7, a 3.1 and a 2.7.
Either the playoff/chase format has been a flop or TV just hasn't done it justice.
Maybe NBC can reverse all that, when it comes to the plate.
ESPN offers NASCAR a lot of angles to work. How long will it take NBC to get up to speed? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Here's another benchmark for ESPN, this Brickyard 400. In 2009 it was watched by 6.5 million people on ESPN; in 2010, by 5.7 million; in 2011, by 6.4 million; in 2012, by 5 million.
Contrast that to NBC's Brickyard coverage: 20 million viewers in 2001, the most-watched Brickyard 400 ever.
And maybe ESPN/ABC simply has so much sports inventory for those so many channels that NASCAR isn't that important any more.
Not like it was back in the 1980s, when ESPN and NASCAR were so tight. Now those were some fun races to watch on TV, Jerry Punch working pit road like a man possessed, and the rest of the gang always so energetic too.
The second time around, despite all the hoopla and promotion, something has seemed lacking.
Whatever the case, the NASCAR TV landscape is about to change.
And the changes may be coming sooner than the summer of 2015.
A hot question -- how will ESPN/ABC handle this change? (ESPN/ABC/Disney's exclusive negotiating period just ran out two weeks ago, opening the door for NBC. It is not clear if Disney declined to match the NBC offer or declined to get into a bidding war.)
Did ESPN simply fail at the chase? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Details of the new NBC package are short. Neither money nor specific races were revealed, other than that NBC would carry some Cup events as lead-in to its Sunday National Football League games. In fact the NASCAR Sprint Cup tour schedule for 2014 isn't even set yet, much less the 2015 tour and beyond.
NASCAR and television:
It may be hard today to recall back when track promoters were so deathly afraid of live TV of their races....
Yes, TV sports deals come and go, and go and return, and all that. The plethora of channels and events can be mindboggling.
But for this sport of NASCAR racing, with its coast-to-coast venues and the endless season, TV is more than just routine. It has become a lifeline for hardcore fans. Love TV coverage or hate TV coverage, NASCAR fans couldn't really survive without it. (However there is something to be made of the concept of overkill.)
CBS' 1979 Daytona 500 may be storied, but it was the ESPN blanket coverage through the 1980s -- for, what, $5000 a race rights fees, or something now remarkably cheap -- that spread the NASCAR story so effectively throughout the country...and set the stage for the mid-1990s explosion, when this sport, in significant part triggered by this NASCAR at the Brickyard, really took off.
Yes, this sport-on-TV has stagnated the last few years, for many reasons, with angry fans, as anyone social-media-savvy well knows.
Maybe Brian France deserves kudos for putting together this new NBC deal...for more than just the money.
It is intriguing, swapping out ESPN/ABC and jumping to NBC and its still very new sports channel.
In a sense it looks a bold gamble, leaving the comfy, established sports world of ESPN/ABC and making the move to NBC, which is trying to build its own version of ESPN.
Yet in another sense there have to be some heavy questions asked here about why NASCAR would be willing to give up its prominent role on the U.S.' top sports operation.
ESPN/ABC execs insist they won't give the cold shoulder to this sport. France says he's been reassured on that.
But then France himself pointed to lack of promotion by NBC for 2006's TV ratings slump, in the final season of that contract.
And just how committed is NBC to this new sports venture, NBC Sports as a cable channel? Can NBC make money on this things? (It reportedly lost money on NASCAR the last time around.)
And as many commercial breaks as fans are forced to endure these days, it looks like something might be askew on the TV ledgers.
NASCAR on NBC was certainly not unexpected. NBC, with its expansion of sports programming, has been eagerly wooing NASCAR for some time now. And NASCAR, mindful of the huge ratings bump it got with NBC's 2004 Olympics lead-in, must certainly have been enticed by all those Olympics-to-come on NBC.
-- The timing of the announcement seems a bit odd, and more than a bit awkward, to be honest: on the eve of the opening of the second half of this NASCAR season at legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with the Brickyard 400 the first of 17 Sprint Cup races on ESPN/ABC.
-- And why would NASCAR want to leave the ESPN/ABC family anyway? Or did ESPN/ABC just decide it really didn't need NASCAR any more? Maybe NBC/Comcast will do a better job of promoting this sport.
Remember, not only is NASCAR 'losing' its strong ties with ESPN, it's also losing Speed, the Fox cable channel that has carried just about all things NASCAR that didn't fit anywhere else.
How Fox' revamping of the Speed Channel into a general sports channel will affect NASCAR is very much up in the air, but it doesn't really appear to be any big plus, that's for sure.
There is just so much to consider when analyzing this TV twist.
-- This is France's third big TV deal.
The first one, which ran from 2001-2006 with Fox and NBC, was a huge breakthrough for the sport.
The second one, currently in Year Seven of eight, appeared at first to be another breakthrough...though in retrospect it was not so much. The sport's TV ratings peaked in 2005 and have sagged ever since, for various reasons. This season Fox, which carries the tour's first 13 events, from February through early June, reported ratings 'flat' with last season.
Sunday's 400 is the kickoff to the ESPN/ABC half of the season.
-- Is it all just about the money?
The first big TV package was about $400 million a year, all totaled, Fox and NBC.
The second TV package was about $560 million a year, all totaled, Fox, ESPN/ABC and Turner/TimeWarner (something like $2.75 (B) billion over the eight years). ESPN/ABC's share of that was about $280 million a year.
-- Curiously NASCAR says it still has three June Cup races yet to sell to TV, apparently the Pocono, Michigan and Sonoma events. It looks like those will go to Fox. And it looks like NASCAR didn't want to offer them to NBC for some reason.
What other TV operation was under consideration for the June part of the tour?
-- NBC now has a 10-year package, featuring the last 20 Sprint Cup events of the season...which will apparently being at Daytona the July Fourth weekend with that 400 and possibly run non-stop through the Homestead finale.
In one respect, this deal makes sense, because NBC also has rights to Formula 1 and Indy-car, to be featured its cable channel.
Only seven Cup races a season, though, it appears, on NBC network.
Still, that's more than the three Cup races ABC itself is putting on the network (all three, Saturday nights) this season.
And, quick: on your family television set, what channel is NBC Sports? (In Winston-Salem that's channel 56....)
But then maybe there is little cachet these days to being on 'the network.'
One question: why would NASCAR leave the ESPN/ABC family, after both have invested so much in this effort?
For 6-1/2 years NASCAR has been a staple on what is easily the top sports operation in the U.S. ESPN has more cable channels and a much richer, more lush internet landscape, and its Disney links are a big plus too.
NBC, now owned by cable giant Comcast, would like to create something just like ESPN. And it's now taking those steps.
However it took ESPN years, if not decades, to get to the sports pinnacle. How long might it take NBC to get this new sports channel up to speed?
And there may be the worry, across the American sports landscape, that 'if you're not on ESPN, you're really not that important.'
The crowds may still be off, the TV ratings may be down, but winning at the Brickyard is still magic (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)