Stoking NASCAR's Ratings Hot Streak

Fast cars are providing some of the hottest ratings numbers on television — specifically the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. It’s one of the few sports franchises that drives significant ratings increases throughout the life of its on-air agreements. NASCAR is now in year four of a six- year, $2.8 billion pact with Fox Sports, FX, NBC and Turner Network Television. Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead recently talked with NASCAR vice president of broadcasting and new media Dick Glover about whether or not NASCAR can sustain its popularity and its expanding content, which goes far beyond races, into race-car driver pets and even Britney Spears. An edited transcript follows.

MCN: You spent many years over at ESPN and were instrumental in helping build the network into the sports-television leader it is today. What prompted you to leave ESPN for NASCAR?

Dick Glover: It was simple. It was a great opportunity. I’ve known [NASCAR chairman] Brian France, [NASCAR chief operating officer] George Pyne and [president of NASCAR digital entertainment] Paul Brooks for many years. The recent elevation of Brian to chairman opened up a slot, so it was the proverbial “too good of an opportunity” to turn down. For the first four months, it’s turned out pretty good.

MCN: You’re coming in during an incredibly strong period for the sport, in which it’s notching unprecedented network and cable ratings. How has the sport been able to maintain its popularity and viewership during a period when sports viewing, for most sports, is declining?

GLOVER: There are a couple of reasons. One, it starts with the product — the competition, the drivers every weekend and the races. It’s something that we continue to look at even while it’s doing well. This year, there’s been a lot of coverage on the change of the tires, the change in the spoilers and the things that are done the make the competition even better every single weekend. That’s one the reasons we’ve been able to maintain our growth.

The second is [that] unlike an awful lot of sports, NASCAR is expanding from the small to the large. Going back to its roots, it was concentrated in a lot of smaller markets. Now — with the second race being added in Los Angeles, and with the new tracks that came on board in Chicago and Kansas City — that allows for growth as well.

The third reason is good, old-fashioned hard work. We just work hard to make the sport better and better.

MCN: This year, NASCAR has implemented a new points system that some observers say will bring more excitement and potential viewers to the second half of the season, which is televised by TNT and NBC. (The first half was carried by Fox and FX). Are you worried that the change will have a negative impact on ratings, and therefore hamper negotiations with Fox when the contract is up in two years?

GLOVER: No, just the opposite. The chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup is designed to create better racing throughout the year. Every race is just a bit more important, because you now have that demarcation coming at race 26. So all of the first 26 races have more importance, because there’s less time between race two and race 26. All races become more important.

Obviously races 23, 24, 25 and 26 will have heightened appeal, because everyone is jockeying for position to determine who will be among the top 10 drivers who are eligible for the cup, so we think that will be a big boost.

Yes, the NBC-Turner package is enhanced, but so is the Fox package.

MCN: What advantages does having Nextel as a title sponsor, rather than [cigarette brand] Winston, provide to the sport?

Glover: Nextel has been a fabulous partner already, What it brings us is a fabulous wireless/ telecommunications company, and they appeal to an audience that is broader than previous [sponsors]. Likewise, they have the ability through television to advertise and bring our sport to people that may not be familiar with NASCAR.

During Daytona, [Nextel] debuted a series of NASCAR-themed spots that not only sell Nextel products, but honor the history and tradition of NASCAR. People seeing those ads will give us exposure that obviously we couldn’t get with previous sponsors who were restricted on television.

Likewise, they are creating new products — driver-themed phones, NASCAR-themed ringtones, etc., that take our sport to a broader audience.

MCN: Has the content split among NBC, TNT, Fox Sports and FX worked for NASCAR up to this point, and will you look to continue that same alternating network format after the current contract ends in two years?

Glover: The current deal with all the partners has worked out terrifically well. Fox and FX, in the first half, do a great job and have been behind the sport in ways that are very gratifying, and then you get the promotional push to NBC and TNT in the second half with, again, terrific coverage.

MCN: With the increased ratings and network/cable coverage, has NASCAR risen to the heights of the four professional sports in terms of getting coverage from the mainstream press?

Glover: We always feel that you cannot possibly get enough coverage. We’re working very hard to expand what is already appropriate and excellent coverage.

We want to make sure the people note that we are the second most popular sport on television in terms of attracting fans to our events — our events are the most attended events, week in and week out, with 100,000 to 300,000 people coming to the event. No other single event can say that. We’re very proud of our position.

MCN: While Speed Channel devotes a significant amount of hours a week to NASCAR, are there plans to eventually launch a NASCAR channel, as many of the other top pro sports have already done?

Glover: We are very, very happy with our relationship with Speed. They are our cable partners. And unlike the other sports that are either currently operating their own network or [that have] publicly discussed plans to do so, we’re very happy and content to stay with the partners we have.

MCN: Even with NASCAR going into contract negotiations within the next 12 to 18 months, the prospect of a stand-alone channel to generate even more television revenue for the sport is not at least a consideration?

Glover: Again, the Speed Channel arrangement goes for many years, and we’re very, very happy with that and have no reason to change that.

MCN: While NASCAR is a couple of years away from having to negotiate a new agreement, given the current hostile television environment toward rising sports rights, is there a concern that NASCAR may not get the kind of rate increases it feels it may deserve given its performance over the past few years?

GLOVER: When a sport or a conference provides value, they get value back. As you know, I was very much involved in the last Olympics negotiations less than a year ago, which resulted in a 32½% [rate] increase. When you bring the product and you bring the value, you get the return.

MCN: How is the In Demand NASCAR subscription pay-per-view package performing?

Glover: “NASCAR In Car” is doing very well. The seven channel [package] is performing well – it’s doing where we though it would perform.

MCN: Can you provide any specific numbers?

GLOVER: You know me. No specifics.

MCN: With all the broadcast and cable network outlets currently televising NASCAR sports programming, is there a potential for oversaturation of the product?

Glover: No, because you get a wide variety and level of coverage. Not all of it is focused on the same thing. We have the Nextel Cup series, the Busch Series, the Craftman Truck series, the Grand National Series, the Auto Zone Elite Series, the Dodge Weekly Touring Series and the Modified Series. So you have this incredible spectrum that runs from weekend hobbyists to the best and most competitive drivers in the world and everything in-between. So there’s a wide canopy of stuff to be covered.

Then you get into other platforms — Animal Planet is going to focus on a aspect on a sport very, very different than that of Fox Sports Net. That’s a problem I would love to have down the road.

MCN: Given your history within cable sports, and looking at the sports television marketplace overall, are you surprised at the recent animosity between operators and networks over the cost of sports rights?

Glover: That’s one I will leave for my former compatriots to answer. For us, the issue is providing a product that our fans and consumers want, and then the economics of distribution will take care of themselves.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.