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TNT Looks To Drive NASCAR Ratings, Ad Sales

The checkered flag has waved on the first half of the National Association for Stock Car Racing season, and Turner Network Television and NBC have moved to the starting line — looking to draft on strong ratings momentum from Fox and FX's stock-car coverage.

Armed with an array of cross-promotional spots and local-market cable promotions, TNT and NBC hope to accelerate ratings for their NASCAR Winston Cup and Busch Grand National Series telecasts. Their season kicked off July 5 with the Pepsi 400 Pole Qualifying from Daytona, Fla., on TNT and the Pepsi 400 race in primetime July 7 on NBC.

Billing their Winston Cup coverage as the "Race for the Championship," TNT and NBC will break new ground with the stock-car circuit. They've established a joint venture to produce, promote and sell advertising for telecasts during the second half of the NASCAR season.

As was the case for Fox, the sluggish overall advertising environment has not made NASCAR an easy ride for TNT and NBC on Madison Avenue.

The duo had only sold 70 percent of its NASCAR inventory by late June, according to recent published reports. Turner Sports executive vice president of sales Keith Cutler declined to comment on sell-through status, but a spokesman for Turner Broadcasting Sales Inc. said the NASCAR market has begun to speed up of late.

As of July 3, inventory for NBC and TNT's coverage of the Daytona Winston Cup and Watkins Glen, N.Y., Busch races were "virtually sold out," the TBSI spokesman said. The Busch and Winston Cup races on July 14 and 15 were also at that level, he added.

Much of TNT and NBC's sales momentum can be traced to a series of race-title sponsorship deals. General Nutrition Centers recently signed a pact that makes it the TV-title sponsor of the Busch Series races. And Carquest Auto Parts and Outback Steakhouses have also signed on as title sponsors for Busch telecasts.

On the Winston Cup side, TNT and NBC have sold title sponsorships for 11 of 13 races with extant race entitlements. Brands such as Pepsi, Tropicana, NAPA Auto Parts, Mountain Dew, Sharpie, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, UAW-General Motors, Pop Secret Microwave Popcorn, Pennzoil and Pep Boys have signed on-air entitlement deals.

TESTOSTERONE TV

The sponsorship deals include commercials on all NBC and TNT NASCAR telecasts, on-air mentions, on-site hospitality, promotion during local TNT avails and on NBC affiliates, and cross-promotion across the Turner-owned networks and NBC.

Advertisers find stock-car racing to be an effective vehicle to reach males.

"NASCAR is on the list because we're looking for the right environment for men," said Jean Pool, president, operations for Mindshare, the media arm for the WPP Group's J. Walter Thompson USA and Ogilvy & Mather ad agencies. Mindshare secured a schedule for Goodyear on Fox; the tire marketer will also have a presence on NBC and TNT.

All told, TNT will present 63 NASCAR events in 2001, highlighted by seven live Winston Cup races and 13 Busch Series contests. The partners' 20 Winston Cup races will also re-air on Mondays at 11 p.m.

For its part, NBC will air 13 Winston Cup and five Busch series races over a 20-week span through November.

Sam Flood, NASCAR producer for both NBC and TNT, said he's worried that lower summer homes using television (HUT) levels could cut into the motorsports audience. He's equally cautious about bumping up against college football and National Football League telecasts in the fall.

"We'll have to wait and see," he said. "NASCAR is a real hot sport and people have a passion for it."

Fox and FX viewers certainly did. For the 17 Winston Cup races televised during the first half of the year, Fox (14 races) and FX (three) averaged a 5.3 household rating (cable ratings were translated into total U.S. homes). That's a 29-percent gain over the combined average for ABC, CBS, ESPN, TNN: The National Network and TBS Superstation NASCAR telecasts in 2000.

FX's coverage of the Michigan 400 on June 10 registered a 4.8 rating — an all-time mark for the network. Six of the seven top-rated programs in FX's history are NASCAR-related.

KNOWING WHERE TO GO

The television gains were driven by a heavy dose of cross-promotion on the Fox entities and the end of checkerboard scheduling for the sport.

"For the first time in its history, NASCAR fans know where to find the races," said Peter Liguori, president of FX Networks, who called the circuit a cornerstone of the channel's programming. "Last year, they didn't know which network was carrying the races week to week."

The continuity came with a price: $2.8 billion for a six-year deal that was concluded in November 1999 and came into effect with the 2001 season.

For its part, TNT expects to deliver a an average 5 rating for its Winston Cup coverage, and between a 1.5 and a 2 for the Busch series, according to Turner Sports president Mark Lazarus.

Originally, the Turner Sports game plan called for TBS to set the pace with NASCAR. But since then, the two networks have tried to accentuate their identities with new branding campaigns. TNT now boasts that "We Know Drama," while TBS Superstation is billed as a "TV Haven for the Regular Guy."

"The dramatics of NASCAR, and sports in general, are better attuned to TNT," said Lazarus.

Changing networks should also ensure continuity for Atlanta Braves fans who tune in to TBS Superstation for games. Lazarus said moving the races to TNT offered "a benefit in allowing us to enhance the Braves schedule, which would have been blocked out by NASCAR on some Friday evenings and weekends."

To help draw viewers, TNT has linked with 1,300 cable systems for its "NASCAR Fast Track Promotion," a local point-of-purchase campaign that begins two weeks before each of the second-half races. The promotion starts with the Carquest Auto Parts 250 on July 21 and concludes with the No. 4 Winston Cup Pop Secret 400.

"Our goal is to get cable systems to run local promo spots in exchange for receiving tickets for Winston Cup races," Lazarus said.

Subscribers can vie for tickets, hats and T-shirts by filling out an entry form found in point-of-purchase displays at local retailers. Systems are expected to run 300 to 400 cross-channel spots in support of the program.

NBC and TNT began flooding the airwaves with NASCAR promos during the National Basketball Association playoffs. Meanwhile, a giant billboard was erected in New York's Times Square to herald NASCAR's arrival on the networks, which will also run ads in some newspapers and in TNT sister outlet Sports Illustrated.

Throughout their half of the season, TNT and NBC will continue to promote each other's respective weekend races.