NASCAR is in a bit of a state of flux at the moment. If you were describing the “four major sports” and you were looking at matters objectively, the fourth sport would be NASCAR, not the NHL, a status the sport has triumphantly risen to over the course of the last two decades. Once a southern curiosity, NASCAR has taken advantage of the war that rent open-wheel racing apart over a decade and a half to establish its fanbase in the north as well, becoming a force not to be trifled with in the world of sports. Yet over the course of the last contract, TV ratings and most measures of popularity have stagnated, even declined some. Where, then, does NASCAR stand as it prepares to renegotiate its contracts?
NASCAR’s relationship with Fox is very tight. The two entities have been very good to one another; Fox has been with NASCAR since the beginning of NASCAR’s control over the TV contract, and NASCAR has become one of the linchpins of Fox’s sports brand. For many, Fox practically defines television coverage of the sport, carrying the Daytona 500 over the entire lifetime of the most recent contract. NASCAR also isn’t likely to break its relationship with ESPN, if only because it’s scared of the horror stories of what happens to sports like the NHL or UFC (or, arguably, itself before the most recent contract) when they don’t shack up with ESPN. ESPN has certainly given NASCAR plenty of love; while the sport doesn’t get much more coverage on shows like PTI, ESPN does show plenty of NASCAR highlights on SportsCenter, and heavily advertises its coverage of Sprint Cup and even Nationwide series races, not to mention the daily magazine show NASCAR Now on ESPN2. NASCAR and ESPN tied themselves too tight at the hip to break up now. Say what you will about how they cover the sport, I guarantee you that NASCAR is quite happy with the coverage of Fox and ESPN, especially that they cover the sport.
TNT is substantially iffier. They are the forgotten broadcast partner. They have the fewest races, the fewest important ones (they have the second Daytona race, but they stop one race short of the Brickyard 400 on ESPN, and they have neither the Daytona 500 like Fox nor the Chase for the Cup like ESPN) and the least amount of coverage outside their Sprint Cup races. Their presence seems to be a vestige from their far greater role in the previous contract when they were joined at the hip with NBC. Turner itself doesn’t seem to have much respect for the sport; while its MLB, NBA, and NCAA Tournament graphics have all been made to look more like one another in recent years, its NASCAR graphics have remained unchanged for several years now. My hunch is that they will be jettisoned, either giving more races to Fox and ESPN, or making way for a third partner.
To me, there are only two candidates for that third partner: NBC, or a CBS/Turner marriage similar to their NCAA Tournament marriage. But as much as the latter might appear to keep up the status quo, and Turner will probably try to sell it hard (especially considering the windows it could open to add more sports to truTV, as discussed below), there’s no sign CBS is even interested. NBC may want to get back into the sport, if mostly to shore up its NBC Sports Network, but I suspect they will insist on a more equitable share of races, including something more important than what TNT has now. That would have to come out of Fox and ESPN’s races; Fox currently shows close to half the pre-Chase schedule, ESPN close to half the whole schedule, plus it would likely have to give up either the Brickyard or the Chase. I don’t think either of them want that, so I think both of them will persuade NASCAR (possibly with lots of little green slips of paper) to go back to two broadcast partners, thus giving each more races divvied up from the TNT package’s corpse.
But that doesn’t mean there won’t be drama; in fact, NASCAR is one of two sports that will play a key role in determining whether Fox launches its rumored all-sports network. There are several facets of this. First, when the last contract was negotiated, Fox was willing to abandon sports on FX, so it allowed ESPN to take the entire Nationwide Series schedule. Fox has since shown remorse for that decision and is interested in putting sports on FX again. But Fox also wants to shore up its NASCAR programming on Speed, to include more than practices, qualifying, the Truck Series, and the All-Star Race; they have voiced their desire to have Cup Series races on Speed. And perhaps most intriguingly, NASCAR quite clearly and obviously wants to launch its own network much like the other major leagues have, but such a network would conflict with the existence of Speed.
Regardless of anything else, I think NASCAR splits the Nationwide Series schedule across however many partners it ends up with, and allows Fox to move some of its Sprint Cup races to cable, whether FX, Speed, or a Fox Sports network. But the question of how to create a NASCAR network is the critical point. Fox could simply hand Speed over to NASCAR and continue to run it, but that’s not the only solution. I could see it going like this: Fox flips Speed to a Fox Sports network and hands its struggling Fuel network over to NASCAR, who flips it to a NASCAR network and allows Fox to keep running it. Fuel-turned-NASCAR-Network gets practice, qualifying, and most of the Truck Series; Speed keeps the All-Star Race (as well as some Truck Series races and the Gatorade Duels) into its new identity as a Fox Sports network, but also gets Fox’s new Nationwide Series and cable Cup Series races (and probably all of Fuel’s and most of FX’s UFC programming). (NASCAR may also hand some Truck Series races to ESPN and, if applicable, NBCSN as well. If Turner convinced CBS to jump on board, I imagine any Truck races and at least some Nationwide races they ended up with would end up on truTV.)
The rights agreements don’t actually expire until after 2014, and the last agreement was announced in December, but Fox is already in negotiations with NASCAR to get their deal renewed before the closed negotiation window ends next spring and the rights hit the open market. I have to imagine all of the above points are being heavily debated in the room (with Fox also not wanting to lose anything even if NASCAR takes on a third partner), meaning even with at least nine months before most of the deal gets done, the most important, game-changing part may be settled by the end of the year. Ultimately, though, all parties may well be in a bit of a holding pattern. The fate of a NASCAR network, a Fox Sports network, and the level of NBC’s interest in NASCAR may ultimately be determined by what happens with the ultimate stick-and-ball sport.