NASCAR ratings exceed network expectations

Friday, December 6, 2002

NEW YORK -- The ratings for NASCAR's race broadcasts have exceeded the high expectations of the TV networks after the first two years of a six-year $2.8 billion deal.

"The ratings were up 13 percent this year and 59 percent over two years," said Ken Schanzer, president of NBC Sports, which shares the big contract with Fox Sports, Turner Sports, TNT and FX.

"That's the first back-to-back increase since 1994 through 1996 in the NBA, the years Michael Jordan returned from his first retirement," he added. "This thing is a rocket. When the season began, we had hoped to simply maintain the terrific ratings and new viewers from last year."

Also on hand Thursday for the question-and-answer session were David Hill, chairman and CEO of Fox, Peter Liguori, president and CEO of FX; Jim Liberatore, vice president of Speed Channel; Mark Lazarus, president of Turner Sports; and Paul Brooks, NASCAR's vice president of broadcasting.

The panel acknowledged that the networks have lost money on the deal each of the first two years, but still found plenty positive to say.

Lazarus pointed out that Turner and TNT picked up 40 new sponsors for the 2002 Winston Cup season.

"It takes time, but we've built trust in the NASCAR community," Lazarus said. Referring to the Winston Cup race in Atlanta on Oct. 27, broadcast by NBC, he added, "The proof of that is when we go through a 3 1/2-hour rain delay and don't lose our audience."

Hill pointed to the increase in the ratings of races going up against the NFL, acknowledged as TV's sports king.

"Their audience also increased, so there's no cannibalization," Hill said. "I don't think there's a cap on the growth, either. I think it can continue to grow for the next 20 years."

Schanzer attributed at least part of NBC's late-season success to the championship battle that went down to the final race. Tony Stewart, who will be honored here on Friday night at the NASCAR Awards ceremony, won the title by just 38 points over Mark Martin.

Schanzer added, "I don't think any of us think in terms of taking on the NFL, just trying to find new fans. ... Eighty percent of America is still available to us and those are the people we're trying to find."

The unique TV partnership, led by NBC and Fox, splits the season in half, with Fox, which airs NFL games in the fall, covering the first half of the year, along with Turner and FX, and NBC, combining with TNT, stepping in for the second half.

The season-opening Daytona 500, the biggest event stock car racing, alternates between the two networks for the course of the contract. Fox broadcast the 500 in 2001, NBC this year and it will be Fox again in 2003.

Asked if the split season has caused any problems among the networks, Schanzer said, "We decided that all of us would be in this sport and we all would benefit by the rising tide."

Hill noted the split season is also a benefit for the race production crews.

"I've noticed that in NASCAR they are just beat after every event," he said. "For one crew to do a full season of 36 races would be too much to ask. This (split season) is more serendipitous than anything else."

As for the reportedly large losses the networks are sustaining from the third biggest contract in sports -- behind only the NFL and the NBA -- Schanzer attributed a lot of the problem to the faltering economy of the past two years.

He said the contract with NASCAR "is meeting our projections from last year but not when we made the deal."

Still, he added, "That NASCAR continues its remarkable growth is both a wonderful surprise and a reaffirmation of the attraction of this great product."

Lazarus said, "The sport's continued success and growth in tough economic times is unmatched in today's television marketplace."

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