Monday, July 29, 2013

Cha-Ching: NASCAR Cashes In

Don't look for NASCAR on SportsCenter come 2015
Last week was a big one for the future of NASCAR.  Or should it be NASCAR stock futures?

Brian France signed a $4.4 billion, 10-year deal with NBC Sports to televise 20 races in the second half of the Sprint Cup season, beginning in 2015.  That’s a huge increase from the $2.8 billion NASCAR received from ESPN and TNT under the current contract, especially for a sport that has seen both attendance and television viewership decline in recent years.   It also comes on the heels of an eight-year, $2.4 billion deal signed just a few months ago with Fox, which will continue to broadcast the first half of the season.

Media rights account for about half of NASCAR’s revenues.   According to one report, NASCAR takes 10 percent off the top of the television fees.  Another 65 percent goes to the track owners, primarily International Speedway Corporation (controlled by the France family) and Speedway Motorsports (controlled by Bruton Smith and family).  The teams get the other 25 percent.  France also said you can expect purses to go up.  Cha-Ching, Cha-Ching, Cha-Ching.

The announcement paid immediate dividends as the stock prices of both International Speedway Corporation (ISC) and Speedway Motorsports (TRK) surged to new 52 week highs before falling back slightly on Friday as profit takers cashed in.  Cha-Ching.

The move is clearly good for NASCAR and its partners.  But is it good for the long-term health of the sport?  That’s not so clear. Despite the big bucks, it’s a bit of a gamble.

In making the deal with NBC, NASCAR turned its back – once again – on ESPN.  The timing is especially interesting, the announcement coming just as ESPN was beginning its programming for the year.

Instead of ESPN, 13 of the 20 NBC races will be shown on the NBC Sports Network and Fox has already announced an untold number of its races (although not the Daytona 500) will be shown on the new Fox Sports1 channel, which begins operation next month.  As a result, beginning in 2015, more than half of all NASCAR Sprint Cup races will be shown on fledgling cable networks, one of which doesn’t even exist at the moment.

Quick, what channel is NBCSN on your television?  That’s what I thought.  I have DirecTV and it used to be in the 600s, near Speed.  But it’s since moved to 220, in order to be near, wait for it, the ESPN series of channels.  I usually hit guide, punch in ESPN, and then scroll until I find NBCSN.  Formula One moved to NBCSN this year from Speed and viewership has been cut in about half.

ESPN, “The Worldwide Leader in Sports” as it likes to call itself, is clearly the 800 pound gorilla when it comes to sports programming.  As an indication of its domination, ESPN is able to charge cable and satellite operators about $5 for every subscriber.  NBCSN, on the other hand, currently gets about 30 cents a head.   But ESPN viewership also is down nearly 30 percent, mostly the result of a decrease in NBA playoff viewership.

Right now NBCSN is literally more talk than action.  The station has missed out on major league baseball, football and top college conferences.  There is limited live coverage.  NHL hockey, IndyCar, Formula One and European soccer.  And overflow (from NBC) Olympic coverage through at least 2020.  That’s pretty much it at the moment. The rest is news and commentary.  In contrast, Fox Sports1 will be heavy on pro and college football, major league baseball and can pick and choose from a wide range of coverage provided by regional Fox stations.   

Still, there is reason to be hopeful about the move to NBC.  If NBCSN can hold on to IndyCar and Formula One through 2015, it will become the first channel to have all three major racing series at the same time.   If it does, it should mean an increased emphasis in motorsports coverage.  Also means increased coverage of NASCAR on NBC.  Heck, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., already has been on the Today Show plugging the move and Nightly News anchor Brian Williams is an acknowledged NASCAR fan.  Of course, don’t be surprised if you see less NASCAR on SportsCenter.

And what impact will all this have on the fans?  Many have expressed hopes online that there will be fewer commercials.  Don’t get your hopes up.  You don’t spend $4.2 billion to run fewer commercials.  Others are hoping for new broadcasters.  NBC said it had made no decisions in that area and probably won’t for some time.

Finally, there are still three races unaccounted for.  NASCAR says a package including three Cup races and nearly a half season of Nationwide races is still available.  NBC said it bought everything that was available to it.  Why would NASCAR hold back three Cup races?  Could it mean the schedule will be trimmed by three?  Some have been campaigning for a shorter season.  More likely, he races will be offered to Fox as a goodwill gesture. 

Stay tuned.  If you can find the channel.


Monday, July 22, 2013

Second Half Preview: Johnson, Kenseth and the Rest

Kenseth has the wins to challenge Johnson
Midway through the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season and Jimmie Johnson has established himself as the clear favorite for a sixth championship, carrying a big 56 point lead into Indianapolis this weekend.  It won’t get any easier for the field.  Johnson is the defending Brickyard champion and has won four times in 11 Indy starts.  And as noted before in this column, Johnson could easily have another win or two races this season. 

The second half of the year really breaks down into two parts, the races remaining prior to The Chase and then The Chase itself.  Someone needs to get very hot to challenge Johnson.  Chasing (sorry) Johnson is a handful of wannabes, including:

Matt Kenseth.  He may currently only be fourth in points, but Kenseth has just as many wins at Johnson and when The Chase gets underway, that’s what really counts.  What he hasn’t had is consistency.  If Joe Gibbs/Toyota can come up with that magic ingredient, Kenseth may be hard to be beat; Jimmie Johnson or no Jimmie Johnson.

Brad Keselowski.  Might be a surprise to some people, but I still think Keselowski will be right in the middle of it come November.  After getting off to a good start, the defending Cup champion ran afoul of NASCAR’s rule book and free speech police.  He's fallen to ninth in points without a victory.  But don’t count him out.  The Penske Fords have shown renewed speed and Bad Brad has plenty of time to get himself in position for The Chase.

Kyle Busch.  Capable of getting hot and giving Johnson a run for The Chase.  But if the JGR cars do catch fire, his biggest challenge will be teammate Kenseth. 

Kevin Harvick.  One win so far gives him some valuable bonus points for The Chase and he’s been strong at times, but not enough to challenge Johnson.   Still a lame duck, no matter what anyone says.

Carl Edwards.  Easy to overlook the No. 99.  Edwards won the second race of the year at Phoenix, but hasn’t won since.  Really hasn’t even been in competition very often.  But if Roush/Yates can come up with the horsepower to go with its reliability, Edwards can still challenge for title.

Kasey Kahne.  Thought this was gonna be Kasey’s year.  Hasn’t been so far.  Keep thinking that when he finally breaks through, he’ll go on a run.

Clint Bowyer.  Second in the standings, but without an all-important win and bonus points for The Chase.  May finish second again without really contending.

Greg Biffle.  As usual, Biffle has looked unbeatable at times this year, but seldom for an entire race, let alone a series of races.  Still, he has more potential than most to get hot and go on a run.

Tony Stewart.  He hasn’t made his summer run this year and Stewart-Haas Racing doesn’t seem to have what it takes.  But Stewart has a win and has been there a couple of times before.

Martin Truex.  A winner with bonus points, but hasn’t shown the consistency needed to challenge for the top spot.  Still, last year Bowyer showed Michael Waltrip Racing was Chase worthy.  This year it might be Truex.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr.  After holding second place in the standings much of the year, he’s slipped in recent weeks.   Seems to be headed in the wrong direction.

Jeff Gordon.  He’s within shouting distance, but his string of bad luck now dates back several years.  You’ve got to wonder if retirement will be the only thing to end the string.

Kurt Busch.  Fast, fast, fast at times and probably deserves a victory.  Busch is also a former champion.  But he’s still Kurt Busch.

Monday, July 15, 2013

This Bud’s For Tony

Tony Will Have to Switch to Bud
Tony Stewart may have come up a lap short on gasoline Sunday in New Hampshire, but he was still the weekend’s biggest winner.

Stewart-Haas Racing announced last week that sponsor Budweiser would be joining their team next year along with (as previously announced) Stewart’s new BFF, Kevin Harvick.  Both are leaving Richard Childress Racing.  SHR also announced it has been unable to secure the sponsorship dollars for a fourth car and, as a result, Stewart’s old BFF, Ryan Newman, won’t be returning next year.   It was the second big sponsorship coup in as many years for SHR, which last year landed Danica Patrick and her sponsor, GoDaddy.

It also means Stewart, who has expressed a preference for Schlitz in the past, many because it's cheap, will have to switch brands.  But he should be able to afford it. 

The moves kick off what is sure to be a silly, silly season, with sponsorship dollars – not necessarily drivers – the most sought-after commodity.  

Budweiser is one of the most recognized and valued sponsorships in the sport.  A major NASCAR supporter sport since 1983, it has scaled back its sponsorship in recent years to little more than half a season or 20 races.  But it remains one of the most prized logos in NASCAR.    The company says a key reason for its move was the past investment and relationship with Harvick.   The Bud folks also couldn’t have been happy watching Brad Keselowski and his yard of Miller Lite celebrate their championship last year and may have felt it was time for a change of teams as well.

Despite losing Bud, Richard Childress says he will have at least three cars next year and possibly four.  Two of his cars are secure – Jeff Burton and Caterpillar in the No. 31 and Paul Menard with his family sponsorship in the No. 27.  The No. 29 vacated by Harvick is up for grabs, both in terms of sponsorship and driver.   No word yet on what the part-time sponsors of the No. 29, Jimmy John’s and Rheem, will do next year.  Both are relatively smalltime players, but important links for teams looking to fill in the gaps on a full season of sponsorship.

The unknown at RCR is Austin Dillion, Childress’ grandson, who is ready to move up the Cup ranks fulltime next season.  The move of Budweiser from RCR to SHR increases the already strong likelihood of the No. 3 returning to Cup next year.  Gotta believe there are a number of sponsors who would be interested in signing on for the return of the No. 3, which has raced in more 12 years since Dale Earnhardt was killed at Daytona, than might otherwise not be interested. 

Newman becomes the lead free agent driver looking for a 2014 ride, with Kurt Busch a close second.  Childress says he’s interested in both.  Jack Roush also says he interested in going back to four cars next year.  But you can bet Busch, who Roush released a few years back, isn’t on his list of potential drivers. 

No matter what the manufacturers say about driver selection being a team choice, they play a key role in who goes where.  Ford helped Roush keep Carl Edwards and Toyota was important to Joe Gibbs getting Matt Kenseth.  Chevy had a role in Harvick going to SHR and will have a say in who goes to RCR.   That might give Newman the edge.  At the moment the math doesn’t add up for RCR to add a fourth car.  But it might if Chevy is willing to pitch in some bucks. 

Adding to the silliness, Busch and Newman have no love for each other, having clashed often in the past, first as while teammates at Penske Racing, and as recently as New Hampshire.  But both would do well to establish a temporary truce.  Sponsors might choose to avoid both drivers if the conflict continues.

Monday, July 8, 2013

What Makes Johnson So Good?

How could this man be considered cutthroat?
At the midway point in the 2013 NASCAR season it is becoming increasingly apparent Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 car are in a class of their own. 

Johnson’s total domination of Saturday night’s Daytona 400 only confirmed what many have already conceded; he’s well on his way to a sixth Sprint Cup championship.  With a little more luck, his four wins in the first 18 races could easily be six, maybe even seven.

So what separates Johnson from the rest?  First, Chad Knaus and company have a leg up on the rest of the garage when it comes to making the extremely aero sensitive Gen 6 car work.   It reminds me of the years Bill Elliott and his Melling Racing Ford put together when the team clearly had an edge on everyone else.   

But most of the credit should go to Johnson himself.  He is calm, calculated and, when he needs to be, cutthroat.  He’ll block, bump, dump or desert any other driver – even a teammate – if that’s what it takes to win a race.  Just ask Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. or Kasey Kahne.

I write this with the upmost respect.  I’m no Johnson hater, a line his fans (and, increasingly, Johnson) use all too often in an attempt to deflect any criticism of JJ.  Instead, I see those as traits shared by many previous champions.  Johnson will do exactly what Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Dale Earnhardt and others did before him, but too few drivers are willing to do today.  It’s what separates him from most of today’s field.   

I don’t even blame him for the late wreck at Daytona, something others have taken to doing.  With only four laps to go, Johnson left Kahne, who had helped him maintain his lead, to move up to block a fast closing Marcos Ambrose.  Only he went a little too far, allowing Ambrose an opportunity to make it three-wide.  Then he moved slightly to his left, a move calculated to brush against Ambrose and make him think twice about coming up the middle.  Ambrose overthought it, turned hard left into Kahne and sent Johnson’s teammate careening into the wall.

For his part, Johnson thought the move was perfectly acceptable for a restrictor plate race.  In fact, he felt he drove a near perfect race.

“I don’t know if I made a bad move tonight,” he said.  “So I’m pretty proud of that.

Johnson also is smart enough to know everything starts over once The Chase gets underway.

“Tonight’s statement doesn’t send the strongest message,” he said. “It’s really what we do on a mile-and-a-half racetrack. There are more mile-and-a-half racetracks than any other throughout the Chase. That’s the message we want to send and the area that we really need to be buttoned up on.”

Of course, Johnson and the 48 team really shine on the mile-and-a-half tracks.  Not exactly good news for the competition.

Monday, July 1, 2013

What Danica Patrick, Jimmy Clark Have In Common

Danica Patrick
Jim Clark
I wrote earlier this year after Kyle Petty did such an outstanding job commentating in the aftermath of the Nationwide race at Daytona and its harrowing finish, that what the sport needed was more Kyle Petty.

He’s continued to be outspoken in his role on Speed and has increased his visibility during the recent TNT Sprint Cup broadcasts.  But he really blew the lid off last week when he said Danica Patrick might be a driver, but she wasn’t a racer.
"She’s not a race car driver,” Petty said.  “There’s a difference. The King always had that stupid saying, but it’s true, ‘Lots of drivers can drive fast, but very few drivers can race.’ Danica has been the perfect example of somebody who can qualify better than what she runs. She can go fast, but she can’t race. I think she’s come a long way, but she’s still not a race car driver. And I don’t think she’s ever going to be a race car driver."

Petty (both of them) made a valid point—not all drivers are racers.  You see it all the time.  Drivers qualify within a few tenths of a second of each other.  But when the racing starts, there’s suddenly a much greater variance of speed.  Whether or not Patrick is a racer is open for debate.  My personal opinion is no, she hasn’t reached racer status yet.  But Kyle could have gone a little further and called out some of the others he considers drivers and not racers.
The Pettys aren’t the first people to draw a distinction between drivers and racers.   Perhaps the most controversial driver/racer argument concerns Jimmy Clark, considered by many (including me) to be one of the greatest racers of all time.  But not according to Chris Economaki, the acknowledged dean of motorsports journalists who passed away last year.
Economaki wrote in his book, Let’Em All Go! The Story of Auto Racing By The Man Who Was There, that Clark was a great driver, but not a great racer.  He noted that while Clark had won a record 25 Grand Prix at the time of his death in 1968 in a Formula Two race, eight times he led every lap.  He pointed out Clark led 190 of 200 laps in winning the 1965 Indy 500.  To Economaki, Clark was a great driver, a great qualifier (a record 33 F1 pole positions) and a great front runner.  But not a great racer.
I don’t for a second agree with Economaki.  He ignored many races where Clark raced from the back to the front.  Clark was especially good in the rain.  At Trenton, in his second oval track race in an Indy Car, Clark lapped the entire field, except second place A. J. Foyt.  It was Foyt who said Clark was the one “furriner” who impressed him.   But the fact that Economaki didn’t consider him a racer, is an indication of how much opinions may differ in this area.

Clark in a Holman Moody Ford Fairlane
Clark at the Rock:  Clark came from the era when racers often drove anything with four wheels -- and sometimes two.  In addition to F1, he drove sports cars and a Ford Cortina in English saloon car races, as close as they came to NASCAR in Europe.  In his first trip to America, he was treated to a trip around Daytona in a stock car driven by Fireball Roberts.  Afterwards he said he was terrified, but he also wanted to try a stock car himself.  He finally got the chance, racing at Rockingham in 1967.  He ran as high as 12th before blowing an engine.  He died before getting another opportunity to drive a stock car.