CART vs. NASCAR - TV Coverage

 by Mark Cipolloni
January 7, 2001

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NASCAR recently awarded their new TV contract to a consortium of NBC, FOX and TBS, dumping longtime TV partner ESPN and ABC.  We take a close look at what it means to NASCAR and what it should mean to CART and the IRL (Note - for the purposes of this article, NASCAR means Winston Cup cars and CART means FedEx Champ Cars).

Many people attribute NASCAR's meteoric rise to RJ Reynolds and ESPN.  No one can doubt that the Winston brand of tobacco products and NASCAR have made ideal business partners.  NASCAR provides RJ Reynolds a means by which it can expose it's Winston brand to consumers on TV and at the race track, while RJ Reynolds provides NASCAR with cash as well as a ton of advertising. However, even more important to NASCAR has been its teaming with ESPN to televise a large majority of its races.

Some twenty years ago, at a time when very few NASCAR races were on TV, and when ESPN was looking to fill time slots, NASCAR and ESPN signed an agreement for ESPN to televise NASCAR Winston Cup racing.  But it was more than just televising of races.  It was a commitment by ESPN to help grow NASCAR into the #1 form of motorsports in the USA.  And who can doubt its success.  With so many hours of race, qualifying, pre-race, RPM2Night and even the annual NASCAR Awards banquet on TV, the opportunity existed to saturate the market with NASCAR and make that form of racing, and its drivers, household names to millions of race fans.  You would think that NASCAR would have felt some loyalty to ESPN and ABC, but when it came time award its new TV contract, they forgot all about loyalty and instead went for the bigger money and more programming hours offered by FOX, NBC and TBS.

Let's examine the planned CART vs. NASCAR TV coverage for the first 6 months of the 2001 year so you will understand just how much TV exposure NASCAR will get compared to CART.  You will then begin to understand why NASCAR and its drivers are so well known in the USA while other race car drivers are not.  During the race season NASCAR has a race about every week, CART about every other week.  Hence, when computing the amount of TV coverage per week, some CART numbers were divided by 2.

Description NASCAR Min. / week CART Min. / week
Practice NASCAR practice was never broadcast.  Now it will be live on FOX Sports Net (FSN).  60 No TV Coverage for practice 0
Qualifying NASCAR qualifying was always shown live on ESPN or ESPN2 when the race that week was to be broadcast on either ABC or ESPN.  Now it will always be live on FSN 60 60 minutes of CART qualifying sessions will be broadcast, but most will be tape delayed on ESPN2 and shown in the wee hours of the morning when most people are asleep.  There will be no coverage for non-USA races (60/2 = 30 per week) 30
NASCAR Tech Similar to NASCAR Garage which airs on TNN, this show on FSN will give the viewer 30 minutes of what a Cup car is all about.  Every race morning 10:00 to 10:30 AM.  For the purposes of this story, we will assume the NASCAR Garage show will be replaced by this show. 30 No 30-minute tech show for CART.  What's funny is that Champ Cars are far more high-tech than Cup cars and need this sort of show to help the fans understand the cars better, yet it's NASCAR and it's low-tech cars that get the TV air time. 0
Pre-Race show NASCAR THIS MORNING on FSN will air 11:00 to 11:30 AM the morning of each race. 30 CART2Day will air for 30 minutes, usually immediately before the race, on ESPN2 (30/2 = 15 per week) 15
Race Live race broadcasts will be shown on FOX or FOX FX 180 CART races will be shown live on ABC or ESPN2.  Most will fit in a 2-hour window, a few in a 2.5 hour window (120/2 = 60 per week) 60
Post-race NASCAR PRIMETIME - Live 60-minute studio program will be a wrap up of each race on Sunday evenings 9:00 to 10:00PM 60 CART will have no post race show. 0
Race Rebroadcast All Winston Cup races will be rebroadcast on on FOX FX each Monday afternoon 12:00 to 3:00 PM 180 All CART races will be rebroadcast on ESPN or ESPN2 one afternoon of the week following the race (120/2 = 60 per week) 60
Weekly news shows TOTALLY NASCAR on FSN.  This show will be like RPM2Night.  However, whereby RPM2Night was 90% NASCAR and 10% everything else, Totally NASCAR will be 100% NASCAR,  M-F 6:00-6:30 PM.  We will assume that RPM2Night will now have 25% NASCAR coverage.  TNN's 60-minute weekly Raceday show was approx. 50% NASCAR coverage.  We assume it will remain the same.  Then of course there is the weekly 30-minute NASCAR Shop Talk show, Inside Winston Cup Racing and Inside NASCAR. 320 RPM2Night, shown 7 days per week, will continue to cover all forms of motorsports.  Whereas before it was 90% NASCAR, we will assume it will be 25% NASCAR, 25% CART, 25% IRL and 25% others now that it lost the NASCAR contact.  We will assume that TNN's Raceday will continue to give CART about 5 minutes of coverage per week. 55
  Total minutes/week 920 Total minutes/week 220

As can be seen from the above numbers, NASCAR will have over 4 times as much TV coverage per week than CART.  Part of that drives that ratio is the fact that there are 39 Winston Cup races per year (Including The Winston, the Bud Shootout and the 125-qualfying races), vs. only 22 for CART.  Because NASCAR races every week, and CART every other week, the numbers are somewhat skewed.  However, the fact remains that on average NASCAR will be shown 920 minutes per week and CART 220 minutes per week.  This ratio was not significantly different in past years, as ABC and ESPN gave NASCAR just about as much coverage as FOX will, perhaps slightly less.  

However, none of these numbers take into account the number of minutes NASCAR sponsors promote the series with TV ads that tout their product and NASCAR at the same time.  Just recently Honda again ran a full page ad in USA Today touting their CART championship winning engines, yet again there was no mention of CART nor the FedEx series.  It was strictly a Honda ad.  We have yet to see a NASCAR sponsor run an ad on TV or in the print media that does not make mention of NASCAR in one form or another.  Why isn't someone in CART looking after these lost marketing opportunities?  The point of course is that the 'devils in the details'; details NASCAR looks after and CART doesn't.

And there's more.  According to the Eurosport website,  NASCAR and Eurosport have reached an agreement for all 2001 Winston Cup races to be broadcast live on Eurosport.  What this means is that CART can't be shown live by Eurosport on any dates a Winston Cup race runs in the same time slot.  NASCAR has beaten CART to the Eurosport contract and they don't even run a race in Europe, CART has two.  While CART is trying to negotiate a new TV contract for 2002 and beyond, they have let NASCAR pull the rug right out from under them in Europe.  In addition Sky currently has a contract with the IRL to show their races live in Europe alternating between Sky Sports 2 and 3.  Rupert Murdoch owns Sky Sports.  Although the IRL has almost no following overseas, CART's arch nemesis Bernie Eccelstone and Tony George (in bed together at Indy) would like nothing better than to see CART's overseas TV coverage go away, removing any threat to F1 (Some suggest CART is in a death fight with the IRL and F1.  All signs point to that, but we wonder if CART realizes it).

So what does all this mean for NASCAR and for CART.  It will simply mean business as usual.  NASCAR will continue to dominate the US TV scene and, therefore, will continue to get the majority of exposure; exposure that gains new fans, while CART wonders why its TV ratings are falling. 

While TV is not the only reason why NASCAR is so successful, it certainly is a big part of it.  When a sport is getting 4 times the amount of TV coverage than another, it has the opportunity to not only reach more people, but to also provide a little something for everyone.  NASCAR drivers will continue to get the brunt of on-air interviews, helping to increase fan awareness.

It's quite evident from the above analysis that CART needs the sort of TV partner that NASCAR has had, and will continue to have.  Whereas CART buys time from the TV station and then sells the advertising, NASCAR does just the opposite.  The TV station is responsible for selling the advertising and it pays NASCAR to air its races and news shows.  Whereas in CART's case the TV broadcaster cares very little about how successful CART is (they get their money either way), with NASCAR they know that if they help make NASCAR successful, they will be able to command more money for their advertising.  In other words with NASCAR they have some incentive to want to make NASCAR prosper, whereas in CART it's an afterthought, if that.  Higher TV ratings command higher advertising fees.  NASCAR didn't have high TV ratings when it started with ESPN, but together they grew them to a level where today they are, on average, second only to football.

In CART's case how do they get the sort of TV contract NASCAR has?  It won't be easy.  What comes first, the chicken or the egg?  With current TV ratings being low and falling, what TV broadcaster is going to pick up their new contract and will they be willing to take the sort of risk ESPN did with NASCAR years ago and help grow the sport with CART?  Will CART find someone who is willing to pay them to broadcast their shows, rather than be paid, or will CART first have to get higher TV ratings, i.e. the chicken or the egg?

With the loss of the NASCAR contract, one would think that ABC and ESPN would realize that if they are to stay in the auto racing broadcast business, open wheel racing is one of only a few games left in town (NHRA and ALMS being the others).  One would think that the RPM2Night studios would be moved to Indianapolis near all the CART and IRL teams, and away from Charlotte, home of all the NASCAR teams and drivers.  Instead, RPM2Night will stay in Charlotte and every night interview one NASCAR personality or another, helping to keep the NASCAR drivers and team members in the public eye.  This of course will help their competitor (FOX and later NBC) with higher TV ratings.  As stupid as all this sounds (and yes it is just downright poor business), that's exactly the way it's going to be (which must bring smiles to the faces at FOX, NBC and TBS).

That is not the sort of TV partner CART needs and either they structure a better deal with ABC and ESPN when their contract ends after 2001 or, if ABC and ESPN are not willing, find another partner who will.  While it would be much easier to stay with ABC and ESPN, they have not shown the willingness to grow open wheel racing as they have NASCAR.  

Perhaps it's time CART look at a deal with CBS, TNN and Speedvision.  Our sense is that this group may be a little hungrier than ABC and ESPN and willing to start the sort of relationship ESPN did with NASCAR years ago.  While today TNN and Speedvision do not reach nearly as many households as say ESPN or ESPN2, that is quickly changing, and Speedvision, being a 24-hour sports channel with a lot of hours to fill, could provide CART many more hours of programming coverage for things like nightly news shows, weekly technical shows, etc.  We would recommend all the races be shown live on network TV (CBS) and the practice, qualifying, pre-race, post-race and news shows split between TNN and Speedvision.  

While there is little doubt in anyone's mind that CART's current TV arrangement is just plain wrong, with the right TV deal, there is no reason why CART could not grow in popularity.  Whether it will ever reach the levels of NASCAR today remains to be seen, but I remember some 30 years ago when open wheel racing was more popular than NASCAR.  Can the roles be reversed again? 

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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