Is ESPN Giving Up on IndyCar?

If you’ve been paying more attention to the sports media landscape than I’ve been covering for you, you know that ESPN this past week let loose with a barrage of layoffs, firing over a hundred people including a number of prominent on-air and online personalities. Obviously, this is in part ESPN attempting to trim the fat for a cord-cutting future, one where live event rights to compel people to sign up and stay signed up for cable, or any future direct-to-consumer offering, are the most important thing for the future of the business and all else is just gravy, something only to be risked if they make enough money to justify it, a future where linear television exists primarily as a conduit for popular live events and anything else is just filling time. Hence, heavy cuts to ESPN’s journalism operations, which don’t help ESPN collect higher subscriber fees or appreciably boost ratings, and studio analysts, which are mainly relevant if at all as programming bracketing live games, especially with highlight shows like SportsCenter being less relevant with highlights being widely available online, but comparably fewer cuts to live game analysts and announcers. But not all sports are created equal. ESPN makes these cuts on the heels of a multi-million dollar agreement with the Big Ten that hasn’t even been officially announced yet, one that to an outside observer makes little sense in the context of the layoffs, but which ESPN sees as critically important, as high-value programming driving subscriptions and eyeballs and which, even splitting the contract with Fox, deprives Fox or any rival of that programming that might bestow money and credibility on them and potentially allow them to move closer to on par with ESPN (the impending launch of the ACC Network, on the other hand, looks all the more questionable). But less popular sports, especially those sports that require a large amount of personnel separate from or superfluous to your other sports, might not be worth the expense.

To my knowledge, no more than two play-by-play men have been confirmed to be fired as part of the layoffs, one of them being longtime auto racing announcer Allen Bestwick:

Before Bestwick, the last two announcers of the Indianapolis 500 were Marty Reid and, in an infamous one-year experiment marred by over-emphasis on Danica Patrick, Todd Harris. Neither is still with ESPN. During ESPN’s most recent stint covering NASCAR races, the three lead announcers for the Sprint Cup series were Dr. Jerry Punch, Reid, and Bestwick. Punch is also among those that were fired. As Bestwick’s tweet indicates, he’ll continue to serve as a lame duck for the rest of the IndyCar season, including the 500 (as will Punch), but after that? Quite possibly the only personality ESPN has left with auto racing announcing experience is Paul Page, who called the 500 all but three years from 1988 through 2004, and who currently is reduced to calling the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest and nothing else. Even discounting the play-by-play spot, if ESPN can’t replace Punch the 500 will have fewer than three pit reporters for the first time at least since ABC started airing it live, and hiring someone new would seem to defeat the point. And next year is the last year of ABC’s contract to air a grand total of five or six races, which raises the question: why would ESPN invest money in a sport when they just fired its play-by-play man and best pit reporter (as well as main alternative for the play-by-play spot) as part of attempting to cut their expenses to the bone?

ABC has felt like it’s been on its way out as a television partner of the IndyCar Series since the then-Versus network took over cable coverage in 2009; that it would renew its relationship in 2011, after the Comcast-NBC merger that would have allowed Comcast to unify coverage under one roof if ESPN didn’t want to, was somewhat surprising, but with the subsequent departure of NASCAR and the NHRA from ESPN leaving those five-six IndyCar races on ABC as the only motorsports content ESPN produces, it may be an expense ESPN feels it can’t afford when only the 500 truly produces appreciable numbers, even with Bestwick and Punch broadening their repertoire into college sports in recent years. About the only reason to keep it around is to keep ABC’s status as the only television partner the 500 has ever had, but that hasn’t stopped many other longstanding associations from changing hands in recent years – perhaps most pertinently, the move of golf’s British Open first to cable as the only home of live coverage and then to NBC, ending its long relationship with ABC and bringing major golf back to NBC after that network had its own long relationship with the US Open ended in favor of Fox. It’s easy to see ESPN throwing up its hands and letting NBC have full rights to the entire series, including the Indy 500 with coverage potentially hosted by Bob Costas or Mike Tirico, and Bestwick and Punch joining NBC’s team for IndyCar, NASCAR, or both. ESPN’s relationships with the British Open and NHRA were both bought out a year early as the new contracts began, and ESPN attempted to do the same with NASCAR; it’s easy to surmise that ESPN would not only be willing to give up IndyCar rights but surrender the final year of its deal similarly, and thus leave ESPN without any motorsports coverage for the first time practically since its founding.

All this brings me to one last important point. I’ve mentioned before what a boon the sports TV wars have been for smaller leagues and conferences that have been able to get television exposure and revenue that would have been unthinkable ten years ago, even if on relatively obscure networks. Now, however, the most immediate victims of cord-cutting might be those smaller leagues – or perhaps more to the point, mid-tier leagues like IndyCar that don’t move the needle but attract considerable expense regardless. If the firing of Bestwick and Punch suggests ESPN won’t even come to the table in the next IndyCar negotiations, IndyCar’s best bet to attract much of a rights fee in its next contract might be dependent on whether or not Fox is interested in sweeping in and picking up the rights, and Fox may balk at airing the 500 and risking a rain delay that bumps up against the NASCAR race the same day. (NBC also airs Formula 1 from Monaco the same day, but that may be less of an issue.) Otherwise, barring a surprise CBS-Turner combined bid, NBC might be able to essentially name its price, similar to where it found itself with NASCAR when ESPN and Turner abandoned ship on the sport. ESPN’s newfound frugality is very bad news for entities that don’t offer enough high-quality content to justify increased rights fees or a significant number of maintained subscriptions. It reduces the number of outlets available to them and forces them to find shelter with entities that remain vulnerable to suffering even more than ESPN if the linear cable market contracts further. If you’re banking on increased rights fees but your next contract negotiation is even a year away, and you’re not one of the major college conferences, pro leagues, major golf competitions, NASCAR, FIFA, or the Olympics, it’s time to ratchet down your expectations considerably.

2014 NASCAR Ratings Wrap-Up

Here are the ratings for every NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series race in the 2014 season.

Despite the disruption caused by the rain-delayed Daytona 500, every race on Fox to actually run (that I know of) outrated every race not on Fox, and as usual the four March races outrated every non-Daytona race. The most-watched race not on Fox was the Ford EcoBoost 400 on ESPN, followed by the Oral-B 500, with the Brickyard 400 falling to third; ABC’s most-watched race was the Bank of America 500, followed by the Irwin Tools Night Race. TNT’s most-watched race, the Toyota/Save Mart 350, fell behind eleven ESPN/ABC races including four Chase races and all three of ABC’s races. Due to rain delays, the Coke Zero 400 went from TNT’s most-viewed race to its second-least viewed.

Do not take this to necessarily mean the new Chase format is winning people over, however. The first four Chase races were ESPN’s least-viewed races of the year and only beat one other race, the Quaker State 400 on TNT, and five of the first seven Chase races filled out ESPN’s bottom five spots. ESPN’s least-viewed non-Chase race was the 400, which fell behind only two TNT races. The Quaker State 400 finished only 50,000 viewers ahead of the Sprint Unlimited in its first year moved to Fox Sports 1.

On the Nationwide side of the ledger, the most-watched non-Daytona race was the Aaron’s 312, followed by the Gardner Denver 200 on ABC. ESPN2 had the fourth-most watched race, but it was the third race of the year overall. The least-watched race not to have a significant portion air on ESPNEWS was the Buckle Up 200 on May 31.

Ratings for races on broadcast from SportsBusiness Daily, Sports Media Watch, or for primetime races, The Futon Critic or TV Media Insights. Ratings for races on cable from Son of the Bronx/Awful Announcing, with some information from SportsBusiness Daily. 18-49 ratings, when available, from TVbytheNumbers, The Futon Critic, or TV Media Insights.

Read more2014 NASCAR Ratings Wrap-Up

2014 NASCAR TV Schedule

On the eve of the Daytona 500, here is the TV schedule for every NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race this season. The Daytona 500 is in bold, race names in italics are Chase races, and networks in bold are cable. All times Eastern.

Countdown Time Net
NASCAR: Daytona 500 2014-2-23 13:00:00 GMT-05:00 2/23 1:00 PM FOX
NASCAR: The Profit on CNBC 500 2014-3-2 15:00:00 GMT-05:00 3/2 3:00 PM FOX
NASCAR: Kobalt 400 2014-3-9 15:00:00 GMT-04:00 3/9 3:00 PM FOX
NASCAR: Food City 500 2014-3-16 13:00:00 GMT-04:00 3/16 1:00 PM FOX
NASCAR: Auto Club 400 2014-3-23 15:00:00 GMT-04:00 3/23 3:00 PM FOX
NASCAR: STP 500 2014-3-30 13:00:00 GMT-04:00 3/30 1:00 PM FOX
NASCAR: Duck Commander 500 2014-4-6 15:00:00 GMT-04:00 4/6 3:00 PM FOX
NASCAR: Bojangles’ Southern 500 2014-4-12 18:30:00 GMT-04:00 4/12 6:30 PM FOX
NASCAR: Toyota Owners 400 2014-4-26 19:00:00 GMT-04:00 4/26 7:00 PM FOX
NASCAR: Aaron’s 499 2014-5-4 13:00:00 GMT-04:00 5/4 1:00 PM FOX
NASCAR: Name TBD (Kansas Motor Speedway) 2014-5-10 19:00:00 GMT-04:00 5/10 7:00 PM FOX
NASCAR: Sprint Showdown 2014-5-16 19:00:00 GMT-04:00 5/16 7:00 PM FS1
NASCAR: Sprint All-Star Race 2014-5-17 21:00:00 GMT-04:00 5/17 9:00 PM FS1
NASCAR: Coca-Cola 600 2014-5-25 18:00:00 GMT-04:00 5/25 6:00 PM FOX
NASCAR: Name TBD (Dover International Speedway) 2014-6-1 13:00:00 GMT-04:00 6/1 1:00 PM FOX
NASCAR: Pocono 400 2014-6-8 13:00:00 GMT-04:00 6/8 1:00 PM TNT
NASCAR: Quicken Loans 400 2014-6-15 13:00:00 GMT-04:00 6/15 1:00 PM TNT
NASCAR: Toyota Save Mart 350 2014-6-22 15:00:00 GMT-04:00 6/22 3:00 PM TNT
NASCAR: Quaker State 400 2014-6-28 19:30:00 GMT-04:00 6/28 7:30 PM TNT
NASCAR: Coke Zero 400 2014-7-5 19:30:00 GMT-04:00 7/5 7:30 PM TNT
NASCAR: Camping World RV Sales 301 2014-7-13 13:00:00 GMT-04:00 7/13 1:00 PM TNT
NASCAR: Brickyard 400 2014-7-27 13:00:00 GMT-04:00 7/27 1:00 PM ESPN
NASCAR: 400 2014-8-3 13:00:00 GMT-04:00 8/3 1:00 PM ESPN
NASCAR: Cheez-It 355 at the Glen 2014-8-10 13:00:00 GMT-04:00 8/10 1:00 PM ESPN
NASCAR: Pure Michigan 400 2014-8-17 13:00:00 GMT-04:00 8/17 1:00 PM ESPN
NASCAR: Irwin Tools Night Race 2014-8-23 19:30:00 GMT-04:00 8/23 7:30 PM ABC
NASCAR: Name TBD (Atlanta Motor Speedway) 2014-8-31 19:30:00 GMT-04:00 8/31 7:30 PM ESPN
NASCAR: Federated Auto Parts 400 2014-9-6 19:30:00 GMT-04:00 9/6 7:30 PM ABC
NASCAR: Name TBD (Chicagoland Speedway) 2014-9-14 14:00:00 GMT-04:00 9/14 2:00 PM ESPN
NASCAR: Osram Sylvania 300 2014-9-21 14:00:00 GMT-04:00 9/21 2:00 PM ESPN
NASCAR: AAA 400 2014-9-28 14:00:00 GMT-04:00 9/28 2:00 PM ESPN
NASCAR: Hollywood Casino 400 2014-10-5 14:00:00 GMT-04:00 10/5 2:00 PM ESPN
NASCAR: Bank of America 500 2014-10-11 19:30:00 GMT-04:00 10/11 7:30 PM ABC
NASCAR: Geico 500 2014-10-19 14:00:00 GMT-04:00 10/19 2:00 PM ESPN
NASCAR: Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 2014-10-26 13:30:00 GMT-04:00 10/26 1:30 PM ESPN
NASCAR: AAA Texas 500 2014-11-2 15:00:00 GMT-05:00 11/2 3:00 PM ESPN
NASCAR: Quicken Loans 500 2014-11-9 15:00:00 GMT-05:00 11/9 3:00 PM ESPN
NASCAR: Ford EcoBoost 400 2014-11-16 15:00:00 GMT-05:00 11/16 3:00 PM ESPN

2013 NASCAR Ratings Wrap-Up

Here are the ratings for every NASCAR Sprint Cup race in the 2013 season.

Every race on Fox outrated every race on cable, and only one race on ABC was able to beat any Fox races, even the Sprint Unlimited, the Irwin Tools Night Race from Bristol. As usual, ratings slowly tapered off after the Daytona 500 with the four March races outrating every non-Daytona race.

Other than the Irwin Tools Night Race, the most-watched race not on Fox was the Coke Zero 400 on TNT, followed by the Bank of America 500, the most-watched Chase race, on ABC. ESPN’s most watched race, as usual, was the Brickyard 400, followed by the AdvoCare 500 from Atlanta. The most-watched Chase race on ESPN was the Ford 400, followed by the Camping World RV Sales 500. The Camping World RV Sales 301 was TNT’s most-watched race outside Daytona.

The least-watched Sprint Cup race on broadcast was ABC’s remaining race, the Federated Auto Parts 400 – which still outrated every Chase race on cable. The least-watched race overall was the Geico 400, but due to weather delays that race finished on ESPN2; the portion of the race that aired on ESPN had 3.623 million viewers, which would still make it the only points race with fewer viewers than the Sprint All-Star Race. The next-least viewed race was the Sylvania 300; the least-viewed non-Chase race was the Quaker State 400 on TNT, a race bumped to Sunday by rain, and the least-viewed non-Chase race to run at its normal time was the Cheez-It 355 at the Glen, followed by the Party in the Poconos 400 on TNT. The least-viewed non-Chase race on ESPN not on a road course was the Pure Michigan 400 – which outrated seven of the ten Chase races (and three of TNT’s six races).

Numbers for Sprint Cup races from 18-49 numbers, when available, from The Futon Critic and TVbytheNumbers.

Read more2013 NASCAR Ratings Wrap-Up

A Closer Look at Fox’s All-Sports Network Plans

Two motorsports TV contracts were signed over the weekend that continue to firm up and clarify Fox’s plans to start an all-sports network.

First, NBC signed a deal with Formula 1, moving those races off Speed; among other things, only four races will air on broadcast, meaning unlike Fox, NBC could end up tape delaying as few as one race all year (the other three being in Canada, Texas, and Brazil). While it adds good programming to NBC Sports Network (programming that complements the existing IndyCar contract), it’s hard not to see this story as really being about Fox clearing motorsports inventory off of Speed to prepare it for a transition to an all-sports network. This despite the fact that F1 is probably Speed’s best non-NASCAR programming and generally only takes up space on the Speed schedule late at night when there’s nothing else on; even conflicts with international soccer are surprisingly minimal.

There are many ways in which the Fox network still feels a lot less mature than its older competitors, and sports are one of the more subtle ones. NBC and CBS both have all sorts of niche sports dotting their weekends on top of all the more prominent sports they’re known for, and even ABC still has an interesting variety of sports dotting its schedule. For the most part, until recently Fox Sports pretty much consisted of football, baseball, and NASCAR, and that’s it. They’ve added college football and UFC, not to mention the odd soccer game, but before that Formula 1, despite the tape delays, was the closest thing to one of those niche, “Wide World of Sports”-esque sports that Fox had. Now it’s leaving, and there aren’t more than two or three live soccer games on Fox all year. I hope Fox doesn’t neglect its broadcast network as it builds an all-sports network like ABC had; it may be all the more critical in Fox’s case than any other that an increased emphasis on sports have spillover effects on the broadcast network. (And Fox’s college football coverage doesn’t seem quite up to the snuff of the established broadcasters to me.)

Perhaps more illuminating, even critical, to Fox’s network plans is its long-rumored early renewal with NASCAR. The main reason Fox wanted to renew this deal early was so it could clarify what a Fox Sports network would be required to broadcast, and nothing in this deal is tied to a specific network, allowing Fox to move some Sprint Cup points races to Speed whether it becomes a general all-sports network or not. Fox remains the broadcaster for the entire Camping World Truck Series season, and at least for now, doesn’t pick up any Nationwide Series rights. For a Fox Sports network, Fox picked up rights that will allow it to have a nightly show devoted to NASCAR news, “NASCAR-branded pre- and post-race shows”, and the ability to re-air races for 24 hours. While I wonder how wide-ranging Fox’s ability to have on-track and pre- and post-race shows is, Fox also retained the rights to show practice and qualifying… for the races whose rights it controls.

While Fox doesn’t appear to have picked up any rights it doesn’t already have, and so might end up picking up more rights later, that may indicate that Fox’s network prospects may now hinge on what happens with the rest of the contract, and whether or not someone else is willing to take on practice and qualifying rights for every single race they show, without being able to pawn them off to Fox. Certainly Fox has enough rights now to keep Speed a motorsports-focused network if it so chooses. ESPN already shows a considerable amount of practice and qualifying for its races, but it’s not universal and one wonders how much it’ll be willing to fit more onto its crowded schedule. NBC Sports Network would love to take it on just to fill time on the schedule, but given its existing IndyCar commitment (and potential hockey playoff conflicts) I wonder how much NBC would want to take on the Nationwide Series. And while Turner, which currently outsources all its practice and qualifying to Speed, would not want to add such fairly low-rated programming to TNT, such programming (backed by Nationwide Series races) could help it build the sports profile of truTV, but may represent too much of a commitment to sports for Turner to be comfortable with it, especially given their lack of success so far.

But perhaps Fox’s network plans extend beyond a single network to a complete revamping of the structure of its sports properties, one with potential knock-on effects spreading far and wide, and perhaps already doing so.

I have referred only to an “all-sports network” of Fox’s because I don’t like the reported tentative name of the network, “Fox Sports 1”. Part of the reason for that is the lack of a Fox Sports 2, but Fox could certainly relaunch one of its other networks to fit the bill, especially in the case that Fox Soccer loses its bread and butter… or completely overturn its specialty-network strategy and take on ESPN’s family of networks head-on. Ken Fang of Fang’s Bites raised this possibility in a post last week, suggesting that Fox might not only re-launch Speed as Fox Sports 1, but at the same time relaunch Fox Soccer as Fox Sports 2 and Fuel as Fox Sports 3. (I doubt he has any evidence that this is what’s actually going to happen, but speculation is fun, so we’ll go ahead and play his game.)

I have a number of problems with his specific scenario, largely because I didn’t really think of Fuel as a “sports” network in the same sense before it picked up UFC rights, but rather as a male-focused network with an emphasis on extreme sports, but in an even broader sense, he seems to think that such a change would amount to little more than a change of name in the case of Fox Soccer and Fuel; most soccer programming would remain on Fox Soccer with little more than what FX already has on FS1 and none on FS3 (and little to no non-soccer programming, to the point that Fox Soccer Plus would get the absurd name of “Fox Sports 2 Plus”), and all of Fuel’s programming would remain there with little to no programming from the other networks and UFC programming on FS1 and FS3 but not FS2. What’s the point of rebranding the networks in that case? Would Fox really want a collection of straight numbered networks with such a clear hierarchy yet with such targeted emphasis outside the main network? I guess it’s possible, but so far as I can tell from Wikipedia, it doesn’t fit News Corporation’s best practices with Sky Sports in the UK and Fox Sports in Australia.

Let’s think bigger, and fit a number of other developments into this picture. If this is the direction Fox wants to go, here’s what I see happening:

  • Speed becomes FS1, Fox Soccer becomes FS2, Fuel becomes FS3. We don’t need to change Fox Soccer Plus’ new name much, either from its existing name or from Fang’s proposal; it becomes Fox Sports Plus, and keeps most of its existing programming, with some use as an overflow channel for stuff Fox has the rights to but can’t cram onto three channels.
  • FS2 remains more soccer-focused than the other two, but a lot of soccer programming leaks onto the other two networks; at the very least, FS1 picks up every Premier League match Fox has the rights to pitting Manchester United against Arsenal, Chelsea, or Manchester City not on the main network. Fox also revamps its scheme for airing UEFA Champions League matches, with FS1 and FS3 joining FS2 and FS+ in airing games every matchday – half of all the games played at a time. FX wasn’t airing games regularly partly to increase the profile of Fox Soccer but also because it had other things to do. FS1 doesn’t; I could see it taking on more Champions League games even if Fox Soccer isn’t rebranded. (One factor that could play into the chances of Fox Soccer being rebranded is the loss of Serie A and Ligue 1 to beIN Sport and the threat of more; all of what Fox Soccer has left is either programming that could almost move to FS1 full-time, or stuff that doesn’t attract any eyeballs at all.)
  • UFC broadcasts are distributed among Fox, FS1, FS2, and FS3 based on the quality of the card and what each network is doing at any given time, all branded as “UFC on Fox”. FS3 continues to show prelims for Fox and FS1 cards, with PPV prelims airing on FS1 or FS2.
  • Most Truck Series races, as well as Sprint Cup practice and qualifying, move off their current network and onto FS2 and FS3.
  • Here comes the big part: the final nail is driven into the coffin of Rupert Murdoch’s original dream of using FSN to compete with ESPN. Especially if Dan Patrick decides to move to NBC. Only fitting that it comes when Fox actually does launch an ESPN-alike, right? We’ve been seeing the vestiges of this start to slip away ever since the start of the sports TV wars, to the point that despite the return of strong Fox branding to FSN national programming, FSN itself hasn’t returned with it, only being referred to as the “Fox Sports Networks”.

    Earlier this year Comcast SportsNet, always iffy with its carriage of FSN programming, dropped it entirely; originally it seemed that this was a temporary hiccup, but right now it seems Fox has given up the ghost, finding over-the-air stations to air FSN programming in Comcast markets. CSN may be setting itself up to air its own national programming, especially if it wins Big East rights, but even Root Sports, still airing FSN programming, has been airing Big Sky football games “nationally” on its three networks. Fox just doesn’t have the hegemony over the regional sports network landscape that it used to, and Fox doesn’t even need it anymore to distribute sports that don’t fit the other networks or that need a more national audience without being on FX. Plus, it’s lost Pac-12 rights to the Pac-12 Network, leaving it with just the Big 12 and Conference USA, and even conferences like the SEC and ACC that haven’t launched networks have sold packages to regional sports networks. College sports on regional sports networks have effectively become just as regional as everything else.

    Thus, as big a reason as the threat of beIN Sport to relaunch multiple networks is the desire to bail on the last vestiges of the FSN concept and move its bigger games to FS1, which should also provide plenty of inventory for FS2 once the soccer games end as well, with FS3 able to chip in in a pinch.

  • Along with the shutdown of the national FSN concept, Fox also shuts down its “that exists?” Fox College Sports enterprise, using the networks to goad cable companies into increasing carriage of FS2, FS3, and possibly FS+. FCS-exclusive games would move into the few remaining open spots on FS2, with the rest on FS3, FS+, and other platforms. Incidentally, I see a big shakeup in the TV rights for the third-tier college basketball postseason tournaments soon as the sports TV wars affect them; with HDNet’s rebrand into AXS TV, I see them dropping the CBI soon, and if Fox shuts down FCS that means they need to find a place for the CIT. When the dust settles, both tournaments will end up somehow distributed between NBC Sports Network, CBS Sports Network, and Fox; I see one on NBCSN and one on Fox, but it may not be the CBI on NBCSN and the CIT on Fox.

Later in the week I’ll take a look at what this might look like in practice.

Sport-Specific Networks
10.5 13.5 7 5.5 1 1.5

The State of NASCAR on Television

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.

The latest in the sports television wars

Two pieces of news broke Wednesday in the sports TV wars:

  • NBC picking up MLS doesn’t mean much for NBC/Comcast, given how low MLS is on the totem pole, but it is very good news for MLS. It wasn’t that long ago that no one would have ever said that about a move to Versus, but this move gives MLS a shot at more featured time slots, a place on a channel that now has double the distribution, a chance to take advantage of any other big pick-ups NBC adds down the line, and a return to broadcast television. The MLS Cup will remain on ESPN for the time being, but MLS’ choice is to stay on ESPN or leave primetime – though they may want to unify their English-language coverage under one banner in three years, and I have a feeling NBC/Comcast may wind up with a better shot at it then than ESPN. It’s also bad news for Fox Soccer, for whom MLS was their main summer attraction. This move had been rumored in the past, especially when MLS went past their schedule announcement without a deal with Fox Soccer this season and considered buying time on Versus.
  • On the other hand, ABC managed to renew their relationship with the IndyCar series, despite some thinking that the whole series might be unified under the NBC banner after Versus took the cable contract some years back. This means ABC will maintain its long association with the Indy 500 that will now extend for more than half a century.

I’m undecided over whether to count MLS on my scorecard – I didn’t count when Fox picked up rights to Conference USA. MLS gets more press, but miniscule ratings. Should I count neither, both, or just one or the other? (I really need to update my Sports TV Contracts list from the first year of Da Blog…)

Why I’m not heaping praise on Jimmie Johnson

Another year has come and gone, and with it another year of Jimmie Johnson winning the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Oh, it was tougher this year, but it’s now five straight, two more consecutive Sprint Cup championships than any other driver in NASCAR history. And with it has come another round of NASCAR pundits telling us to respect Jimmie Johnson as one of the all-time greats. And why aren’t we respecting Jimmie Johnson? Apparently, because we just want someone else to win. I still seem to be the only one (admittedly, not very vocal about it) who wonders if the change in format to the Chase system – instituted just two years before the start of the streak – means Johnson’s championships aren’t directly comparable to the Cale Yarboroughs and Richard Pettys and Dale Earnhardts. In the past, I’ve wondered if Johnson’s dominance wasn’t the result of NASCAR booking an unbalanced selection of Chase tracks that virtually assured Johnson’s victory every year, but it’s hard to make that case (though Wikipedia tries). You have regular ovals, short tracks, even Talladega Superspeedway (though not a road course).

But the ESPN commentators said something on Sunday that gave me an epiphany. It’s not the Chase tracks. It’s the Chase itself.

The ESPN commentators said something about how grueling the NASCAR season is and how tough it is to maintain that consistency over the course of the year, and to keep up that consistency for year after year after year. Yes, we should congratulate Jimmie Johnson for maintaining his consistency over the 36 races of the NASCAR season… except NASCAR has effectively shortened its season to 10 races! All Johnson has to do is be good enough to be one of the top 12 drivers over the first 26 races, not a particularly high bar (though admittedly he’s the only one to make every Chase), and only be the best over the course of the last 10 races.

It’s incredible. At the start of the 20th century, no sport in the United States had a playoff system as such. It wasn’t until the 40s, 50s, and 60s that most sports started developing the multi-round playoff structures we’re familiar with today. Now we’re shoehorning playoffs into sports they can’t possibly fit, where everyone competes in every event. NASCAR and golf wanted to attract the casual sports fan who’s familiar with the playoff systems of the traditional Big Four professional sports and college basketball – the fans of what they used to deride as “stick-and-ball sports”. They made their deal with the devil. But did they really want to?

Get a good look at your future, NASCAR fans. You can write off Jimmie Johnson’s dominance with “well, he’s just that good” now. But in a few years, even decades, once Jimmie Johnson has fallen off and retired, will you start to see multi-year dynasties become the norm in NASCAR? Will four- or five-year runs at the top become passe? Will the past, when it took a truly great driver just to repeat, give way to a future where the list of champions looks more and more like its own past entries, and where at the very least Cale Yarborough’s three-peat starts being disrespected? Which future do NASCAR fans want to live in?

If you want to avert that future, I don’t know what NASCAR should do. I don’t think it was a mistake for the PGA TOUR to introduce its own points system in imitation of the Chase – before the FedExCup it didn’t have a season championship to speak of – and frankly the TOUR’s “Playoffs” has so few events that inconsistency in the winners is more likely than in the Chase. Probably the solution is to go back to the old system where there was no cutoff and no points reset; every race was the same as every other race in terms of determining the champion – or maybe just have a restrictive cutoff without a reset. Or if it really wants to have a “playoff”, perhaps NASCAR should institute a “championship race” of just 10-20 drivers, with no qualifying session and start order determined on points or wins (with the other category as a tiebreaker), that rotates from track to track every year, and the winner of that race is automatically your Sprint Cup Champion.

But if NASCAR really wants to attract the casual fan, they may be doomed to failure for this simple reason: While Jimmie Johnson was winning his fifth title in dramatic fashion, more people were watching the Vikings and the Packers. As long as the Sprint Cup Championship is crowned in the midst of football season, it will always seem anticlimactic.

Can the FedExCup be saved?

Another FedExCup has come and gone. The PGA TOUR’s TV partners have been shoving it down golf fans’ collective throats for months, showing every golfer’s rank in the standings at every event as though anyone cared, trying to get people revved up for the “Playoffs”, and it still didn’t go over with golf fans.

The FedExCup was supposed to be golf’s answer to NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup. Finally, golf would have its own season-long points chase culminating in a “playoff” event to crown a champion. It hasn’t worked out that way. After the first two FedExCups ended anticlimactically, the PGA TOUR (as it pretentiously capitalizes itself) decided they didn’t want to risk even the slightest chance of the Cup being decided before the TOUR Championship was even played, and adopted a bizarre system where the values of the Playoff events ballooned to five times the normal levels, and the points weren’t reset until the TOUR Championship itself, at which point anyone in the top 5 could win the Cup. Was the TOUR Championship an event held at a course appropriate enough to crown the champion of the entire year in golf? Who the hell knows.

All I know is that NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup doesn’t seem to have been negatively affected by the possibility of someone all but locking up the title before the final race. I also know that guaranteeing that the FedExCup would come down to the last event hasn’t actually gotten anyone more excited for the FedExCup. It doesn’t help that Tiger Woods was out of the running this year, but no one cared last year either, when Tiger won the whole thing.

What’s the difference between the Chase and the FedExCup? What is NASCAR doing right that the PGA TOUR is doing wrong? Some of it is elements outside the TOUR’s control; NASCAR already had a tradition of a season-long points chase, and golf owes virtually all its popularity to one man right now. No one cares about the vast majority of people competing for the FedExCup, and the PGA TOUR has made it worse by inviting over a hundred people to partake in their “playoffs”, virtually ensuring no one any good is going to be on the bubble not to get in. Wow, way to make your non-majors matter! No wonder you moved the reset to the last event!

The points system doesn’t help – golf fans mocked it roundly when it first came out for its complexity (winners received 4500 points!). At the same time that it moved the point where the points reset, the TOUR also decided to make the points more user-friendly. It did this by reducing the points for a win… to 500. Wow, that’s nice and intuitive. Granted, the TOUR needs to make room in their points scale for the 70 players that make the cut. NASCAR only needs to make room for 43 or so, so they get away with awarding 190 points for a win. The TOUR would probably be awarding 300 points if it wanted to be proportional about it, but it can do even better.

How about this: 100 points for a win.

It’s a nice, round number – everyone and their mother is familiar with 100, and can conceptualize it in terms of percent. The World Golf Rankings use 100 for a win in a major, let alone a regular event; complex modifications aside, what’s wrong with the points system you already had? I’m not going to be using the World Golf Rankings points system, though, and I’ll explain later how I cram 70 players into 100 points.

2nd place receives 50 points, a bit less than the World Golf Rankings and a lot bigger drop-off than the 20 points from a higher number in NASCAR. If they lose in a playoff, they get 70 points, reflecting the fact that outside the US Open, most golf tournament playoffs involve choosing one hole that may or may not be representative of the entire course.

3rd place gets 35 points, 4th 30, 5th 25, 6th 21, 7th 18, 8th 15, 9th 12, and 10th place receives 10. Ties receive the highest possible number of points. Yes, I know money is awarded by taking the average of the tied positions, but the money list does that because it has a set purse; the amount of money it awards in total is predetermined. For points standings, do you really want to ask casual fans to do all that addition and division to decipher the points standings or determine how many points each golfer will get? And is there anything less user-friendly than fractions of a point?

Beyond 10th place, points are awarded based on strokes, not positioning; subtract one point for each stroke behind 10th to a minimum of 1 for anyone who makes the cut. This is one of the biggest sources of confusion in existing ranking schemes: in most golf tournaments, most of the players who make the cut tend to cluster around a few scores, resulting in massive ties. By awarding points for these positions based on position, the number of points awarded is almost based on chance, even using the money list’s system. This way, mid-table golfers know every stroke is worth one point – no more, no less. And setting a hard minimum of 1 also gets rid of those horrible fractional points.

What about majors? 150 points for winning a major, 100 for playoff losers, 75 for second, 50 for third, 40 for fourth, 30 for 5th, 25 for 6th, 20 for 7th, and the same as before for the rest. THE PLAYERS Championship awards 125 for winning, 80 for playoff losers, 60 for 2nd, 40 for 3rd, and the same as before for the rest. World Golf Championship events award 110 for winning, 75 for playoff losers, and the same as before for the rest. Events held the same weekend as bigger events give winners 25 points, 20 for second place (playoff or no), 15 for 3rd, 12 for 4th, 10 for 5th, and deductions for strokes behind 5th to a minimum of 1 – though beyond a certain point, you shouldn’t get benefit of the doubt for squeaking past the cutline and then crapping out at an event the best players were spending somewhere more important. Again, no fractional points.

How exactly the championship is awarded is a thornier issue, although the current approach surely isn’t it. The purest approach is to not do any reset or jacking up of the points, but then you need to be prepared for the championship being well in hand at the final event, and maybe even the winner not showing up there at all. You could just do successive cutlines without resetting the points standings, so each “playoff” event counts the same as any other, but that’s unlikely to affect the top players.

Do you have a four-event playoff, and reset the standings beforehand? Maybe, but you need to make sure the events are balanced – some courses have higher roughs, some wider fairways, some are longer than others. Make sure you have enough of a balance of challenges as you do the rest of the year, so everyone is challenged evenly and someone has to be a very good all-around golfer to take enough of a lead to skip an event.

This is something I’m not sure NASCAR has figured out – near as I can tell there isn’t a single road course in the Chase, and while I know correlation doesn’t imply causation, I can’t shake the feeling that it’s not a coincidence that the advent of the Chase has coincided with Jimmie Johnson’s literally unprecedented run of dominance. Also, in accordance with the notion of providing a balance of challenges, have only one cutline and cut only the top 70 or 30. (Or maybe two, with a second cutline where you go from 70 to 30.

Do you bring only the top 15-30 players or so to the TOUR Championship, and have that event be winner-take-all? Maybe, but if so, you better make damn sure you push it as a fifth or sixth major, at least on par with the PLAYERS. Put it at storied courses like Pebble Beach (the course also needs to do a good job of teasing out the best all-around golfer rather than being an outlier), hand out major-level money or more, do everything you can to make sure golfers and fans see it as one of the top six most important events and prizes of the year. Only enjoin it with other events in a “playoff” if a) you do cuts without resets as above, or b) the cutline for the playoff events is determined entirely by the order of finish on the course that week. A low cutline also ensures it succeeds in its real goal, encouraging participation and success in the TOUR’s “other” tournaments.

In retrospect, it may have been a mistake for the TOUR to leave ESPN in favor of the Golf Channel as its sole cable partner; heaven knows ESPN wouldn’t just shove it down our throats but send it out the other side. The TOUR is left hoping the Comcast/NBC merger not only goes through but succeeds in creating a true competitor to ESPN. It’s also still an open question whether or not non-head-to-head sports like the PGA TOUR or NASCAR should even have “playoffs” given the need to balance fair competition with a dramatic finish. And in the end, will anyone care if Tiger doesn’t care? Will anyone care if there is no Tiger? Will anyone care about golf if there is no Tiger?