Lots of Networks Want a Piece of NASCAR

With new NFL contract, will NBC punt on the popular sport?
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As the NASCAR season enters its last lap with the Chase for the Nextel
Cup playoff series, the competition to see who televises the growing sport
after 2006 is also heating up.

The current $2.4 billion television contract expires after next season.
Under the present structure, Fox and FX air the first half of the season, and
NBC and Turner Broadcasting share the second half. The sport's biggest event,
the Daytona 500—which is actually run at the beginning of the
season—rotates annually between NBC and Fox.

And while the current partners are in an exclusive negotiation period,
many are wondering if NBC's decision to bring back the NFL will mean it
won't pony up the significant rights-fee boost NASCAR is expected to ask for.
“The simple fact is, the rights will be so expensive that whoever gets it
will also have to spend a lot to promote it and try and get their money
back,” says analyst Dennis McAlpine of McAlpine Associates.

And if NBC flinches, ESPN wants in.

“We've been very vocal about our interest in NASCAR, and I think
that's the only big property right now that escapes [ESPN's] portfolio,”
says outgoing ESPN programming chief Mark Shapiro.

In fact, it was suggested earlier this season that ESPN ramped up
coverage of NASCAR in its news programming in an effort to curry favor with the
organization.

But Shapiro bristles at the suggestion. “That's disgusting,” he
says. “That accusation is utterly ridiculous. It is church and state. If
you're going by sheer numbers, NASCAR is the second-most-popular sport by far
in this country. If anything, we're guilty of not doing enough. We don't
need to prove to NASCAR what we can do.”

McAlpine says he “wouldn't be surprised to see the second half taken
over by ABC and ESPN.”

Another option, should NBC pass, would be for Turner to try to obtain
rights on its own. Also, although no one is mentioning Outdoor Life Network as
a bidder, that Comcast channel is trying to remodel itself into a more
mainstream sports outlet, and the industry is keeping an eye on its
movements.

But NASCAR will be leery of putting too much of its schedule on cable;
the recent explosion in NASCAR's popularity resulted from the sport shifting
to a predominantly broadcast-television schedule.

Another possibility is for NASCAR to break off the rights to its Busch
Series, a minor-league circuit that usually holds its races one day prior to
the Nextel Cup. The Busch deal is currently tied in with the Nextel Cup
contract. But should ESPN fail to get rights to Nextel Cup, the deal remains a
possibility.

Even if all three current partners were to return in a similar
structure, there has been talk that Fox could end up with exclusive rights to
the Daytona 500, since NBC and Turner air all 10 races in the playoff
series.

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