In 1993, News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch made what many industry experts asserted was the most foolish deal in the history of both modern television and professional sports.
Murdoch's $1.6 billion bid for the NFL's National Football Conference rights was considered short-sighted and very much overpriced. Eight years later, that deal is now regarded as somewhat of a bargain and invaluable to Murdoch's Fox network.
The Australian media-mogul's Fox Sports division has continued to play by those same rules ever since. After acquiring the NFL rights, Fox Sports quickly added Major League Baseball and NHL coverage to its fold, building a network sports powerhouse almost overnight. In doing so, Fox Sports went about things in its own way-offering viewers new visual angles, statistics and information in unorthodox ways and a plethora of technological advances. Think glowing hockey pucks and the FoxBox.
Starting this Sunday (Feb. 18),
Fox takes its sports strategy down a new road, literally, with wall-to-wall coverage of the Daytona 500. The telecast of the Winston Cup race is the first in the network's new billion-dollar pact with NASCAR.
Fox Broadcasting, Fox Sports Net and FX will be the exclusive home to NASCAR's Winston Cup and Busch Series races for the first half of the NASCAR season through 2008. Everything from qualifying races, to Happy Hours and even nightly NASCAR highlight programs will be spread across Fox's network and cable properties. NBC and TBS, the other two partners in NASCAR's new $2.4 billion TV package, will pick up the action at the halfway point in June. Fox's share of that rights fee is around $1.4 billion.
In true Fox Sports fashion, NASCAR is bracing for a much more intense, louder and gadget-heavy broadcast season. "We have some tricks up our sleeve to try to Foxify it," notes Tracy Dolgin, Fox Sports Net's president. "We're not only going to appeal to the hard core NASCAR fans, but we're going to try and reach out to the moderate fans and bring them in, trying not to alienate the serious fans at the same time."
When Fox's NASCAR deal was first announced in November of 1999, NASCAR Web sites and fan clubs were swamped with calls and e-mails from fans worried that Fox would make cars glow and that NFL announcers like John Madden and Pat Summerall would be calling the action. Well, that's not the case-at least not yet, anyway.
Fox has hired several high-profile NASCAR figures to man the booth, including Darrell Waltrip and Larry McReynolds. On the technology front, Fox executives are going to shake things up a little bit, but Fox Sports Television Group Chairman and CEO David Hill promises it "won't be a science project on the screen." Low-angle cameras, louder audio, a NASCAR-special FoxBox and possibly some viewing enhancements are in the works.
"But one of the things that we have never done, is we have never tried to change a sport," says Hill. "Because we figure the guys who run it-no doubt-know more about it than we do. But that's not going to stop us from putting forward suggestions."
FX Networks President Peter Liguori explains: "Fox built its reputation basically on the philosophy of Same Game, New Attitude and that's what I think Fox is going to bring to NASCAR. Guys aren't going to be making right-hand turns. They are not going to be driving three-wheeled cars. It's basically going to be the same sport with just better coverage."
NASCAR executives say they never doubted Fox's intentions.
"I think the worries or different discussions you heard were coming from fans and media that just didn't know the details of how things were going to shake out," says Paul Brooks, NASCAR's VP of broadcasting. "But Fox Sports is a very smart, bright group of people and they understand sports and they understand fans and we were not worried at all. They reassured us that they were going to bring the Fox magic to our sport and at the same time not alienate our core fan. And that's exactly what they are doing."
GETTING IT TOGETHER
Hill and Murdoch put together Fox's original bid for the NFL rights in 1993 and Hill has been the network's point man for new sports deals ever since-including Fox Sports' recent six-year, $2.5 billion renewal with Major League Baseball. Hill says he had been eyeing NASCAR for more than five years and had informed league officials a few years back that Fox would make a deal for the sport's broadcast rights if
and only if
NASCAR could "pull itself together."
Pulling itself together meant all of NASCAR's race tracks had to form one unified body, something that had never been the case in the sport's first 51 years of racing. Networks, including CBS and ABC, had previously been forced to make deals with individual racetrack owners for events like the Daytona 500. In 1999, NASCAR brought the tracks together and Hill made good on his word-bringing Fox into the auto racing game later that year.
"The key to our interest, was very simple," says Hill. "In a world of fragmented entertainment choices where everything is slipping, you look at NASCAR and the ratings for the sport over the last five years have remained pretty static. What that means in this day and age is you had an increasing and very loyal fan base."
NASCAR's Winston Cup series, the major league of auto racing that features the Jeff Gordons and Dale Earnhardts of the world, has remained at or just below a 5.0 national household rating for the last five years. But NASCAR and Fox executives are expecting big things in the Nielsens this year for one simple reason-the sport is going to be easy to find and will be promoted better than ever before. Last year NASCAR races were on seven different cable or broadcast networks, leaving viewers wondering each week where a given race was.
"You are going to see a dramatic increase in the total number of viewers for NASCAR," says NASCAR consultant Neal Pilson. "Under the old program schedule two-thirds of the races were on cable. Under the new program schedule, two-thirds of the races are going to be on [broadcast] network television and that should assure NASCAR and Fox of a very substantial increase in total viewership."
But Fox has come into other sports with high expectations and been burned. Fox Sports' five years broadcasting NHL games (1995-1999) were a bust. "I think hockey is one of the great stadium events and what we never could do was translate the excitement onto the television set," says Hill.
And even with the highly publicized New York Subway World Series this past season, Fox's baseball coverage is suffering as well. The network suffered an estimated $70 million in losses and was forced to give advertisers millions of dollars in make-goods.
In terms of NASCAR advertising, Fox executives say their first season is about 75% sold (including FX and Fox Sports Net), with some 60 sponsors on board "We are doing quite well, obviously if it were a stronger economic climate, we'd be doing gangbusters," says Jon Nesvig, president of advertising sales.
Sources say the Fox broadcast network is getting between $250,000 and $275,000 per spot for this weekend's Daytona 500-NASCAR's premier event. Lesser races later on are commanding $150,000-$175,000 per spot, they say. And FX is getting $50,000-$100,000.
NASCAR ranks as the second-highest rated sport nationally, well behind the NFL, but ahead of the NBA and Major League Baseball, but NASCAR's ad rates don't reflect its high-ratings status. "I think we're going to get there. This is really the year for us to prove that NASCAR belongs in the second spot," Nesvig adds.
Fox Sports tries to put its own mark on sports coverage. With the NFL, Fox created the on-screen FoxBox to show viewers the score at all times. In hockey, Fox made the puck glow and in Major League Baseball, catchers now wear tiny cameras on their helmets and colorful graphics highlight a player's Hot and Cold zones.
So what is Hill and Sportvision, the tech company behind the glowing pucks and fancy graphics, going to bring to NASCAR?
"We have been fiddling with some stuff," says Hill. "It's still in the experimental phase, but if it works, it's going to be absolutely mind-snapping. It will be quite a viewer's aide if we put it on. But we are not going to put it on as a science project. It has to look cool."
Hill won't say outright, but sources say Fox is expected to introduce a technique that makes individual cars stand out of the pack for brief periods of time. Whether they will glow like hockey pucks, Fox executives won't say. Hill is also working to change the vantage point from which viewers watch a race and the NASCAR engines will roar like never before.
"There were two elements that we looked at right off the bat: one was getting the cameras down low because I felt that high cameras had an effect of foreshortening the cars and, if you do that, you are doing away with the incredible sense of speed and danger that the sport brings," says Hill. "So we and NBC, we did it jointly, went around to every track and maximized our camera positions. We did the same thing with audio, because the great thing with this sport is the sound of the cars. They sound like caged prehistoric beasts."
Robotic cameras will provide new views and more than 75 microphones-some in the infield grass, lodged in the walls and even attached to crew members-will make NASCAR an earful. A new graphics package, developed for NASCAR, will include in-car telemetry and a running race order. The network's staple, the FoxBox, has been customized and will include a pit clock, driver interview box and special animation.
An ever-moving scroll of driver's names and their positions will also be featured in the special NASCAR FoxBox, run like a stock ticker across the top of the screen. And if the advertisers sign on, Fox's NASCAR coverage may follow TBS' experiment from a year ago-nonstop racing through the commercials. TBS ran a small picture-in-picture feed over commercials last year that allowed viewers to catch every mile of selected races. Hill says he'd love to go that direction.
FAST LANE or BUST
Whether NASCAR turns out to be another NHL for Fox Sports or possibly an NFL-type bread winner, only time will tell. This weekend's Daytona 500 will give Fox, NASCAR and the rest of the country its first taste of the future of auto racing on television.
"The fact that we have been able to hold the ratings and audience that we have is incredible, especially in a fragmented market," says NASCAR's Brooks. "So we think our new deals can only help with the promotion, the distribution and continuity of that."
As for Hill, "To us, life is a gamble and we took a bet, but we think it's a pretty safe bet. I think NASCAR can get much bigger than what it is now, if it's on every week and people get used to it. From a ratings standpoint, I don't think it's anywhere near maxed out."