NASCAR on Television
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August 12, 2013
Humpy Wheeler called yesterday's Watkins Glen race a "corker" and said road course racing can be good on TV if there are places to pass even though Watkins Glen doesn't hold a whole heckuva lot of people.
"On TV." I liked that he understands there's a big difference between watching a race in person and on television. That's a good sign that somebody down in North Carolina understands how important...and different...the television audience is.
I can't find fault in the guys who show up at the track every week thinking more about of the crowds they see in person every week, but compare the hundred thousand in the stands to the million-plus who watch on TV every week. That's a huge chunk of NASCAR's business, and it's how most NASCAR fans experience most races.
NASCAR has to be more considerate of that huge home audience than they have been in recent years.
Oh, but the people who watch on TV get it free, don't we? Shouldn't we just be glad we get to watch for free? Technically that is true, although the broadcasts are packed with what seems like more advertising than racing some weekends. Somebody's making money off of NASCAR broadcasts, or it wouldn't be worth the millions paid to NASCAR for the rights to broadcast the races. And if we stop watching, the people making money off it now won't.
The ads even overlap, as the "Gatorade Victory Lane" printed across the surface of the actual Victory Lane at Watkins Glen International was partly obscured by the "Pennzoil Victory Lane" logo on the broadcast screen. I've actually seen ARCA races referred to as one thing locally & officially and another thing on the broadcast. We can see the evidence of how lucrative these broadcasts can be, especially when they block out a good portion if the screen (another major issue earlier this year, I forget which broadcast it was).
But if the races become too annoying to watch, people won't. If they don't care enough to watch the races on TV, you can bet they won't care enough to drop $100 on a trip to the racetrack, the sagging ratings will affect ad rates, which will in turn make NASCAR less attractive to the networks, who will offer less money in the future for the broadcast rights. They're sacrificing future growth for squeezing every dime out of it that they can now. And why not? Each broadcaster only has a segment of the season, then it's off to another network to rebuild the audience.
What's so bad about it these days?
First of all, it's not entirely the quantity of commercials that annoy me, it's the quality and the repetition. I never mind commercial breaks during the Super Bowl, because they're all new and sometimes really good. Seeing the same dumbass joke that wasn't funny the first time for the 100th time in a month is just the sort of thing that makes me follow the action on Twitter and only turn on the TV when I really want to see a replay.
Secondly, I understand what Darrell Waltrip says from a driver's perspective that no two tracks are alike, but to most people watching on TV a mile and a half track looks just like the mile and a half track from the week before. Those who have to be at the track every week and know each track's cracks and bumps like their own driveway might not understand the "casual fan" perspective that half the tracks look the same.
Speaking of Darrell Waltrip, what's he been up to lately? We could use a little consistency out here in TV-land. I miss him!
This was my race-day experience yesterday finding the Watkins Glen race: Oooh, there's a race on today. Well, I know Fox is over for the year, let's try TNT. Nope. Which regular broadcast network is TNT connected to, maybe it's there? Check them all...nope. Is it on later? Check TNT again...nope. Let's see...Speed isn't still playing their prerace, are they? Page up from TNT to Speed...oh, THERE they are, on ESPN. I thought ESPN just did the Nationwide broadcasts.
I know they're pulling in more money this way, but I doubt the France family would suffer if there was just a little more consistency in the broadcasts. It's just not right that the undisputed voice of NASCAR only gets to call the first third of the season, and for the rest we're playing hide-and-seek with the race broadcasts.
There is also the particularly non-local nature of national motorsports to consider. It's not the same as the half-at-home schedule of "stick and ball" sports. All the fans in stock-car loving Wisconsin get two nearby Cup races a year, and they're all the way down in Joliet, Illinois. The Green Bay Packers play 8 games a year in Lambeau, not counting the playoffs, and are understandably more focused on the local audience, where fans are most often cheering for the "home team."
Even if tickets to Joliet were $10 and Chicago-style hot dogs at the track were $2, I still wouldn't expect someone from Texas to make the trip. For most fans outside of the Carolinas, there are two or three or sometimes NO home races on the schedule and anywhere from 33-36 away races that are just out if reach for a weekend trip. Even if I spent a thousand bucks a year to take the whole family to both Joliet races that still leaves 34 point races and four exhibition races out of our area. The television quality matters.
And if I can't stand watching it on TV, am I going to care enough about the sport to drop that thousand bucks on seeing it in person? Probably not.
It was a hard lesson learned here in Illinois by the Chicago Blackhawks and the Wirtz family. In the 1990's, Bill Wirtz didn't have a broadcast deal for the Hawks, believing that if people could get it free they wouldn't buy tickets to the games. Of course, when nobody could follow the team, few cared enough to buy the overpriced tickets. A kid in The Chicago suburbs who loved hockey but couldn't afford tickets to anybody's games grew up a Red Wings fan, as Wings owner Mike Illitch was much more fan friendly.
It took until about 2003 if I remember correctly before Wirtz realized that he wasn't losing ticket sales when the Blackhawks were playing in Vancouver and Chicago area fans could watch away games. Bill's body wasn't all the way cold yet when his son announced the Hawks home games would be broadcast under his ownership, and the Blackhawks soon regained its place as one of Chicago'a most cherished institutions even before winning the first of two championships in this era.
The lesson for NASCAR? Stop looking at accounting spreadsheets and royalty contracts when making decisions...do what creates the best experience for the fans, and not only will they not blink at ticket prices when the events are epic ($5,000 on the glass for the Hawks finals this year from what I heard...and no problems filling those seats), but they'll go out of their way to find a way to give you their money.
If this means taking less on a television deal to limit advertising, know that happy fans will make up for it in the merchandising column of the ledger. Get people so excited about the races they can't get to see in person that the few local races they do have are "must-see" events, and if they can't attend an event at least their basement looks like a room at the RCR race shop.
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