Plenty of internet bandwidth has been spent discussing how ESPN allegedly “destroyed”* the NHL when it parted ways with the hockey league after the 2005 lockout. ESPN, with no investment in the sport, barely covered hockey on its network and you needed a search and rescue team to find highlights on Sportscenter. The Stanley Cup, once split between Fox and ABC, was now relegated to Versus and NBC, and TV ratings plunged. Hockey was barely part of the national sports conversation in the 5-6 years after getting dropped by ESPN.
After Tuesday’s monumental ESPN decision to let NBC take NASCAR, the obvious question becomes: Will NASCAR suffer the same fate as the NHL?
I’m not a NASCAR guy. I don’t watch the races. The only reason I’m dimly aware of the drivers? Because ESPN promotes the hell out of them. I’ve often been in the car for the tail end of the Mike & Mike morning radio show, and in an odd twist, I’d notice that around 9:50, a NASCAR driver would randomly jump on the phone for an interview. Hmmmm. That’s odd, I thought. (And then I’d change the station.)
Eventually, it hit me – this is some blatant cross-promotion! People at ESPN have told me that Mike Golic only watches football, and Mike Greenberg goes to bed at 9 pm and never watches sports at night, so there’s zero chance these guys ever watch NASCAR. No shot they’re familiar with Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick. But ESPN won – it got me at least thinking about NASCAR, despite how fleeting that thought was.
Those radio interviews will be coming to a screeching halt in 2015, perhaps sooner. How much NASCAR will be on PTI? How long does ESPN wait before shelving NASCAR Now, a show it had buried on the network in recent years? Here’s the statement from ESPN President John Skipper:
ESPN has enjoyed a long and mutually beneficial relationship with NASCAR. We have tremendous respect for the France family, the drivers and all in the sport and wish them well. We will continue to serve NASCAR fans through SportsCenter and our other news platforms as we continue to enhance our industry-leading collection of quality assets. “We are looking forward to the start of our Sprint Cup season and will continue with our deep commitment to the highest quality coverage.”
NASCAR fans I’ve spoken with on the issue seem split – ESPN didn’t do a great job with the sport anyway, and it was de-emphasized going against football in the Fall, so perhaps NBC will do a better job. I had to stop them – NBC Sports Network. Do you even have that channel? What about Fox Sports 1? (NASCAR is doing well on FOX.) Let’s hope NBC Sports is available in the deep south, where NASCAR is most popular. The AP’s Jenna Fryer writes that the breakdown will be like this:
NBC will air seven Cup races, while 13 will be on the NBC Sports Network. The Nationwide Series will have four events on NBC and 15 on NBC Sports Network.
According to ESPN sources, NASCAR ratings were sliding, and this move was in the works for awhile. A decade ago, NASCAR rated well on TV in major markets. That’s not the case anymore. (Exact numbers were not available, but Sports Business Daily reported NASCAR ratings bottomed out for Turner this year.) Here’s the thing – MLB ratings have been down for ESPN, too. But last year, when MLB was negotiating a new TV deal, ESPN just couldn’t let MLB slip into the hands of NBC or Fox. In the summer, when all sports channels are hurting for content, ESPN needs something to put on TV nightly, and MLB games – even if very few people are watching – are content. In the ongoing content battle between Fox and NBC, that was one ESPN couldn’t lose. So it paid handsomely to retain MLB.
Related: Nate Silver is Leaving The New York Times For ESPN
Related: Keith Olbermann to Host Sportscenter For a Week Starting August 19th, a Week Before His New Show Begins on ESPN2?
* Linkage, in case you feel like reading about it. Also here.