Tuesday, December 20, 2011

NASCAR Discovers The Internet

Since 2007 we have been taking aim at one of the worst media contracts in all of professional sports. Over a decade ago, NASCAR sold the total online (digital) rights of the entire sport to Atlanta-based Turner Sports.

Originally part of the NASCAR mindset to maximize profit from the sale of exclusive content, it quickly became apparent that having a third party in charge of the sport's Internet presence was a mistake. Over the past few years, that mistake has turned into a disaster.

Online technology has become a key element for the other professional sports in North America. Recently, the basic offerings of website content and live video have been bolstered by the rapid growth of social media and the technology that comes with it. Digital strategy can now make or break a sport.

Sports Business Journal reporters Tripp Mickle and Jon Ourand broke a story this week that NASCAR had done the unthinkable. Long since governed by the motto that NASCAR cashes checks but never writes them, the sanctioning body seems to be ready to dip into the checking account and buy back its own online rights from Turner.

The SBJ reporters offer that a deal to end the current agreement two years early and have NASCAR back in charge by the 2013 season would wind up costing tens of millions of dollars. Ultimately, it has seemed all along that cash is king for Turner.

While the obvious starting point is the movement of the NASCAR.com website operations to NASCAR's headquarters in Charlotte, that is only the tip of the digital iceberg. The TV networks that will be negotiating in 2012 for rights to races beginning in 2015 need assurance that online streaming of that content is in play.

The current TV deal is NASCAR's cash cow with over four billion dollars changing hands in the current eight year agreement. That money is before any TV network even rolls a production truck, puts out one camera or hires one announcer. Four billion is just for the opportunity to show the races.

Hardcore fans know the real problems. NASCAR.com has been a mess for years and allowed websites like Jayski.com to thrive amid the continuing confusion and constant redesigns being done by Turner. The current version of NASCAR.com is perhaps the worst yet.

NASCAR itself has never been able to stream live race telecasts, radio content or video of any kind. NASCAR's current TV partners have also been restricted in digital applications, even on the websites of the very networks who combined for the current big money TV deal.

This is the right move at the right time and it makes sense for all the parties involved. The big issue on the table is the damage that has already been done. Even as the Sprint commercials on TV suggest that live video of races is available, it has never been. Younger sports fans have never been able to access NASCAR content like the other pro sports.

Secondary to a deal like this is the ability of NASCAR to branch out and address issues that have also been on hold for years. SiriusXM's NASCAR channel has a tiny audience right now of hardcore fans who listen on satellite receivers of all types. NASCAR in charge would clear the way for online streaming to smart phones, tablets and laptops.

While NASCAR's history might be on display at the Hall of Fame, it cannot be viewed anywhere online. Controlling digital rights would allow entire programs to be made available to fans via websites like Hulu, YouTube and NASCAR.com.

"30 Minutes You'll Never Get Back" is a NASCAR.com webcast featuring Rutledge Wood and Kyle Petty on Sprint Cup Series weekends from the track. These two knuckleheads act like fools, talk to NASCAR personalities and generally try to get away with everything they cannot on TV. Fans love it.

Originating live video from the tracks can be as simple as a garage camera with sound or a full-scale production of preview, review or interview shows. Establishing an online production department within the NASCAR Media Group is a clear priority.

Scott Ackerson, a FOX Sports veteran executive from Los Angeles, has been named the interim head of SPEED. One of Ackerson's roles will be to oversee the continued integration of SPEED's TV programs online via the NASCAR.com website.

SPEED is NASCAR's largest TV production partner and has taken the lead over the last few years in expanding the programs being offered in the digital space. Giving fans the ability to keep up with practice, qualifying and the news programs like NASCAR Live via smart phone, tablet or laptop is so very important right now.

Once NASCAR is in charge of online offerings, expect SPEED to play a key role in advancing the integration of existing TV programs onto the Internet. Hopefully, Ackerson will see the opportunity for a strategic partnership that will bring benefits to both SPEED and NASCAR for years to come.

Finally, control of NASCAR's social media would revert back to the sanctioning body. It's been tough to deal with Turner controlling Facebook and Twitter content for the sport. The tension between Atlanta and Charlotte on those issues could be cut with a knife.

The SBJ reporters got a no comment from both Turner and NASCAR, but suggested the deal would be done and announced sooner than later. Thanks to Mickle and Ourand for some solid reporting on this issue. The original story was posted on the subscriber-only Sports Business Daily website. If a legal link becomes available to the full article, it will be added to this post.

We want your comments on NASCAR's online situation. To add your opinion on this topic, just click on the comments button below. Thank you for taking the time to stop by The Daly Planet.