Monday, December 13, 2010

All Quiet On The Western Front

Daytona International Speedway sits quietly. Clad in a new coat of asphalt, the symbol of the sport is ready to greet yet another season. This one, however, is unlike any season before. It's not the changes at the speedway that make it different. It's the inability of the sanctioning body to adapt to the reality of the world around it.

This is year five of a television contract that has been nothing short of a disaster. The sport is also saddled with an official website run by a third party with a different agenda. Televised track activities, including races, are not streamed online. The only NASCAR cell phone app is limited to Sprint Cup Series races and available from only one cell phone company.

In short, the sport is mired in a tangled web of media agreements that are slowly bringing it to a grinding halt. The absolute proof was delivered during the 2010 Chase for the Championship. Great racing, interesting stories and compelling images were lost on a viewing public long since turned off by the other problems.

The silence in the NASCAR press at the moment is driven by the fact that many discussions are now taking place behind the scenes. All of the media contracts that have splintered the television, radio and online coverage still have years to run. None of them are going to be easily changed, but that is exactly what must happen in the next two months.

The thrust of this entire changing media landscape is the word "portability." While it has different meanings, our use is rather basic. Consumers today want the same sports content services available to them as they move from one media device to another.

As a civilization we are rapidly moving away from using traditional media devices like TV sets and radios. Instead of just watching or listening, we now desire what is being called "connected experiences." This means that consumers, especially younger ones, expect to participate and ultimately control their involvement in all types of media.

This is an especially tough challenge for NASCAR. There is only one consumer video choice for the Daytona 500. Fans must access their local FOX TV affiliate and sit in front of the television for more than three hours at a specific time in order to watch the live action.

The pressure is squarely on NASCAR to make Sprint Cup Series races available live online for the entire season. In addition, the practice and qualifying sessions already being televised should also be available over the Internet and on smart phone apps.

Turner Sports, the current online rights holder for all NASCAR content, has already made the RaceBuddy online application familiar to fans. Made available online during the six summer TNT races without charge are additional cameras, a designated pit road reporter and live chat directly connected to multiple social media applications.

In 2011, NASCAR desperately needs to be able to compete on a level of media sophistication with the other major professional sports. The real issue behind declining ratings is not the Chase, the COT, Dale Earnhardt Jr. or any of the other frequent topics heard on a regular basis. NASCAR is simply serving up the same tired television product it did twenty years ago. In today's world, that is not going to cut it.

In order to get on equal footing, NASCAR needs to embrace new media technology in every facet prior to February. Despite the protests of FOX, the Daytona 500 without online streaming and a RaceBuddy-style application is going to begin a cycle that is all too familiar.

Three self-serving television networks each with its own agenda, sales goals and colorful personalities will take a turn in the spotlight. The current NASCAR TV contract is built to serve the TV partners. FOX fills time before the NFL season, TNT keeps its toe in the NASCAR water and ESPN gets to crown the champion.

It might have been good in theory, but the reality of 2010 drove home the point that today's fans want more. Surrounded by laptops, smart phones and iPads in everyday life there is simply no way to pretend that sports TV alone can keep today's younger fan actively involved in a ten month long racing season.

It seems ironic that fans at the track for Sprint Cup Series races can rent Sprint's Fanview unit. This handheld device features live race video, additional camera views and team scanner audio. In addition, users get all the real time driver and race stats. Finally, Fanview can also provide television programming from the TV networks handling the weekend's activities.

NASCAR can put this technology bundle in the hands of the fans at the track, but can't deliver the same package to the millions of fans who are not there. Instead, it's time once again to sit in front of a TV set each weekend from February through November. The extensive user interface for this sophisticated piece of equipment involves making the decision to turn the volume up or down.

We should know what media and technology changes NASCAR has negotiated before Christmas. This is a wonderful opportunity to change the sport forever in a positive way. Wouldn't that be a nice little gift at just the right time.

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