Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A Changing Of The Guard At FOX Sports

As the story goes, Humpy Wheeler's daughter Patti introduced Aussie David Hill to the sport of NASCAR. Hill was under orders from News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch to plant the FOX Sports flag in the states. Hill took one look at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, the loyal fans and the spectacle of 43 cars at high speed and was hooked.

The result was a franchise called "NASCAR on FOX." Familiar TV faces like Darrell Waltrip, Larry McReynolds and Jeff Hammond have Hill to thank for their careers after racing. The sport has Hill to thank for coming along at a key moment in NASCAR history and as they say, "growing the franchise."

Sports Emmy awards followed and Hill expanded the FOX Sports brand far beyond the world of NASCAR. The colorful Hill was a marked contrast to the monochrome network sports executives who prowl the mean streets of New York City. Hill decided to set-up shop in Los Angeles, have an adult beverage or two and speak his mind.

After more than a decade at the helm, Hill has most recently been the chairman of the FOX Sports division. Things started to change when a young executive named Eric Shanks left DirecTV and joined FOX Sports as president in June of 2010. Six months later, FOX veteran Randy Freer was named co-president of the newly formed FOX Sports Media Group with Shanks.

These two would now be in charge of all the networks, brands and digital properties involved with FOX Sports. The power had shifted to a different generation of executives who spoke the digital language and were concerned with brand marketing and image. The handwriting was on the wall.

Monday it was made official that Hill was moving on. He will become an Executive Vice President of News Corp. itself. Hill will be working on international projects and new business. For the first time since he came across the pond, David Hill's influence will be gone from FOX sports.

Hill was also key to establishing SPEED in Charlotte, NC and pushing for it to become the official NASCAR TV Network. While that part of the plan did not work out, there is no doubt that the very existence of SPEED is due to its core of NASCAR programming.

Shanks and Freer are said to be actively negotiating with NASCAR on a new TV contract. There have even been hints that FOX wants more Sprint Cup Series races. The key question in the overall equation is the future of SPEED itself. Rumors are swirling that FOX will close SPEED, rebrand it as a general sports cable TV network and use it to chase ESPN in the program rights marketplace.

SPEED currently carries the vast majority of the practice, qualifying and support programming for NASCAR. When there is heavy lifting to be done, from the Hall of Fame to the All-Star Race, NASCAR relies on SPEED. Certainly no new TV contract will be put in place without a strong foundation of what is called "shoulder programming" from SPEED or the newly branded sports network.

While Hill was outspoken and opinionated, the new management duo is focused and calculated. What becomes of FOX Sports, SPEED and the company's relationship with NASCAR will be revealed before this year is out. There are many interested parties waiting for that answer.

While Hill did tinker with start times and bring us Digger, the vast majority of his NASCAR influence revolved around promoting stock car racing to a larger audience. He ushered the sport through an uncertain time with gimmicks like the Hollywood Hotel and created personas like "Ole DW and Larry Mac." There was a time when "NASCAR on FOX" was king.

Hill will remain based in LA, so there is little doubt that Shanks and Freer may wind-up having frequent conversations with the cantankerous Aussie when he thinks of yet another idea that seems perfect for the NASCAR on FOX coverage. Some things will never change.

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