Welcome to NASCAR, Steve Herbst. Now get ready to negotiate.
This month, Herbst joined NASCAR as vice president of broadcasting, a role that puts him in line to spend the next 18 to 24 months working to secure the sport’s next TV contract. He’ll report to Paul Brooks, the president of NASCAR Media Group and lead executive in NASCAR’s negotiations.
NASCAR signed its current $4.5 billion contract with Fox, ESPN and Turner Sports in 2005. The eight-year agreement began in 2007 and ends in 2014. Based on the previous deal, NASCAR will likely have a deal in place no later than 2013.
The big question in the sport: How much are networks willing to pay NASCAR after years of declining ratings and interest? Though there has been a slight gain in viewers through the early part of the 2011 season, the stock-car set lost nearly a quarter of its TV audience between 2006 and 2010.
It’s no surprise that Herbst and NASCAR are optimistic about their prospects, but so, too, are industry analysts, who point to recent sports deals for the Pac-12 Conference and others as proof of continued momentum for major TV deals.
Exhibit A: Earlier this month, the Pac-10 signed a 12-year, $3 billion contract with Fox and ESPN, an average of $250 million per year. Its former deal was worth $50 million per year.
“Live sports provides something that is unique,” Herbst says. “That last real, reality programming. You don’t know what’s going to happen, week in and week out.”
Mike Trager, a former Clear Channel executive who now works as an industry consultant, says those two factors (recent generous deals and the unique drawing power of sports on TV compared with other programming) are crucial. Beyond that, he points to another factor right now: the Comcast-NBC merger, fueling an appetite for sports TV deals. Comcast bid a reported $235 million for the Pac-10, for example.
For those reasons, he says major sports leagues such as NASCAR will, at minimum, garner flat rights fees from existing deals.
NASCAR Chairman Brian France mentioned the recent success of the Pac-10 in its TV negotiations, as well as the ambitions of Comcast-NBC, recently during an interview session with reporters at Charlotte Motor Speedway. While he stressed that he hopes to stay with the incumbent networks — Fox, Turner and ESPN — his mention of Comcast-NBC is sure to be interpreted as a nudge toward potential competitive bids.
In addition, such a scenario takes on greater intrigue with the recent decision by longtime NBC Sports chief Dick Ebersol to leave the network. His replacement? Mark Lazarus, who is a former Turner executive with extensive experience negotiating and working with NASCAR.
Ratings dips will play a role in what NASCAR gets from the networks, but the bigger factor is competition for sports rights, Trager believes.
“The increased competition is what’s going to set the market,” Trager says. “Anyone who’s negotiating right now has got extra good timing. Who knows what it’s going to be two years from now? Networks want good, solid sports inventory and NASCAR represents that.”
As for NASCAR, “They’ve peaked in terms of ratings (in 2005), but where they’ve settled in is very good,” he adds. “I would think that they’re going to be a desirable commodity.”
Comcast-NBC has yet to say whether it will bid for NASCAR, but, if it does, that scenario is what every sports league dreams of: fresh interest and bidding.
Fox has been with NASCAR since 2001 and its sister network, Speed, serves as a de facto NASCAR channel with highlights shows, documentaries and other related shows. Parent company News Corp. could become more interested with recent news that Fox wants to put more sports on its FX cable network. NASCAR races could find a natural home there.
Turner has aired NASCAR races on a continuous basis longer than any other network and ESPN bid aggressively to get the sport back in 2007 after a 6-year hiatus.
“If the universe stays the way it is now, I would suspect they should be in a pretty decent negotiating position,” Trager says. “Look at what happened with the Pac-10. If they would have negotiated this deal a year ago, I don’t think they would have gotten anywhere near what they got now. Luck and timing is great, especially in this business.”
Herbst comes to NASCAR from CBS College Sports Network (re-named CBS Sports Network in April), where he was general manager. Before that, he spent 19 years at the NBA, including a stint as senior vice president of broadcasting.
Looking at the NASCAR landscape, Herbst says the TV talks are already in informal talks through discussions with the current rights-holders.
“It will be an ongoing scenario, to see where we are with them and where they are with us,” Herbst said. “NASCAR is blessed to have terrific partners. (We want) to really strengthen that relationship and partnership in any way we can.”
Within the sport, Herbst wants to survey executives from tracks and teams to get a better sense of what works and what could be improved.
He declines to get into details on what’s expected in terms of bidders or potential fees.
“What I’ll say is every sport goes through cycles and what we’re seeing now — a new and positive uptick — everything is pointing up. That’s a really good sign. The competitive racing is there every week.”