Commentary: Follow That Car

<i>By Dan Liebman</i> - But just imagine if the owner of every racetrack in North America could agree to do what is best for the sport overall, realizing what is best for all is best for one.

Do yourself a favor. Pick up the June 11 issue of Newsweek and read the single-page column “Turning Points” written by Brian France, the CEO of NASCAR.

You know NASCAR, the sport that has grown its fan base and marketing profile substantially while Thoroughbred racing struggles in the same areas. You can claim it is because horse racing is tied to gambling, but many NASCAR fans gamble, though not on our product. They purchase lottery tickets, play bingo, and drop cash into the very slot machines that prop up racing in many jurisdictions.

This article comes just a month after the lead story May 13 on CBS Sunday Morning titled “NASCAR Moms,” which examined why, over the past three years, the sport of stock car racing, long male-dominated, has seen a huge influx of female fans. The women like the drivers, enjoy the atmosphere that has become more family oriented, and actually like the decibel level, which they find exhillarating.

A cottage industry has sprung up of NASCAR merchandise geared strictly to women. All of this has been made possible by what France describes in his article.

According to France, NASCAR always owned its media rights but until 2001, each track was allowed to negotiate the terms for its own races.

France, then NASCAR’s marketing chief, approached his father, Bill France Jr. (who died June 4), about negotiating a nationwide television deal.

“…I knew that if we consolidated the broadcasts to make it easier for fans to watch races, we could vastly improve the sport,” Brian France said.

His father, who led NASCAR from 1972 to 2003, gave the go-ahead, but told his son, “Negotiating a deal like this would require guile, diplomacy, and genuine toughness.”

France and his team hit the road, holding individual meetings with the 20 track operators who ran the sport’s 33 “premier events.” They discussed his strategy for the future, which emphasized a television package negotiated by NASCAR that would benefit not only the organization, but the entire sport. In other words, a win-win for the tracks and their governing body. The tracks would receive 65% of the revenue, while the teams and drivers would get 25% and NASCAR 10%.

The key was that by bundling the races in one package, the pool of money would be much larger.

France invited the networks to New York to make their final offers, after which a deal was signed to begin broadcasting the races in 2001 on FOX, NBC, FX, and TNT.

Brian France, not then 40 years old, had brokered a deal to unify his family’s sport, making individual owners with varied interests realize what was best for the sport as a whole had to also be best for them. Suddenly, as France explained, “We instantly reached a broader audience,” and morphed from “a haphazard schedule of mostly cable broadcasts to a coordinated schedule that airs primarily on broadcast television.”

Today, a new NASCAR television package has the races on FOX, Turner, and ABC/ESPN.

NASCAR, France points out, is the “second most-popular regular-season sport on network and cable television.”

Compare this to Thoroughbred racing, which cannot even secure a sponsor for its main event, the Triple Crown, and has the three races split between two networks.

Our sport is much more complicated than NASCAR, with issues ranging from off-shore wagering and medication to who will run racing in New York and obtain alternative gaming.

But just imagine if the owner of every racetrack in North America could agree to do what is best for the sport overall, realizing what is best for all is best for one. Think of one network carrying every race televised across the continent with a cohesive schedule understood by fans.

Want a keynote speaker for the Jockey Club Round Table or Arizona Symposium? Get Brian France.