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NASCAR no help to networks

© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 30, 2001

Networks expect to lose money when ratings sag, but how about when they climb to unprecedented levels?

That's what happened this year to Fox, NBC and Turner Sports, which reportedly lost a combined $100-million-plus during what would otherwise be considered a wildly successful NASCAR Winston Cup season.

A report this week by Street and Smith's Sports Business Journal illustrates how difficult it has become in the struggling economy for networks to sell enough ads to make ends meet. In a sports landscape where declining ratings are the norm, overall ratings for NASCAR were up 25 percent. Yet all three of NASCAR's broadcast partners lost significant money during the first year of a six-year, nearly $2.5-billion contract.

Networks would not comment on their total losses, but Sports Business Journal reported NBC and Turner lost about $50-million between them, and Fox lost more. The reasons were not just due to the economy, but the volume of ads the networks needed to sell -- for 26 races compared with nine in 2000 -- and the asking price for those ads.

Ads cost twice what they had in previous years, and "some of the traditional advertisers were priced out of the market," said Mike Bartelli of the sports marketing agency Millsport.

Not surprisingly, networks predicted a rosier picture for next season, now that they have sparkling ratings to show advertisers.

MNF RATINGS: The Bucs-Rams game earned a 12.2 rating nationally, the second-highest Monday Night Football rating of the season. (One ratings point equals 1 percent of U.S. households with televisions.) Interestingly, the Bucs' upset of St. Louis drew fewer viewers locally than the previous week's loss to the Bears on a Sunday afternoon. The local MNF rating was 29.8 compared with 34.4 for the Bears game.

FUZZY MATH?: Given that throwing gobs of money at a league to gain broadcast rights no longer seems to automatically benefit the top-bidding network, it's hard to figure what the folks at Fox Sports Net were thinking when they signed a 10-year deal to air ACC basketball games on Sunday nights.

FSN president Tracy Dolgin declined to say Thursday how much the contract cost, but called it "a substantial cost reflecting the value of the conference." That sounds like too much money. Now -- perhaps partly out of desperation? -- the folks at Fox Sports Net are trying to turn ACC Sunday night basketball into an "event," with a "completely different way of looking at college basketball," Dolgin said.

The idea is to make fans feel like they are in the arena, with an emphasis on the league's rivalries. Plans include a roaming camera to capture views from the stands. A "guest alumni commentator" will weigh in with a rah-rah look at what it was like to play in the ACC.

And, coordinating producer Roy Hamilton added helpfully, "one thing we really want to emphasize that's a little different is that they're student-athletes. They've excelled academically. We want to not just focus on the star player, but the 10th player that's on their team."

ACC's Sunday night basketball starts this weekend with a doubleheader beginning at 6 (North Carolina-Georgia Tech followed by Duke-Clemson). Note that in Florida, all games will air on the Fox-owned Sunshine Network and not Fox Sports Net Florida, which is rather confusingly owned by Rainbow Media.

GATOR TALK: Florida fans might want to tune in to ESPN'sSportsCenter at 6 p.m. Monday. For the first time, the network has exclusive rights to announce the finalists for the Heisman Trophy. Save for a multi-interception collapse against Tennessee, Gators quarterback Rex Grossman is a leading candidate. ... For the sixth time, ESPN's College GameDay will broadcast live from outside Florida Field in Gainesville.

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