Media Column: NASCAR on NBC; 30 for 30 Schedule; NFL Network Moves

Comcast NBC

This is a (hopefully) weekly column: A series of sports media-related stories and news, with some videos and links to stories I thought were interesting over the previous week. For those of you who follow sports media like I do, you’ll know the weekly Media Circus column on Sports Illustrated’s website written by their phenomenal media writer Richard Deitsch. Think of my column as a Deitsch-ian offset. A much less professional (See: Tagline of my site) version of his weekly piece, without all of the sources and connections and actual news-gathering abilities and skills. But other than that, it’s exactly the same.

So, in the style of Deitsch’s column and Peter King’s massive Monday Morning Quarterback columns, I’ll number each story with corresponding 1a, 2b, etc. to connect each story together instead of having a cluster of stories all merging into one word jumble.

Here goes nothing.

1. The NBC Sports Group has signed a 10-year, $4.4 billion deal with NASCAR, starting in 2015. NBC purchased the rights for 20 Sprint Cup races (half of the NASCAR season) and will air seven on NBC, with the remaining 13 airing on NBC Sports Network. The Group also purchased the rights for 19 Nationwide Series races and will air four on NBC and 15 on NBC Sports Network. Like NBC’s Formula 1 coverage, each race will be made available on their “TV Everywhere” package, meaning that all races can be viewed live online, on phones and on tablets for free.

“Over the past two and a half years, we have set forth, since Comcast bought NBC, to renew and acquire properties,” NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus said on a conference call with the media, July 23. “We’ve done a significant amount of deals in that time period, but this is one that we’ve really been focused on … the fact that we are going to be working with all of those NASCAR constituencies to build content for NBC, NBC Sports Network, our regional sports networks, the quantity of content that this deal provides and the quality of content that this provides is really a game changer for us for our entire group, and we can’t wait to get started.”

This was a big victory for the Group who has recently lost bidding wars for Major League Baseball and college football. It also gives their struggling cable network some content that doesn’t air at 5 a.m. like F1 does. But why would NASCAR choose NBC over ESPN, which is seen by millions? Money helped, but with NBC’s lineup of niche sports, many being international – Tour de France, F1, English Premier League soccer – it can give NASCAR a prime position where ESPN would prefer a stick or ball sport. It will be interesting, however, to see how ESPN now covers NASCAR. The network is lambasted for its lack of coverage of the NHL, but it is uncertain whether ESPN fails to cover hockey in the same way that they cover the NFL or NBA because it doesn’t get the same ratings or because ESPN doesn’t own the rights to the NHL. It’s probably a bit of both. Regardless of the coverage from other networks, NASCAR can thrive on NBC, which has a need for content and viewers.

ESPN President John Skipper released a statement on the move, July 23: “ESPN has enjoyed a long and mutually beneficial relationship with NASCAR.  We have tremendous respect for the France family, the drivers and all in the sport and wish them well.  We will continue to serve NASCAR fans through SportsCenter and our other news platforms as we continue to enhance our industry-leading collection of quality assets.”

Many would argue, like the Big Lead’s Jason McIntyre, that the only reason ESPN ever promoted NASCAR – having drivers on their shows, covering NASCAR on SportsCenter – was because ESPN owned the rights to the races. With ratings of races dropping and the races being aired on NBC and NBC Sports Network, what incentive does ESPN have to promote a sport that jilted them? Also, ESPN didn’t want to shell out $4.4 billion for a sport that comes sixth on their importance scale when the NBA rights are for sale in two years. Like the Lakers, they had to clear some cap space.

NASCAR took the money and knows that NBC and especially NBC Sports Network will make it one of its top priorities.

“The reality is that you can see what [NBC has] done with the NHL and other properties; they’re in a mode where they’re pulling together all their properties, and non sports properties, as well, and plus the network,” said NASCAR President Brian France, who was also on the conference call to the media. France also responded to the question of whether or not he was worried that the coverage of NASCAR on ESPN would diminish due to NASCAR’s departure from the network, saying, “Obviously you think about all those things, but the reality is they have to cover the big events that people watch every weekend, and you never can predict the future, but we didn’t think that was something that would hold us back from making this deal, that’s for sure.”

Lazarus added that NBC is excellent at taking a sport, sometimes not even a full season of it, in NASCAR’s case, and turning it into a television spectacle.

“What we have found and what we have learned and what I think we’ve demonstrated over the past several years is that when we’re able to have a property, whether it’s a part of a season or an entire season or complete ownership of a property like the Olympics, like the national hockey league, like premier league, like NASCAR, like Formula 1, and we’re able to bring an audience and surround it with content, both on broadcast, on cable, in digital by promoting and marketing using our RSNs, that we’re able to bring a level of awareness to a sport, to a property that is frankly unparalleled equal to or unparalleled in the industry, and that’s what we intend to do with NASCAR,” Lazarus said.

On Sundays in the Fall of 2015, NBC and NBC Sports Network could presumably air a Formula 1 race, multiple English Premier League soccer games and a NASCAR race, all leading up to the biggest show in primetime, Sunday Night Football. That’s not bad.

2. ESPN has announced the fall lineup for its critically-acclaimed documentary series 30 for 30. The new films will air on six consecutive Tuesday nights, starting Oct. 1. The films’ topics range from a Hawaiian big wave surfer, the story of the Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Roberto Duran “No Mas” fight, the Spirits of St. Louis ABA team with their play-by-play man Bob Costas, a Kevin Connolly-directed take on the New York Islanders’ struggles in the mid-90s, the story of Jimmy Connors’ 1991 U.S. Open run and a re-telling of “Tonya and Nancy.”

The movies on this list are all compelling. I mean, who doesn’t like a riled up Jimmy Connors? That’s when tennis – and tennis in America – was exciting. If only we could have that again. It also will be the 20th anniversary of the Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan scandal next year, and the documentary will feature new interviews from both of them. No word yet on a Jeff Gillooly appearance.

[UPDATE: NBC has signed Kerrigan to an exclusive deal that will coincide with the 2014 Winter Olympics. Kerrigan will only give an interview to NBC’s Mary Carillo, not ESPN for their 30 for 30 film.]

Being the age that I am, I’ve only heard about these stories and seen the replays. I know about them (other than the Hawaiian surfer), but I didn’t have the chance to follow them as they were happening. So, to hear the stories from those involved and those that covered it, in the fashion that the 30 for 30 documentaries are presented, is a great experience. Even if the story isn’t necessarily a must-see, 30 for 30 makes it riveting.

Here’s the official schedule. All times Eastern:

Tuesday, Oct. 1, 8 p.m. – Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau

Tuesday, Oct. 8, 8 p.m. – Free Spirits

Tuesday, Oct. 15, 8 p.m. – No Mas

Tuesday, Oct. 22, 8 p.m. – Big Shot

Tuesday, Oct. 29, 8 p.m. – This Is What They Want

Tuesday, Nov. 5, 8 p.m. – Tonya and Nancy

3. Judy Battista of the New York Times has left the paper for the NFL Network, reports Jason McIntyre. New York Times’ own Brian Stelter confirmed the report later the next day. Battista had been with the paper since 1998 and leaves her blog “The Fifth Down” behind, as well. She will contribute columns for NFL.com and appear in an analyst role on NFL Network. This is another blow for the paper recently lost Nate Silver to ESPN. McIntyre points out that along with Silver and Battista, the Times has lost other sportwriters recently: Jonathan Abrams to Grantland in 2011 and Pete Thamel to Sports Illustrated in 2012. These moves may have been for more money, better opportunities or something else, but it does show a pattern of writers leaving, maybe due to a de-emphasis on sports at the Times.

3a. Grantland’s Bryan Curtis wrote this piece on the disappearance of the “Sports of the Times” New York Times sports column.

3b. McIntyre asked if the New York Times’ sports department was to blame for Nate Silver’s departure.

4. Since I moved back to Birmingham from Los Angeles in mid-May, the city has lost two ESPN Radio stations. First, Paul Finebaum declined to renew his contract with local Cumulus-owned JOX 94.5, instituting a media silence from the Mouth of the South and causing JOX to search for other content. In June, Birmingham had two ESPN Radio stations both owned by Summit Media – 107.3 which was purely syndicated ESPN content and 97.3 which had local shows – that have both changed formats in the last month.

“After nearly two years, it became clear the market did not support two competing sports stations,” David DuBose, executive vice president and chief operating office for Summit Media, said at the time, per AL.com. 107.3 changed to a terrestrial version of the great online station “Birmingham Mountain Radio,” an independent college-type station, and 97.3 changed to a “Jack FM” playing everything from Sinatra to Spears with no DJs.

But Paul Finebaum is back, and with ESPN. Of course JOX FM wants their highest rated show back, even if Finebaum didn’t sign a contract with them. But according to AL.com’s Bob Carlton, “WJOX is an affiliate of CBS Sports Radio, and as part of the deal to get Finebaum’s show, Cumulus had to find another station to carry ESPN’s syndicated programming, according to an industry source.”

WAPI 100.5 in Birmingham, which has been a conservative talk station on AM and FM, will be changing formats to ESPN Radio for this deal. Other than Finebaum, WAPI will air syndicated ESPN shows like The Herd with Colin Cowherd and Mike and Mike in the Morning. WAPI will remain a conservative talk station on the AM dial, while ESPN 100.5 and JOX FM will both air Finebaum’s show when he returns on Aug. 12. If only we could get the Dan Patrick Show here. Then, we’d be set.

4a. Speaking of PAWWWWWWWL, here is him talking to South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier and Florida’s Will Muschamp about compensating college players.

5. Former ESPN college football sideline reporter Jenn Brown has signed a deal with the NFL Network. Brown broke the news to the Big Lead’s Jason McIntyre and said that she will host the nightly show NFL Total Access. SI’s Richard Deitsch reported Brown’s departure from the network in early March but she hadn’t found a new job before now. Brown will be the sole host of Total Access during the preseason, while regular host Amber Theoharis is on maternity leave, and will share hosting duties during the NFL season. Brown had been phased out of her ESPN roles by other reporters and obviously felt under-appreciated, leaving the network in March without another job immediately lined up.

6. According to John Ourand and the Sports Business Journal, Fox Sports 1 has been doing some serious local poaching: “NFL Network lost around 12 percent of its production staff in recent months, as around 15 full-time staffers bolted for Fox Sports 1, which is based just two miles away in Los Angeles.”

“Another 10 to 15 permanent freelancers also left for the soon-to-launch channel.” Ourand says that all but three of the vacant NFL Network positions have been filled with talented-sounding people.

6a. On July 26, I wrote about the announced lineup for Fox Sports 1’s SportsCenter combatant “Fox Sports Live” and how great their two anchors Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole are. 

7. Speaking of Los Angeles, any fans of USC or UCLA that watch television with DirecTV shouldn’t hope to see the Cardinal and Gold or Bruin Blue flash across their screen on the Pac-12 Network anytime soon. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said that the conference and DirecTV were at an “impasse,” Friday at Pac-12 Media Days. The two embattled negotiators are no closer to reaching a deal than they were at this time last year, leaving millions of DirecTV – the supposed sports leader as far as television providers go – customers in the dark: 1.4 million in Southern California alone.

In response to Scott’s public blame session of DirecTV, the satellite provider posted a statement on their website:

“DirecTV wants to make Pac-12 Network available to the fans who want it. To do that, Pac-12 either needs to agree to a price to make it affordable for all our customers as we’ve offered and done with dozens of other sports networks, or allow Pac-12 fans to buy the network separately or purchase individual games on demand.

“Unfortunately, Pac-12 has refused all of these options. Regardless, we stand ready to agree to add the network if they propose a deal that’s fair.”

DirecTV spokesman Robert Mercer also responded to Scott’s speech personally, placing the blame on the conference, per the L.A. Times, saying, “The decision is entirely up to the Pac-12. We would love to give the network to those customers who want it as there are a number of things the Pac-12 can do to make it work.

“Either lower the price so that it’s affordable to all of our customers or let us sell the network only to those who want to pay for it. There are many options to make it work. The ball is in their court.”

Basically, if you are a Pac-12 fan – football or otherwise – and you have DirecTV, you should switch providers like Scott urges, go to a sports bar where they don’t have DirecTV, though most do, or find a friend or relative who has cable and can lend you their password so you can watch games online. Bootlegged passwords work for Netflix and HBOgo, why can’t they work for Pac-12 football?

8. Some other notable pieces this week: SB Nation’s David Roth had an outstanding piece this week on Washington Redskins QB Robert Griffin III’s return.

Bryan Curtis is one of my favorites and he did a great job with the story of former Auburn running back Michael Dyer and explaining the mythical factor of “red flags.”

Do you like longform? Do you like Ultimate Frisbee? This is the SB Nation piece written by Robert Weintraub is for you!

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