After missing out on almost every major sports rights deal in recent months, NBC's opportunities to add a widely watched sport to their portfolio are fleeting. One of the last rights deals up in the near future is NASCAR's agreements with ESPN and Turner. After agreeing to an extension with Fox on the first 13 races of the season through 2022, NASCAR's contract with Turner and ESPN for the final 23 races is set to expire later this year. NBC, which aired NASCAR races from 1999-2005, may be in the running to bring the sport back to the peacock. From John Ourand in Sports Business Journal, NASCAR is reportedly "warming" to the prospect of returning to NBC…
"Privately, network executives last week expressed concern about NASCAR’s TV performance, which last season posted its lowest viewership numbers for its current deals. The 2012 races averaged 5.79 million viewers, which was down 10 percent from the previous year. ESPN is less concerned with the Nationwide Series, which draws fewer viewers (an average of 1.99 million watched 32 races last season), but has been growing.
There is one big reason why ESPN and Turner may try to do deals before their exclusive negotiating windows end: NBC is waiting in the wings and has made no secret of its desire to partner with the racing circuit. NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus has a long history with NASCAR, having worked with the group during stints at Turner Sports and CSE. Sources said NASCAR also is warming to the idea of working with NBC.
The biggest question deals with the number of packages NASCAR plans to sell. Currently, Fox has 13 races, Turner has six and ESPN has 17. There’s a chance NASCAR may combine the Turner and ESPN packages, sources say."
Although there's optimism with rising ratings for this year's Daytona 500 and the presence of Danica Patrick, NASCAR's ratings have been trending downwards the last several years. However, the sport still represents a big draw on television in spite of slipping ratings. NBC would crawl through the desert for an audience of 5 or 6 million viewers every week for four months. Could you imagine what just a few NASCAR races on NBC Sports Network could do for that channel? Its numbers would blow the NHL out of the water. Furthermore, NBC has already added Formula One for NBC Sports Network, so bringing back NASCAR would be in line with the network's strategy and further cement the auto racing base with Speed soon going by the wayside.
The question is whether or not NBC has the opportunity to make a bid for NASCAR at all. ESPN could look to team up with another rival to lock out NBC once again in their exclusive negotiating window. Just like we saw with the Big East, NBC's fate largely lies in the hands of ESPN. But even if they do get the chance, they may look to play it conservatively once again and show financial caution instead of spending big for sports rights. So far NBC has looked at sports that can be seen as smart buys instead of drawing in huge audiences (NHL, MLS, EPL, F1). It's a dilemma that has hung over NBC and NBC Sports Network since its launch.