Friday's announcement of the 2014-'18 United SportsCar Racing television package provided one of the three pillars sports car fans and USCR entrants/manufacturers had been anxiously awaiting.
The 2014 USCR schedule and the technical regulations for the combined ALMS/Grand-Am series will soon complete the trifecta, but for now, the new five-year television contract is the primary topic to explore.
There are many positives to come from the USCR appearing exclusively on Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2, and there are also some undeniable negatives that could take a few years to overcome. RACER spoke with USCR CEO Ed Bennett and series COO Scott Atherton (in front of Road America's combined ALMS/Grand-Am grid at a Road America photo-call, BELOW) about the pros and cons of the upcoming TV deal, starting with their choice of Fox instead of ABC/ESPN or NBC/NBCSN.
RACER: This contract offers continuity for both series to either stay with or return to Fox/SPEED with FS1 and FS2, but does it present a chance for growth? Is there an expectation for sports car racing's audience to grow with SPEED converting to a 24-hour sports news and entertainment channel?
BENNETT: We certainly think the Fox Sports group – the quality and presentation – will be able to promote that United SportsCar will be on their channels and it's a powerful thing for us. It being a different neighborhood with a bunch of significant sports properties, we think it's a good thing for us. They'll have strong distribution, and they're one of the best in the business. We're confident they'll do a good job for us.
ATHERTON: If you look at the quality of programming they'll have on Fox Sports 1, and the relationship with NASCAR they have, it's hard not to expect to benefit from it – from having premium sports programming with fresh eyeballs and fresh opportunities in terms of building a fan base. That's something none of us have had unless we were on ABC or ESPN recently [with the ALMS series]. Within the SPEED environment, you're preaching to a motorsports fan, which has worked out tremendously well for all of us. We're all looking forward to benefiting from a broader section of fans [on FS1]. If you look at all of the NASCAR properties that will be there, if you add in sports car racing, I think it will be a synergistic relationship that will benefit everybody.
RACER: Part of the agreement involves digital rights for all of the series sanctioned under the IMSA banner. We've had live streaming for both series dating back to 2009 on various websites, and there are also a number of IMSA series outside of the USCR and Continental Tire Series that could benefit from digital delivery. How can you leverage those online rights going forward?
ATHERTON: We're not yet in a position to put any details behind our other series. The reference you see in the announcement is a placeholder with more details to follow for what's to come. There's a lot of changes happening through digital devices – tablets, laptops, cellular phones and other media devices. We're going to be there, and in a very significant way.
NASCAR has been at the forefront there, and there's a huge infrastructure that's in place that we can leverage. NASCAR productions, which will be producing these [USCR] shows, opens up a whole other litany of opportunities for us. We have some exciting announcements coming on our future web presence, so stay tuned.
BENNETT: There's clearly a desire to play in the digital space. One new [live streaming] product they're unveiling is Fox Sports Go, and at the same time, where does the sanctioning body's website fit into that mix that works with the Fox partnership and also the cable providers? The [online streaming] authentication [process] – that's part of the puzzle and I think they're working on having that significantly simplified to make it easy for fans once they go through the sign-on process.
RACER: It's not the series' responsibility to hire the broadcast hosts and pit reporters that will appear next year, but do you have a feeling for how similar or familiar the faces might be when people tune in for the Rolex 24?
ATHERTON: No decisions have been made there. I would say, though, that – like our fan base – we too have a very high regard for the on-air talent that has developed with us, and we all know who we're referring to, and we'd like to keep the band together, but no decisions have been made as of today. That's still on the to-do list, but we're going right back to working on technical regulations, the schedule, sponsorships and partnerships and everything else we're hard at work on.
RACER: The ratings that the ALMS rebroadcasts on ABC have generated is something manufacturers and sponsors have been quite happy with. It's a big number – they've loved those numbers. But I don't think we're going to see those numbers on Fox Sports 1 or Fox Sports 2. Do you see losing those bigger ratings as a hindrance to your teams and manufacturers? Have you walked them through this?
ATHERTON: For obvious reason – and it's not a fair comparison to match up cable [ratings] with terrestrial [ratings] – the opportunity to place United SportsCar Racing on [broadcast] network does exist, but the opportunity will largely be contingent on our stakeholders wanting that kind of placement, and collectively, all of us, working together to make that happen.
BENNETT: We're happy with the baseline package with Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2, but the chance to improve that with our manufacturers and sponsors is something we're eager to explore and to see if the ecosystem will support it.
RACER: With Fox Sports 1 having so much programming to show, Fox Sports 2, the current FUEL channel, will also host USCR events. But by the number of households, by the ratings and by the overall awareness, almost no one knows it exists. As someone who has a long history with Fox, I've never actually seen FUEL because it's not offered where I live, and I'm in a fairly large metro. It's not an option that's going to generate meaningful ratings until its presence is increased – is there any way to mitigate the limited awareness for a channel that's in its infancy?
BENNETT: Fox has an incredible record of building its awareness over time, and with FS1 and FS2, everything I've read says they will aggressively seek to grow distribution and we have every confidence in the world they can do that.
I think this goes far beyond rebranding a channel. It's a part of a much larger strategy for them. Our first race is in January, and with all the distribution stuff, me personally, I'm not uncomfortable that they're not going to make significant gains and I think we'll be very proud to be part of that family.
ATHERTON: While it won't be applicable to every example, there will be re-airs of original content from Fox Sports 2 on Fox Sports 1 within a reasonable amount of time after the event, and it won't be middle-of-the-night, crack-of-dawn re-airs. The other thing I don't want to see missed from the prognostication from today's announcement is that this is a five-year deal, and if history is our guide, every endeavor Fox has gotten involved with, they have put the resources and leverage in place to make it work. I believe – like we all believe – Fox Sports 1 is going to expand its reach and become a premier example like ESPN. You can rest assured our TV experts have had these conversations with what Fox is planning to do, and we have a very strong, positive perspective of this relationship and what it can do.