FOX ready to change NASCAR television landscape
Now it's NASCAR's turn to be Foxified.
From glowing hockey pucks to the CatcherCam to an announcer working as an official during an NFL preseason game, FOX-TV has never been shy about tinkering with sports coverage, for better and for worse.
With Sunday's Daytona 500 heralding NASCAR's arrival on Fox, did anybody really think the network would leave auto racing telecasts as is?
"Each day, we add a little bit more and a little bit more," FOX race producer Neil Goldberg said. "We want to be cautious, see things and make sure they're accurate. You're going to see a little more at Daytona and that's going to continue throughout the year."
During last weekend's Budweiser Shootout and Thursday's 125-mile qualifying races, viewers had a chance to sample what they might see for the first half of the Winston Cup season.
And immediately there was a flap.
In pre-race graphics for the Shootout, Fox withheld logos of sponsors who didn't buy time on NASCAR telecasts.
The reaction wasn't muted -- sponsors pay up to $15 million a year to have their logos on cars. After prodding from NASCAR, FOX agreed to show every logo, although it still might not be able to Sunday because it didn't have computerized images of all of them.
Otherwise, the most striking change was a running ticker with drivers' names and race positions scrolling atop the screen -- it was more NASDAQ than NASCAR.
Also added: new camera angles (30 total cameras) and enhanced sound during a "Crank It Up" segment.
"We've asked announcers at times to say nothing and we'll just follow the cars around the track for two or three laps," Fox Sports chairman David Hill said. "The sound will tell the story."
As of yet, FOX doesn't plan to use the "No Brakes" coverage that TBS first tried in October, with a picture-in-picture display that kept the race in about 25 percent of the screen during commercials.
One possible addition would be like the bright graphics that seemed to spring from the puck when the network aired NHL games before its five-year contract ended in 1999. Described as a "colored halo," it would be used to mark a particular car as it moved through traffic.
"It may sound a little awkward, and it may look a little awkward at first," said Mike Joy, the former CBS announcer who will lead Fox's broadcast booth, "but it's better than a TeleStrator."
Joy will be joined by Darrell Waltrip, the three-time series champion who in November ended a 29-year driving career, and former crew chief Larry McReynolds.
Under a new TV rights deal, Fox and NBC will each pony up about $200 million a season for NASCAR and split the calendar in half. Fox opens the season; NBC takes over in July.
The deal represents roughly a quadrupling of NASCAR's TV revenue and demonstrates just how far the sport has grown in the past two decades. As recently as 1985, NASCAR received only $3 million for the TV rights to 28 races.
"If we're not comfortable with something, we're not going to go with it," Fox Sports president Ed Goren said. "Give us a little time. Every time we come up with something new, David's fond of saying, 'That's for Year Two, Ed. Slow down.'"
There will be a record 28 Winston Cup events on network TV this season, with another 10 races on cable. Broadcasters will have to decide how much they want to cater to serious racing fans while trying to interest new viewers.
"You really have to serve two constituencies," Joy said. "You do have to appeal to the hard-core fans, giving him the detailed information that he wants. But you also have to make it interesting for the channel surfer and get him to stay."
FOX will air 15 races, while its cable partner, FX, will offer three events live. NBC's coverage starts with the Pepsi 400, the primetime race at Daytona International Speedway on July 7. NBC will have 13 races and TBS gets seven.
That's a change from the old system, where week-to-week it was tough to know where to find NASCAR.
"The mere fact that we have continuity now, that it's regular network programming on Sunday afternoons from the first race in Daytona to the last race in Atlanta -- I'm positive that is going to increase the ratings," Hill said.
The Nielsen numbers for the Shootout were up 25 percent from 2000. Ratings for Winston Cup races on network TV dropped 7 percent last season, but they still left NASCAR better than the regular-season ratings for major league baseball, the NBA and NHL.
Set aside the technical wizardry, and the factor that could draw the most fans is Waltrip, whose down-home style and fresh-off-the-track insight make for star material in any sport.
"One of my goals for the perimeter fan, the causal fan, is to explain to him why we do what we do and how we do what we do," Waltrip said. "All he sees is cars going around -- we need to put some reason to that rhyme."