Did television and greater sponsor exposure push the Labor Day date for the storied Southe
NASCAR hit the airwaves in 1961 when a filmed segment of the Firecracker 400 at Daytona was shown on ABC's Wide World of Sports. CBS did the first live, flag-to-flag coverage of the Daytona 500 in 1979, and the advent of ESPN gave NASCAR a platform to regularly broadcast its events, beginning in the early '80s. Cable television became a reality for millions of Americans, and by the middle of the decade, NASCAR races could be seen on ESPN, TNN, and WTBS. Along with the network telecasts, the entire NASCAR schedule was on television each week, fueling a growth curve that propels NASCAR today.
Television deals during that time were handled as an independent contract between the track and the network. NASCAR allowed this arrangement to exist until the late '90s when it saw television revenue-sharing models were making tons of money for Major League Baseball, the NFL, NHL, and NBA. NASCAR hit the television jackpot in 1999 when it convinced all the tracks to sell their rights together in a single package. The result was a new television deal with Fox, NBC, FX, and TBS reported to be worth $2.4 billion. Old partners ESPN, ABC, and CBS were left behind. Meanwhile, NASCAR launched its own channel, Speed, which is run in conjunction with Fox Sports.
While the Fox/NBC television association tilted the register for NASCAR and its track owners, it has also changed the sport in multiple ways. The television networks, most notably Fox, were and are determined to get a return on their investments. To do that, NASCAR had to become more sellable.
The first thing out the door was the country music connection. NASCAR has always been proud of its Southern, country roots. The new generation of NASCAR fans that Fox, NBC, and NASCAR wanted to reach, however, were national and global in scope.
The look and feel of race telecasts quickly changed. Telecasts are now spiced with video game-like graphics, MTV-style cuts, and videos driven by rock music and personality profiles. NASCAR programming skyrocketed and is now broadcast in more than 150 countries worldwide in 23 different languages each week. That's a lot of juice pointed squarely at the youth market.
An on-track youth movement, powered in large part by companies looking for young drivers to market products to their customers, has team owners scrambling to hire young, marketable drivers. Meanwhile, experienced, veteran drivers have shuffled off for limited financial and competitive opportunities in the Busch and Truck Series ranks.
The new television accord also changed things for sponsors and potential marketers. Previous NASCAR television associations were considered partnerships, and as such, the announcers and producers would go to great lengths to make sure everyone in the race got multiple sponsor plugs. Acknowledgments and in-focus television were golden to the sponsors.
When Fox became a NASCAR television partner, it served notice immediately that the practice of mentioning sponsors during race telecasts was going to stop. Only companies who purchased advertising time in the telecasts would receive appropriate recognition. On its first event telecast, Fox blurred the sponsors' logos on the hoods of the cars in the pre-race intro package. There would no longer be any glib sponsor mentions from the booth. This was all valuable advertising time, and someone was going to pay.
Fortunately, this nonsense was quickly struck down, but it did lead to some companies-Home Depot, NAPA, Budweiser, and several others-purchasing large blocks of commercial time in the telecasts. That has led some to use the term plugola for the type of sponsor mentions used in today's shows.
Other in-telecast ad ploys, such as in-car cameras, framing the screen, and having an announcer do a VO (voice-over) to the pictures touting the latest sponsor product, are employed to add commercial value to the race. Between the long cautions and the promotions, some televised NASCAR events today seem at times to be little more than wall-to-wall ads with some racing sprinkled in.
Most importantly, television has also changed the landscape of where and when NASCAR races will be run. Television fueled the drive to take an iconic event like the Southern 500-a Labor Day tradition at NASCAR's oldest speedway-and switch it to a Saturday night, prime-time television event at California Speedway. Bright lights and Los Angeles, or rebel flags and Darlington, South Carolina? An easy choice from a marketing standpoint.