NASCAR, Building on Domestic Success, Looks Farther Afield

Apr 9, 2007  •  Post A Comment

NASCAR, which rose out of local race tracks in the South and Midwest to become a U.S. television juggernaut, is working on its next expansion.

The National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing lured international driving sensation Juan Pablo Montoya from the Formula One circuit last year, and now it’s being watched in more than 150 countries and broadcast in 32 languages.

Those numbers may jump further this month at the MIP international television market in Cannes, where ESPN International, which has a deal with NASCAR to distribute product outside of North America, will try to persuade more international broadcasters to export the chicken-fried motor sport to new markets.

In the same manner that U.S. soccer is banking on U.K. superstar David Beckham to draw new fans domestically, NASCAR is betting on Mr. Montoya’s Formula One credentials to legitimize oval-track racing overseas.

“The general assumption is that Juan Pablo Montoya is only big in South America or big in the U.S. Hispanic community, but most people don’t realize he’s big throughout the world,” said John Olguin, VP of communications for Chip Ganassi Racing Teams, the team the Colombian-born Mr. Montoya races for. “The only place left for him to become well known is in the U.S.”

NASCAR’s popularity has exploded in the U.S. since 2001, when the organization assumed control of television rights for its races from individual tracks and pulled them under one banner for domestic and international distribution. Domestically, NASCAR has grown to become the second most popular professional sport in television ratings, ranking only behind the National Football League.

Previously, TV rights for the events were handled individually by the racetracks themselves, which resulted in inconsistent production values and different outlets airing the race depending on the week. On top of that, few of the tracks had the resources or initiative to sell the race broadcasts overseas.

That changed when the organization made a banner deal with TV powerhouses such as Fox, TNT and NBC to consistently carry the races on their networks. In 2005, the racing organization renewed its deal through 2014, with Fox carrying the first 13 Nextel Cup races, TNT carrying the next six, and ABC and ESPN broadcasting the final 17 events starting in 2007. The deal was reported to be worth approximately $4.48 billion for the industry. Some analysts project the international broadcast deals soon could add another $1 billion to that amount.

“By offering higher production values, as well as rights to an entire season internationally, that deal was what helped push NASCAR to one of the most popular sports in the country,” said Robbie Weiss, international director for NASCAR.

The initiatives did not go unnoticed by racers and advertisers alike. Toyota entered its first cars into the races, and Mr. Montoya defected from Formula One to compete in NASCAR.

“We didn’t pull together rights for all the races under one roof until 2001, which left us behind some of the other sports out there,” said Mr. Weiss. “But if you fast-forward to five years later, I’d say we’re off to a pretty good start.”

Although U.S. crowds at some races decreased by a third last year, and TV audiences were down during many of the races being telecast, global audiences seem to have made up for that loss.

NASCAR now has established itself as the No. 2 racing series in the world, behind Formula One. To grow overseas, the U.S. racing organization first targeted Canada and Mexico, plus European markets such as Germany and the United Kingdom. In Asia, Japan and China were priorities, as was Brazil in South America. NASCAR now boasts more than 30 international broadcast partners.