MICHAEL KNIGHT: WHAT LIVE TV MEANS TO DRAG RACING
I’ve wanted it. You’ve wanted it. Now we’ve got it.
Live NHRA Mello Yello series drag racing on ESPN2. The Great Experiment starts with the O’Reilly Auto Parts Spring Nationals at Royal Purple Raceway, near Houston. The final qualifying session will be presented as-it-happens Saturday, April 27, from 3-5 p.m. EDT. On Sunday, the pro class semifinals will go at 2 p.m.
I’ll admit it: I’m a little nervous.
All of us who care about the growth and success of the straight-line sport probably should be. Sure, there’s been live TV racing before (and, other than the U.S. Nationals, it’s not guaranteed there will be more if the Spring Nationals don’t go well), but not in such a calculated way. And, certainly, not with the stakes this high.
The positives are obvious: Try to increase the audience. Honestly, that’s the only reason to even give this a go. In the age of Twitter and other instant communications tools, expecting the public to accept delayed information about anything is as unrealistic as a driver asking Don Schumacher for a $10 million salary.
The numbers, troublingly, prove it.
Through this season’s first three nationals, ratings and viewership are down compared with the same events a year ago. The average rating for the opening trio of eliminations in 2012 was 0.5 with viewership at 644,593 compared with 0.4 and 592,215 in 2013. Qualifying at those 2012 races averaged 0.2 and 303,108 vs. 0.2 and 268,406 this year.
Not surprisingly, Pomona’s season opener -- with Courtney Force’s win and Antron Brown’s crash -- topped the charts with a 0.5 race rating and 667,569 viewers. Not surprisingly, Firebird was the lowest at 0.4 and 538,939. (Which should be yet another notice to NHRA to never again race on Daytona 500 weekend.)
This at a time when NASCAR’s Sprint Cup TV numbers have been trending upward. Even IndyCar’s season debut showed growth. So, yes, and make no mistake about it, NHRA’s status quo is unacceptable and live TV must be made to work.
The pitfalls, though, too are obvious: Rain. An Exxon Valdez-esque oil down. Teams unable to meet the 50-minute turnaround time. NHRA ain’t NASCAR, which can overcome lengthy rain delays (and is attempting to minimize those with its new high-tech track drying system) and even last year’s bizarre Juan Pablo Montoya/jet-dryer crash/fire at Daytona.
And there’s always the chance of a major accident.
“It’s certainly something I thought a lot about,” said Dave Rieff, ESPN’s new NHRA anchor. “I’ve had a couple of experiences in the past. It sort of gives you preparation. Antron’s incident (at Pomona) was a way for me to get my feet wet.
“I’ve done my best to shut my mouth and listen to those folks who have come before me, who have had to deal with some of these tough times. You pay attention to what they say, try to learn from it, and then put your own spin on it.
“I’m a fan. If something happens, it’s going to shake me up. You’re going to know it.”
Houston won’t have a problem. Or, at least, so it seems regarding the issue that sends drag racing fans on frustration-fueled three-second laps to the moon: Live ESPN coverage of another event that pushes NHRA’s start time back . . . Back. . . BACK.
“The current schedule on ESPN is that we come on 15 minutes before the start of our final qualifying session on Saturday,” explained Jerry Archambeault, the sanction’s VP of PR and Communications. “We looked at what would be in front of, and behind, us so we could keep those times sacred. We identified Houston as a date when we could work with the network on (starting as scheduled.)”
Live TV is a risk-reward gamble for NHRA. Certainly, something is needed to shake-up the current situation as it relates not only to the ratings but how that impacts team/event/series sponsorship valuations.
It’s a Business of Racing basic: More people watching means owners can try to negotiate more lucrative car sponsorships. Event promoters can bargain for increased event entitlement deals. NHRA and ESPN can charge more for their 30-second commercial spots.
An ESPN representative, citing company policy, declined to reveal what the rate card is for a standard 30-second commercial spot on NHRA programming. CompetitionPlus.com, however, obtained a sponsorship proposal from another motorsports organization that included the average cost of a :30 on cable for all the major racing series last year. The information was attributed to an independent media agency retained to provide research data for the proposal.
The average NHRA :30 cost $3,402. Measure that against $22,151 for Sprint Cup (ESPN and TNT) and $2,152 for IndyCar (NBC Sports Network).
Rieff says live racing is no problem for the ESPN production team.
“I think I thrive on pressure,” said Rieff. “So when it comes to those live situations, I look forward to those. A tape delayed show typically starts where there’s a little bit of flexibility. People are a little laid back (and then it’s): ‘Here we go: 3-2-1.’ It typically hits the red line on the tach very quickly.
“Live shows are exactly the opposite. People are amped-up and everything is happening 300 mph but everybody kind of falls into the role. Live shows, believe it or not, once the show starts, are a lot less stressful.”
But I bet I’m not the only one who will feel less stress if all goes well at the Spring Nationals.
Follow Michael Knight on Twitter: @SpinDoctor500