CHARLOTTE, N.C. — NASCAR will return to NBC in 2015, ending its eight-year partnership with both ESPN and Turner Sports.
The 10-year deal with NBC Sports Group announced Tuesday begins in 2015 and gives the network the final 20 Sprint Cup Series races of the season and final 19 Nationwide races. NBC last broadcast races in 2006 before ESPN took over its portion of the schedule.
"We are back. We are thrilled to be back," said Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Sports Group. He said of all the deals made since Comcast Corp. purchased NBC, the NASCAR deal "is one that we've really been focused on, one that we have wanted to have the opportunity to be able to sit at the table when contractual opportunities came due."
"The quantity of content that this deal provides and the quality of content that this provides is really a game changer for us for our entire group, and we can't wait to get started," Lazarus added.
The deal makes NBC Sports Group the premier motorsports network with NASCAR, Formula One and IndyCar among its properties — a trifecta Lazarus said made NBC the motorsports leader.
"I believe with us now being the home to the second half of the NASCAR season, the home for cable for Indy and the home to Formula 1, that we are probably the most dominant home for motorsports, and that that circulation of motorsports fans will be good for all," he said.
A previous relationship with Lazarus, who was formerly with Turner Sports, and the ability to be part of NBC's sports properties attracted NASCAR.
"With NBC, you're joining a family at NBC Sports where you'll be surrounded by incredible championship-type programming," said Steve Herbst, NASCAR's vice president of broadcasting and production. "Their football package on Sunday night is the No. 1 show on television ... they are the home to championship programming and we'll be promoted and marketed and shown alongside those top-tier events."
NBC will air seven Cup races, while 13 will be on the NBC Sports Network. The Nationwide Series will have four events on NBC and 15 on NBC Sports Network.
There are still three Sprint Cup races to be sold, which Herbst believes will move quickly. Lazarus said NBC purchased everything made available to the network, which means the three events not currently held by Fox were not offered.
"We were offered a package that had 20 in them, so we bought everything that was made available to us. That doesn't mean we bought everything we wanted," Lazarus said.
Herbst said some of the Cup events on NBC will be a lead-in to "Sunday Night Football."
"We're going to have the opportunity as we get into the fall season and the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup to be on Sunday afternoons leading into NFL football, and that's an exciting opportunity for us, given the obvious power of the NFL," he said. "We still have a ways to go to figure out what races and when, but it will be select races that go into Sunday Night Football."
The deal also gave NBC Sports Group rights to the K&N Series and NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour events, NASCAR Toyota (Mexico) Series events, the NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremony and season-ending banquets, live-streaming rights for Cup and Nationwide, and Spanish-language broadcast rights on Telemundo and Mun2 for national series events and NASCAR Toyota (Mexico) Series.
The rights to the first half of the Nationwide schedule have not been publicly announced, but NASCAR chairman Brian France let slip in a Tuesday conference call with reporters that there will be Nationwide races on Fox Sports 1.
"We will have both Cup and Nationwide on FOX Sports 1 at some level," France said during the call. ESPN currently broadcasts the entire Nationwide schedule.
If correct, Fox would be the leading candidate for the three remaining unsold Cup races.
Jon Ackley, an associate professor who teaches a NASCAR business course at Virginia Commonwealth, said he initially thought ESPN and Turner dropped NASCAR at the right time because of increased rights fees and sinking television ratings. But the more he studied it, the more he began to think NASCAR chose NBC over the others.
"Maybe this is a good deal for NASCAR, it certainly gives a lot of continuity for the schedule and makes it easier for viewers to find the race on each weekend," he said.
Still, he noted that it's unclear how many races will be on cable TV. Fox, for example, has not said how many Cup races will be broadcast on Fox Sports 1.
"I don't even know if I get NBC Sports on my satellite," he said. "That's another concern of mine is that unlike ESPN with its 24-hour coverage, everybody knows ESPN and they go to ESPN if they are looking for something. It's very accessible. There may be a learning curve and it may be a very slow learning curve for the public wondering where to find their NASCAR."
NBC Sports Group replaces ESPN, which carries 17 events and picks up its portion of the schedule this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Turner, which currently has six races on the schedule.
NBC shared the television contract with Fox from 2001-06 in the first national TV deal for NASCAR. NBC pulled out of negotiations on an extension, and ESPN picked up that portion of the schedule in 2007.
Ackley also wondered what the ramifications could be for NASCAR after severing ties with ESPN.
ESPN was not allowed to do on-camera interviews at the track from 2001-06, and its reporters were forced to race to a nearby helipad after races to speak to drivers before they headed home.
"I was sort of surprised that once again, NASCAR has turned its back on ESPN, like it did in 2000," Ackley said. "I'm wondering what the fallout will be, whether it will be a lack of respect of NASCAR coverage and reporting."
John Skipper, president of ESPN, said the network will continue to cover NASCAR when its deal expires.
"We will continue to serve NASCAR fans through SportsCenter and our other news platforms as we continue to enhance our industry-leading collection of quality assets. We are looking forward to the start of our Sprint Cup season and will continue with our deep commitment to the highest quality coverage," Skipper said in a statement.
France thinks the relationship with ESPN will be fine.
"It's a different time now. They have different thinking about how they want to cover sports," France said. "Obviously you think about all those things, but the reality is they have to cover the big events that people watch every weekend. You never can predict the future, but we didn't think that was something that would hold us back from making this deal, that's for sure."
Turner indicated earlier Tuesday it could not compete financially in the negotiations to extend its 31-year relationship with NASCAR.
"We think NASCAR is an attractive property, but we are disciplined in our approach to negotiating sports rights and could not come up with a business model that was financially prudent for our company," said David Levy, president of sales, distribution and sports at Turner.