Monday, August 9, 2010
NASCAR met with radio silence
BYLINE: BRANT JAMES
St. Petersburg Times (2005)
Line 1 wants to talk about how much Jason Schmidt could help the White Sox.
Line 2 has the Cubs on his mind.
Line 3: Bears.
Line 4: Bulls.
Line 5: Blackhawks. Slow day.
Line 6: Anyone want to kick around whether Tony Stewart can win three in a row Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway? Anyone?
The phone banks at WMVP-AM didn't align exactly that way Thursday, three days before NASCAR makes its annual stop in its eighth-biggest television market, but they might as well have, said Jim Pastor, the general manager of the ESPN affiliate and Chicago's largest sports-talk outlet. Though NASCAR has made a push into larger, nontraditional markets and has done well on television, it has failed to make progress in the daily drone of sports-talk radio.
"We will bring it up more around the big races or when they are at the speedway, but we play the hits," Pastor said. "And ultimately, the listeners determine what the hits are."
That indicates to NASCAR CEO Brian France that although viewership and interest continue to increase, stock car racing has failed to leach into the fabric of America's sporting consciousness. That's the last realm, it would appear, for NASCAR to conquer, and until it does, France seems bothered by what he hears. Or doesn't.
"That's one of the hot topics that occurs in my office every day," France said in a national teleconference. "Because, in fact, we are very undercovered for the size audience we have, not just in sports-talk radio."
There is no disputing NASCAR's popularity on television. According to statistics provided by NASCAR, an average of 6.6-million households, a 9 percent increase from 2004, have tuned in to each race this season. Of the top five cities by households watching - Atlanta, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Dallas and New York - only Atlanta is a traditional market. In Chicago it has 131,000 households per event (an 11 percent increase), but racing struggles to inspire commuters on the Dan Ryan Expressway and fans in South Wacker Drive cubicles to make the call.
"NASCAR has all sorts of statistics that show it does well on television in major markets, and the interest level is higher than it has ever been before, which is all legit," Pastor said. "But as far as creating a buzz and a presence on sports-talk radio, at least on this station, the thing I would need to remind NASCAR of is in major markets, it's not like in middle markets where if you are not the only game in town, you are the biggest game in town, and here you are competing with two baseball teams, the NFL and the NBA, with a fan base that has been in place a lot longer than NASCAR has. So it's not so much that the buzz is not there, it's just more that the collective buzz that surrounds Chicago, especially during the summer, is divided among any number of things."
France understands that stock car racing is a new taste compared with baseball, football, basketball and hockey. NASCAR was first broadcast on national television in 1979 and was not a fixture until the 1990s.
"In fairness, relatively we've been at it for 50 years but America really discovered us just 10 years ago in a prolific way," France said. "That's going to take an awful lot of time for those not used to covering NASCAR to go, "Gee, this is an important thing.'
"The other thing is, we have a big plus in that all of our races are national events, mega events. That's one other issue: We don't have home teams. So there is a tendency for publications and newspapers and radio affiliates to want to cover just what they think the hometown fan base wants to hear, which is the hometown teams."
Tampa, the fifth-best NASCAR television market last year, has slipped to sixth behind Dallas but has experienced a 10 percent increase to 138,000 households per race. This market's standing is impressive considering its metropolitan area population (2.4-million) is roughly half that of the smallest market (Atlanta, 4.2-million) in the top five.
But even here, it's hard to strike up a NASCAR debate on radio, mostly, WDAE vice president of programming Brad Hardin said, because on-air personalities such as Steve Duemig, Dan Sileo, Ron Diaz and Ian Beckles are "not big NASCAR fans in general and it drives the topics and the direction they go in.
"I think that's why you don't hear a lot of those calls on the air, people are conditioned to thinking, "Steve Duemig isn't going to talk NASCAR, so I'm not going to call and ask him about it.' I think in WDAE that's something we need to beef up. I'm not happy with the amount of coverage of NASCAR we have now."
WDAE airs a weekly NASCAR show syndicated to about 140 affiliates. Rob D'Amico, who produces the show in Tampa, said on-air talent in emerging markets is not "training the listeners."
"I think that's what Brian might have meant. A lot of guys in the business may not know enough about it to talk about it," he said.
The chatter on MVP sways again to the White Sox as Nextel Cup drivers prepare to qualify an hour southwest in Joliet. It's tough to get a NASCAR word in edgewise with a first-place White Sox team, the beloved Cubs and Bears and playoff-qualifying Bulls soaking up the airwaves. Even the lowly Blackhawks hold sway.
"It's below all of them," Pastor said of NASCAR. "It's at the bottom of all of them."