Television

ESPN, Turner in talks to exit NASCAR early

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MUMBAI: ESPN and Turner Sports are talking with NASCAR about getting out of their broadcast rights agreement a year early, a move that could allow Fox Sports and NBC Sports Group to become the sport?s broadcasters next year.

It?s unlikely that the four TV companies will be able to reach a deal, sources say. But the fact that these types of talks are occurring is precedent-setting in an industry where live sports rights are held sacred. For at least the past decade, no rights holder has exited a major media agreement with a property early.

ESPN and Turner executives told the series that they are interested in forgoing the final year of their contract. Fox and NBC executives told NASCAR that they are interested in picking up those rights. And sources say NASCAR executives are open to the switch.

But any deal faces significant hurdles. Sources said it would have to be a complete switch, not a partial one in which Turner exits its six Sprint Cup races or ESPN exits part of its Nationwide Series season. That means it would require an agreement between four competitors - ESPN, Turner, Fox and NBC - and one property, which would be difficult to structure.

ESPN and Turner Sports have told NASCAR they are prepared to carry the races next year, but both would prefer avoiding that lame-duck status. Both opted not to submit final bids to retain NASCAR rights when the sport held TV negotiations last month, and they see upside in exiting their deals a year early.

ESPN has had financial pressures in some areas over the last year, causing it to lay off staff and look for ways to reduce expenses. By unloading NASCAR rights in 2014, ESPN would be able to eliminate production costs and shed its roughly $270 million annual rights fee.

NASCAR-related production costs are a concern for ESPN executives, particularly during the first half of the season when ESPN has rights only to the Nationwide Series.

The talks won?t change NASCAR?s long-term TV picture. Between 2015 and 2024, NASCAR will collect more than $8.2 billion in media rights from Fox and NBC, which signed 10-year, $3.8 billion and $4.4 billion deals, respectively. The networks together will pay an average of $820 million a year, a 46 percent increase from the $560 million that NASCAR currently receives annually from Fox, Turner Sports and ESPN.

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