NASCAR Must Recognize That a Big Move To Streaming Services Like Peacock or ESPN+ Is a Fast Track to Ruin

A college football game over the weekend delivered a moment of clarity as to why NASCAR fans might panic about their sport disappearing from conventional TV and cable. If anything, however, that game should remind racing fans that they need not worry about Kyle Larson, Kyle Busch, and Brad Keselowski disappearing into the expensive world of streaming content.

Here’s what we mean:

Notre Dame escaped with a 32-29 victory over Toledo when Jack Coan threw a touchdown pass with 1:09 to play Saturday afternoon. As it was a home game for the Fighting Irish, NBC owned the rights to the game. It’s been that way for years because Notre Dame has the clout to play an independent schedule and negotiate its own media deals.

Team owners in NASCAR's three national series rely upon sponsorship money to foot the bills during the season. | Sarah Stier/Getty Images
Team owners in NASCAR’s three national series rely upon sponsorship money to foot the bills during the season. | Sarah Stier/Getty Images

But Saturday’s game was different. For the first time, NBC did not show Notre Dame either on its over-the-air network or on NBCSN, its cable outlet scheduled to disappear by the end of the year. Rather, NBC executives moved the game to Peacock, a streaming service requiring a subscription fee.

The decision had to be a combination of disappointing and disconcerting for a lot of Notre Dame fans, if for no other reason than the sheer numbers. Brian Herbst, who is NASCAR’s senior VP of media and production, told Awful Announcing that broadcast TV networks reach around 120 million homes. Cable TV hits 75 million, and streaming services like Peacock or ESPN+ might reach 15 million.

Clearly, a lot of people who normally watch Notre Dame each week did not see the Toledo game. Still, the direct effect on Notre Dame was negligible; NBC pays the same rights fee regardless of which outlet shows Fighting Irish games. The same principle holds true elsewhere, with NBC’s decision to move some of its English Premier League schedule to Peacock a notable example of a decision that raised a ruckus with fans.

NASCAR is a different animal, even as Awful Announcing was reporting this week that the sport’s move toward streaming is inevitable.

“Some streaming element will definitely be in place and it will play a larger role in the next deal cycle,” Herbst acknowledged. “When you think about when we did our TV deals back in 2012, 2013, there were really just two different platforms where our content was going to be distributed to. … Now, there’s a third bucket and that’s direct-to-consumer or over-the-top platforms.”

When the time comes to stream, NASCAR will face decisions Notre Dame doesn’t face.

First, NASCAR operates multiple series with different bits of inventory. So, will they stream track races? Xfinity qualifying? Cup Series practices? Notre Dame doesn’t have JV games to worry about.

Second, who will do the streaming? NASCAR, ARCA, and NBC launched the TrackPass streaming service in 2019 to highlight racing series a notch below NASCAR’s national series. When fans woke up one Saturday morning this season to find that Cup Series practice and Xfinity qualifying had moved to TrackPass, they blew a collective gasket.

As niche streamers like Disney+ gain Netflix’s level of acceptance, consumers will subscribe to more, likely while cutting the cable cord. But race fans aren’t going to want to pay for TrackPass plus the NBC and Fox streaming services to see all the content they’re already getting.

There is a third and more important reason why NASCAR cannot aggressively jump into streaming until some of the nascent services gain critical mass: The racing teams cannot afford to lose TV and cable exposure.

Unlike the Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Celtics, and Kansas City Chiefs, NASCAR team owners depend upon sponsorship money to pay their bills. While money from the TV deals does trickle down to them, it’s arguable that not one existing team can make payroll for a season without the sponsors’ names and logos plastered on their cars. Those companies are paying for the three hours of TV exposure they get each Sunday during races.

Take Cup Series races off Fox and NBC, and you might as well take the Ally brand off the No. 48 Chevy and M&M’s off the No. 18 Toyota until a NASCAR streaming audience can come close to matching a TV audience. By the time the other partners take their cut of the $4.99 monthly subscription fees, there won’t be nearly enough left for 36 Cup Series teams to make up for shrinking sponsorship money.

We’ll probably see the occasional race shift to streaming in a few years. However, NASCAR fans need not worry about a big move until someone makes the finances work in a way that doesn’t leave the teams spinning their Goodyears in red ink.

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