Nets Ponder NASCAR's Future


The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing's major television-rights
holders are waiting to see how superstar Dale Earnhardt's tragic death will
affect the sport and its audience.

Earnhardt -- a NASCAR legend and one of the most popular figures on the
stock-car circuit -- was killed Feb. 18 in a crash during the final lap of the
Daytona 500.

Industry observers credited the well-liked Earnhardt -- who had won seven
Winston Cup championships and tallied 76 career victories -- with taking the
sport beyond its Southern roots to mainstream America.

The sport's growing popularity was reflected in the six-year, $2.8 billion
rights deal that includes telecasts on the Fox broadcast network, Fox Sports
Net, NBC and TBS Superstation.

Fox's critically acclaimed Daytona 500 broadcast generated a 10 rating, the
race's best performance since 1979.

But after the tragic accident, network executives grappled with the short-
and long-term effects of Earnhardt's death on the sport.

Rainbow Sports vice president of marketing Dan Ronane said Earnhardt's impact
on NASCAR is nearly impossible to overestimate. Rainbow and Fox Sports share
ownership in several regional sports networks.

Earnhardt accounted for about 40 percent of all NASCAR merchandising, Ronane

'I don't see how it does anything but hurt,' he said. 'You don't have the
swagger and bravado that you had [before the accident]. You take a quieter and
more respectable tone.'

Paul Kagan Associates Inc. sports analyst John Mansell said that although the
sport may suffer from the loss of its biggest draw, network ratings for future
events may actually climb.

'I'm not sure what sort of impact it will have, but the tragic accident could
possibly have a positive effect on ratings,' he added. 'People may tune in to
future races to see if there are going to be any accidents.'

At press time, Fox had no plans to change its coverage of future NASCAR