NEW YORK (Reuters) - The chiefs of U.S. hockey and stock car racing on Tuesday said they saw room for improvement at ESPN, the largest U.S. sports network, such as making programming slicker and giving better perks and time slots to smaller leagues.
NASCAR Chairman and Chief Executive Brian France told the Reuters Media Summit in New York that ESPN, owned by Walt Disney Co (DIS.N), was in the midst of a learning curve in its new contract with U.S. stock car racing. He said fans have become more demanding and vocal than when the network last carried NASCAR in 2000.
ESPN, which broadcasts races along with sister network ABC, lost its contract with NASCAR in 2000 and renewed it in 2007, along with several other networks, in an eight-year deal valued at almost $4.5 billion in total.
“The production and (fan) expectation they have to be at are much higher than before ... They are finding that out,” he said of ESPN, pointing to red-carpet treatment given to racing by Fox, NBC and TNT, which continued to carry NASCAR as it grew into an American sporting phenomenon.
NASCAR would like to see ESPN do more sophisticated graphics, more detailed commentary, and more original programming about NASCAR figures, such as its recent film about the late championship driver Dale Earnhardt, France said.
However, he said the relations were good with the sports network.
“We have a very, very good relationship with them from top to bottom ... the amount of money they have invested in us is unprecedented,” France said.
ESPN could not be reached for comment.
The National Hockey League granted a broadcast license to smaller cable system Versus rather than renewing with ESPN, when the league emerged from its 2004 players strike because “we wanted to be treated specially,” Commissioner Gary Bettman told the Reuters Summit.
“It was the right deal for us to make. We are very pleased with the relationship” despite having 14 million fewer homes on Versus.
Although ESPN “was a good partner in the days that we were together,” the network couldn’t offer it a consistent schedule or compelling promotions, Bettman said.
“Unless you are the NFL, there is a broad universe of properties and programming they have, and everybody else becomes part of the mix,” Bettman said. “We just wanted something different where we would be a priority -- the most important priority.”
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Editing Jeffrey Benkoe