The Frontstretch: MPM2Nite: Did TV Networks Force Kenseth to Bolt? by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday June 28, 2012

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MPM2Nite: Did TV Networks Force Kenseth to Bolt?

Matt McLaughlin · Thursday June 28, 2012


While it didn’t have quite the seismic kick of Junior kissing his girlfriend in victory lane, most of NASCAR nation was surprised to learn Tuesday morning Matt Kenseth is leaving Roush Fenway Racing at the end of the season. Kenseth has, after all, been with the organization for 12 years, and he’s the only member of the current RFR squad that’s won a Cup title. During the 1998 and 1999 seasons, Kenseth’s car owner was officially listed as Robbie or John Reiser, a satellite operation to Roush Racing. That alliance began when he was the surprise winner at the then-Busch Series race at Rockingham in 1998, after knocking some guy named Tony Stewart out of the way exiting turn four on the final lap.

In addition to winning 22 Cup races for RFR, Kenseth has reliably made the Chase every year except for one (2009).

The timing of this announcement could hardly be more awkward. Kenseth is leading the point standings, and is the reigning Daytona 500 champion. Now that he and his team have to put the drama of Tuesday’s announcement behind them, they must buckle down and get back to work trying to win the championship. Despite the friendly platitudes of the press releases, issued by concerned parties Tuesday within the RFR organization, there’s got to be some hurt feelings and maybe even anger.

Ford is once again losing another top-name driver and champion to another manufacturer. Call me petty (but not Richard), but if I’m one of the guys working in the No. 17 shop, I’m going to be a little angry. The team is after all providing Kenseth with equipment that’s capable of winning nearly every week, and a streak of strong consistent finishes has Kenseth atop the points. How much greener pastures do you envision on the other side of the fence? Is Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Kenseth’s replacement, going to be able to attract and keep a sponsor with good results or is the future of the No. 17 team in question?

Am I going to have a job come next fall?

So why is Kenseth leaving his longtime home? It probably has more to do with sponsorship concerns as I see it. Despite being a legitimate title contender in 2011 until Kenseth and Vickers had their run-ins during the Chase race at Martinsville, the No. 17 team lost its sponsor, Crown Royal at the end of the season. (Remember that oh-so awkward moment in Victory Lane when Kenseth pleaded for them to come back to the team?) This year, the No. 17 outfit has been running with a patchwork quilt of sponsors and they don’t have any funding lined up for several races. When you see the No. 17 running the black, blue, and white Ford EcoBoost scheme, that’s like taking your sister to the prom. It just spares Ford and Roush from having to run blank quarterpanels like the No. 51 Phoenix Racing team of James Finch this past weekend at Sonoma.

“It’s the weirdest thing, I won the Daytona 500, am nice to everybody, don’t cuss people out, and I can’t get a sponsor!”

While other big name teams have had sponsorship issues, the Roush-Fenway organization has been plagued by them. Over the years, several high-profile sponsors have either chosen to leave the team or cut back on their involvement to an associate or occasional sponsor. Right off the top of my head I can recall Valvoline, UPS, Subway, AFLAC, Crown Royal, Tap ouT, and Jeremiah Weed just to name a few. Garage gossip has it that RFR is out of touch with the economics of racing, and while they know what it costs to run a competitive team, they’re not going to discount it to Wal-Mart pricing.

Another factor at play here may seem a bit more ominous. Kenseth won this year’s prime-time running of the weather and fire delayed Daytona 500, is running towards the front of the pack almost every week, and he is, in fact the points leader. Guys who run up front get talked about and shown on TV a lot, right? In a perfect world.

The latest stats I could find from Joyce Julius were compiled after Dover, the thirteenth race of the season. To date Jimmie Johnson, who is fourth in the points has been interviewed 25 times on TV. Those interviews lasted almost twenty minutes total, with Johnson proudly displaying those big old Lowe’s graphics on his clown suit.

Kenseth, meanwhile, has been interviewed 13 times, and was on air a mere eight minutes and 50 seconds. Oddly enough, Carl Edwards, who is struggling a bit this season and has yet to win, has been interviewed 18 times garnering seventeen minutes and 22 seconds worth of exposure. That’s more than twice his teammate who is leading the points. Even Jeff Gordon, currently mired 18th in the points and still winless has more live interview minutes than Kenseth and more mentions to boot.

Perhaps even more tellingly, Johnson has been mentioned on air 2,361 times this season. Tony Stewart is a distant second in that category with 1,776 mentions. Kenseth ranks seventh on the list with 1,336 mentions. When a driver is mentioned, typically he’s shown on TV — and that’s the sort of exposure the sponsors paying the big bucks crave.

Part of the problem is the FOX crew’s man-crush on the Hendrick quartet, particularly Waltrip’s obsession with Jimmie Johnson. Since he does most of the talking, the mentions rack up quickly. But old DW isn’t aiming the cameras, at least not yet. If you watch a typical race on FOX, you’ve probably noted the cars that get shown the most often are sponsored by companies that also bought ad minutes during the race broadcast. Has there ever been a NASCAR race that didn’t have at least 10 minutes worth of Lowe’s ads?

After 25 interviews and over 2,300 mentions during race telecasts in 2012, it doesn’t leave much time for other drivers to share the spotlight. Maybe that’s why Matt Kenseth talks as fast as John Moschitta in those old FedEx and Micro Machines commercials.

So naturally, Johnson and the No. 48 get shown most often and mentioned most often. Crown Royal didn’t play that game well, so Kenseth lost his sponsor despite his racing solidly all last year. In addition to laying out the big dollars to sponsor a front-running team, it would seem logical that those companies also need to pay out the big bucks to the presenting networks, FOX, TNT and ESPN, if they actually expect to have their rolling billboards shown or mentioned during a broadcast. They are basically holding those sponsors’ feet to the fire if they wish to actualize their marketing strategy.

After all, the TV guys choose where the cameras are pointed.

I’ve noticed lately that KFC is buying an awful lot of ads during race broadcasts. Then they have on air gimmicks like “KFC – Hot Off The Wire” (which is an unfortunate title; reminds me of chickens getting electrocuted in the slaughter house) that get them more mentions during the broadcast. Apparently, the Colonel’s marketing boys decided it was better to buy into the coverage than risk sponsoring a car and not having it shown on air.

In some cases this year things have gotten extremely out of hand. Danica-Mania isn’t just fueled by the novelty of a female driver in the sport, it’s fueled by heavy ad buys by On a typical TV broadcast, Patrick will likely get more air time than the guy who finished second. It’s gotten so ridiculous, when she wrecks the TV crews hurry to the garage to show clear and in focus images of the GoDaddy-sponsored car being repaired even while there’s green flag racing going on.

But the most cynical effort I’ve seen on behalf of FOX involves their side-by-side coverage for the last hour of most races. In theory it’s a grand idea allowing fans to keep up with the race during breaks. In practice, too often the small screen shows the car sponsored by the same company running the ad even though that car isn’t racing anyone nearby. There might be a pass for the lead but we’ll still be focused on those Lowe’s logos on the No. 48 hood. That renders the whole concept useless.

Naturally if a driver wins, he and his car has to be shown on TV. But for how long? Have you noticed sometimes when a driver wins the cameras focus on his cool down lap and his victory burnouts, but other times they show the leader crossing the line and cut away to commercial then come back and start the interviews?

Here’s a hint: The guys who get the extended coverage of their win are sponsored by companies that bought ads for the broadcast.

Add in the fact NASCAR is also competing for those same marketing bucks by luring sponsors to become “The Official Whatever of NASCAR”, and suddenly you’ve got three huge hogs, all trying to get their nose in a trough that ain’t as full as it once was. In fact to complete the circle, the network execs would probably say the huge fees NASCAR charges for broadcast rights mean we have to find novel ways to earn some of that money back…even at the expense of the broadcast itself.

What it comes down to is NASCAR racing isn’t a business, it’s a sport. Oh, there’s a business aspect to it of course, but at heart it’s a sport. Thus a race broadcast should show the race. It should focus on the drivers who are running up front, making decisive passes as they cut their way from the back to the front, or engaged in a side-by-side battle for 18th if nothing is going on up front. Cars that are running competitively should be shown regardless of whether their sponsors bought ads in the broadcast. This is a race — not a paid infomercial. There should be a separation between the network ad division and the broadcasters themselves, like there’s a line between church and state. If this sport has devolved to the point when the networks have a hand in deciding which teams will prosper or even survive something has gone badly amok.

Driver: TV Interviews Interview Min. Driver Mentions

Johnson, J. 25 0:19:49 2,361
Stewart, T. 19 0:20:40 1,776
Biffle, G. 14 0:11:37 1,523
Gordon, J. 12 0:12:17 1,503
Hamlin, D. 11 0:13:07 1,496
Earnhardt, Jr., D. 15 0:15:34 1,321
Kenseth, M. 13 0:08:50 1,316
Busch, Ky. 3 0:02:06 1,275
Harvick, K. 9 0:10:34 1,238
Edwards, C. 18 0:17:22 1,061

Statistics reflect live race telecasts and replays of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series through Dover (13 events).) _Data courtesy of Joyce Julius and Associates.

Contact Matt McLaughlin

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NASCAR Easter Eggs: A Few Off-Week Nuggets to Chew On
Five Points To Ponder: NASCAR’s Take-A-Breath Moment
Truckin’ Thursdays: Top Five All-Time Truck Series Drivers
Going By the Numbers: A Week Without Racing Can Bring Relief But Kill Momentum


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Bill B
06/28/2012 07:20 AM

Yes there should be a separation of church and state. Somewhere along the line NASCAR lost sight of the fact that it needed to be a sport first and a business second. I can’t help but draw that line at about the time BF took over but in all fairness, I think it started well before his reign of terror.

As for Kenseth, I just don’t think Jack wanted to pay him what he was worth on the open market. And, unlike Edwards last year, Ford didn’t come to the rescue and throw some extra money his way to keep him.

Carl D.
06/28/2012 09:00 AM

I don’t know where Kenseth is headed although I’m fairly certain that he does, but there’s still the possility that Matt could end up at Penske Racing, keeping him in the Ford camp. I think Roger Penske is positioning his operation to be become a bigger player in Nascar, and that may come at RFR’s expense. Maybe Matt Kenseth knows something we don’t.

Carl D.
06/28/2012 09:19 AM

I guess I should refrain from posting comments until I’ve been to I see that Kenseth has deal in place, and that a Ford spokesman has expressed disappointment that Kenseth is leaving, so I guess that means he won’t be driving for Penske. I know the prevailing rumour has Kenseth in JGR’s #20 for Home Depot; I guess we’ll have to wait and see if that’s the case.

06/28/2012 10:45 AM

Let’s try again with that chart

Johnson, J. 25 0:19:49 2,361
Stewart, T. 19 0:20:40 1,776
Biffle, G. 14 0:11:37 1,523
Gordon, J. 12 0:12:17 1,503
Hamlin, D. 11 0:13:07 1,496
Earnhardt, Jr., D. 15 0:15:34 1,321
Kenseth, M. 13 0:08:50 1,316
Busch, Ky. 3 0:02:06 1,275
Harvick, K. 9 0:10:34 1,238
Edwards, C. 18 0:17:22 1,061

Statistics reflect live race telecasts and replays of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series through Dover (13 events).Joyce Julius and Associates

06/28/2012 10:50 AM

Cup racing is no longer a sport, it’s a business, and as a capitalist pig I can’t exactly bemoan NASCAR, TV networks or the teams trying to make as much $$ as possible.

However, from a business standpoint it does seem very shortsighted for NASCAR and the networks to go after sponsorship dollars that keeps the teams running and competitive, without teams and competitive racing all 3 groups suffer in the long run.

If you want racing as a sport, go to your local weekly short track, if you want racing as a (greedy) business, watch the farce they show every weekend on network TV.

06/28/2012 11:48 AM

I wish they would go back to how ESPN did their broadcast back in the golden era. When a car was on TV they not only mentioned the driver, car number AND the sponsor no matter who it was. Everybody won. Now if you don’t pay the networks for extra commercial time, all they do is mention the “orange and black number 1 car” or the “red and white 42 car”… It’s just sad.

just talking
06/28/2012 11:52 AM

Maybe there is more to this than money.

Maybe egos are also involved.

Did Kenseth tire of Edwards getting all the media and money, while typically running nearly as well or often better than Edwards over the last few years.

06/28/2012 12:11 PM

Sponsoring a car has always been a limited return proposition. If you go back to the days of dealership names and local businesses (like ‘Holly Farms’, ‘Dinner Bell’, ‘Red Baron’ – sorry, its almost lunch time!) on the rear quarters, stock cars got your name in front of actual race crowds. When TV got involved, exposure expanded to larger markets and sponsors started getting more national – and were willing to pony up the bucks for national exposure. As recently as the late 80’s early 90’s, a $3M budget was a well funded team, so lots of teams/sponsors could afford to play and get this kind of exposure. Now that the cost of sponsoring a car is so astronomical, its no wonder there are so few potential sponsors willing to pay.

I am not in advertising; but, I would imagine that its easier to make the business case to spend advertising dollars on non-race team conduits when it comes to the options in NASCAR. The “Official whatever of NASCAR” doesn’t embarass the sponsor through on or off track bad behavior, Title sponsors don’t crash out of events, and television ads don’t suffer mid-season performance funks that threaten their ability to make the Chase.

Nice guys like Matt Kenseth are sometimes the collateral damage here. I hope he ends up in a competitive ride next season – hopefully in Ford, despite the recent lament from Dearborn. As far as Roush goes, I have always wondered why their top level drivers always seem to fall out of favor after so many years. Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, now Matt Kenseth. They must feel like they have the shelf life of a Trump wive over there…

Walt B
06/28/2012 12:20 PM

I was at that Busch race at Rockingham and Kenseth’s 1st Cup start at Dover and been following him ever since. When I was a kid I tried to make Fords go fast every body else I hung with were Chevy guys but working on Chevies,that was too easy. I followed Pearson,Elliot before Kenseth. After the 1998 Cup race at Rockingham which was the 2nd race for the Taurus NASCAR gave Chevy a number of changes in spite of Jeff Gordon winning the race. Then Brian France’s reign of terror capped off with Rick Hendrick putting NASCAR inspectors in short pants this season. No wonder Kenseth is going to drive something else. I think I have been to my last NASCAR race after attending 100+ races at over a dozen tracks. The day of racing real cars with local dealerships on the fenders is gone forever. NASCAR has gone the way of stick and ball sports it all about the money not about the “product”.

Bill B
06/28/2012 12:21 PM

Kind of funny how exposure (ratings and attendence) has lessened but the cost to sponsor a car has contuinued to climb.

06/28/2012 12:48 PM

Best article I have read about the business of NASCAR advertising in years. Kenseth is a great driver and I want him to win the Cup wherever he goes and no matter how they arrange for the Championship to be determined.

06/28/2012 03:49 PM

Nice article. Glad to read your conclusion about Fox’s side by side commercial nonsense. NASCAR has always had the cars as rolling billboards, but the TV broadcasts have gotten out of control. I see a lot of people blame HMS for so many things, but I blame the networks and DW in particular for yapping on about nothing. It’s gotten so I don’t really enjoy watching races on TV. I have trackpass and use that, twitter and the radio feed to follow the race. TV has become extraneous and I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that it has little to no value to me. I’m considering canceling my cable – why waste the $?

06/28/2012 04:14 PM

When I read between the lines on this issue, I can’t help but think that the Hendricks cup series seems intent on running Ford out of town. It sounds far fetched, but it’s not far off the mark.

06/28/2012 04:32 PM

What an excellent article. Finally, a journalist saying it like it is.
If the telecast and BF would just get it through their heads that constantly throwing Jimmy Johnson down myu neck is going to make me not watch the race anymore.
Over exposure is not a good thing. It’s just going to tick off the fan base that likes someone else.

06/28/2012 05:28 PM

Brilliant article, really sums up the NASCAR issues that currently plague the “sport”. I have been a Kennseth fan since he first came on the circuit, I will miss him a RFR but, I have a gut feeling he is going to Penske to place the team in the top tier. In addition they will be running Roush/Yates engines so no learning curve for Matt.

06/29/2012 10:23 AM

Boy Howdy.

06/29/2012 12:34 PM

Thanks for articulating what we’ve all sensed and seen with our own eyes. What I find really sad is what Bill Elliott said on Race Hub: that now, even the lower levels of racing are out of reach for the average family to get their kid involved in. Will it all reach a tipping point and collapse on itself? Will truly grassroots racing (where it’s still sport) survive?

06/29/2012 10:19 PM

If Ky Bu blows up again this weekend, you know where Matt will be going next year.
He might have worked a development contract for Ross into the deal and Gibbs could be a great place for him to start. Jack was maybe a little too cutthroat with younger drivers.
Just my speculation.

07/01/2012 01:07 AM

Best article I have read about the NASCAR advertising in years. Kenseth is a great driver and I want him to win the Cup.saddy Matt has got more Tv coverage cause he’s leaving Roush then for his years of on track and at the end of a race the tv will go to a lower placed driver before they interview him and thats if they do.