Here’s one of many ways the world changed during the two months between Fox Sports airing FOX Sports NASCAR’s race in Phoenix and the sport’s comeback return last weekend: A network executive interviewed about the results was prouder of his production crew’s health precautions than a standout rating.
Welcome to sports media, novel coronavirus version. This weekend, Charlotte Motor Speedway will host a much different version of its annual Coca-Cola 600 and then follow with a special midweek Cup series event as part of NASCAR’s makeup scheduling — all without any fans watching trackside.
Fox will air those two races plus two lower-tier Xfinity series and trucks events on Monday and Tuesday. The larger Fox over-the-air network has the Coke 600; the next three events at the Charlotte track will be shown by sister cable network FS1.
Michael Davies, Fox Sports senior vice president of technical and field operations, told CBJ that the best news he heard from the May 17 return at Darlington Speedway was how the production team embraced a time-intensive safety protocol developed by Fox, NASCAR and health experts.
“Especially in a place like South Carolina, where it was essentially open for business,” Davies said. “You could have been lulled into a sense of normalcy because the restaurants were open, the bars were open. But everybody did a great job of remembering we’ve got a long road ahead.”
The no-fans circumstances arose from the Covid-19 pandemic that, as of Friday night, had killed more than 96,000 people and infected 1.6 million in the U.S. In North Carolina, nearly 22,000 people have tested positive since the first case was diagnosed in March, with 728 deaths, including 73 in Mecklenburg County.
Speedway and NASCAR executives worked with Gov. Roy Cooper and state health leaders to bring back racing even as the pandemic continues. One of the tradeoffs to make that happen: No fans allowed, a restriction aimed at limiting possible community spread.
Despite losing ticket, concession and merchandise sales, the venture is worth it because TV rights fees account for the largest portion of industry revenue. Speedway Motorsports, the locally based owner of the Charlotte track and seven others across the country, generates half its revenue from TV media rights.
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And all of the tracks need to generate any kind of revenue. During the recent hiatus, Speedway Motorsports eliminated 180 jobs, leaving 15% of its 1,200 employees without jobs. Another 100 people were furloughed and may or may not be brought back, depending on business trends.
Davies said there are tradeoffs involved to put races back on air while Covid-19 remains a threat. Among the notable changes: Fox has reduced its standard 120-person crew at the track to roughly half that number. Some production aspects have been shifted to the network’s Los Angeles headquarters. The familiar trio calling races from a booth high above the tracks — play-by-play voice Mike Joy and analysts Jeff Gordon and Larry McReynolds — are doing so from Fox’s Charlotte-based sports studios. Jamie Little is the lone pit reporter and Regan Smith will also provide at-track reporting.
Davies said Fox was pleased with how the broadcast looked and sounded last weekend and will make minimal tweaks for the Coke 600.
“With as many (camera) feeds as we can bring back to Charlotte for them to see, they’re not missing anything on the track. It just takes some getting used to. I can’t say enough about Mike and Jeff as broadcasters, especially Jeff, who hasn’t been at it as long as Mike has. They were extremely adaptive.”
And, oh, by the way, starved sports TV fans pushed viewership to 6.32 million people — the largest audience for a non-Daytona 500 race on Fox in three years.
Much of the planning for the new era of live sports TV will continue this weekend in Charlotte. Davies said Fox has worked out new work sequences for camera operators and others, from robot-cleaned cables and equipment to an expanded golf-cart fleet to move around track sites while maintaining social distancing.
Everyone wears a mask at all times and must follow NASCAR health screenings at the track and in questionnaires leading into the race.
The biggest change? Everything takes 50% to 100% longer, Davies said. Cabling, setting up cameras, all must be done in ways that avoid overlap. If there is an elevator ride involved, it’s unlikely more than two people can be on the elevator at the same time. All of those little steps add up to a ripple effect time crunch, but some of those constraints are eased by the vastness of NASCAR tracks — especially when there aren’t any fans.
That, Davies said, has made the logistics somewhat easier. Starting in Darlington and Charlotte with four Cup series races was intentional. Charlotte is home to all of the major race teams and many NASCAR officials as well as TV crew members. Putting events at two Carolinas tracks means no flights, no hotels and greatly reduced chances of community spread.
That will change in subsequent weeks but NASCAR, its teams and its media partners are hoping they can continue honing the sport’s new look and approach so that farther-flung races will be more manageable, too.
“The level of preparation needs to be that much higher,” Davies said of Darlington and Charlotte. “This is thrilling for us. We’re all nervously thrilled for getting this going and keeping it going. It’s hugely important.”