High Profile, Low Stakes: CBS Tries All-Star Racing in Primetime

One of the Worldwide Reader’s favorite #sportsbiz journalists, Sports Business Journal’s John Ourand, broke the news this morning that CBS is getting back into the auto racing business with a six race, All-Star stock car racing series called Superstar Racing Experience (SRX).

Once the home of stock car’s major league, NASCAR, CBS has been off the pit wall for twenty years. Stock car racing, which typically involves modified street-legal cars circling a purpose-built oval, was at one time considered a contender to major American sports like baseball and basketball.

The price for the right to broadcast NASCAR increased alongside the sport’s media profile, causing racing to exit the tiffany network in 2000. CBS has long shied away from paying premium prices for non-premium sports. Consequently, Formula 1, NASCAR and IndyCar rights cycled between ESPN/ABC, Fox, NBC and Turner/WarnerMedia for the past two decades without the Eye batting an eye.

Times have changed, and changed quickly. News specials, game shows and sports broadcasts that were once considered too sliverish for network TV’s broad reach are now viewed as plum primetime fare. Witness this summer’s highest rated prime time shows: ‘America’s Got Talent’ and ‘Celebrity Family Feud’.

CBS’s SRX is a muffintop project: an attempt to keep the good parts while tossing away the bad. Gone are D-shaped, mile-and-a-half ovals that have become reviled by hardcore racing fans. Short tracks — both dirt and pavement — will take their place. Car development is essentially prohibited, as a former pit crew chief will be charged with providing twelve identical cars for twelve entrants. SRX’s 2021 season will include only six races, all on Saturday nights. Pit stops are eliminated entirely. The goal is to distill racing down to the best “on track driver”, while creating a reliable network television product.

Ultimately, what SRX aims to deliver is a celebrity red carpet disguised as a sporting event. All the big stars are invited. It’s not about being the “best” auto racer. Strategy, car optimization, tire & fuel considerations have been artfully minimized.

The business plan for SRX is interesting, especially considering the ongoing advertising apocalypse. Six months ago, the idea of getting sponsors to buy ad time and put up visible on-track signage — Outfront Media, one of the world’s largest purveyors of ad signage, was once part of ViacomCBS — for primetime All-Star races on CBS was a no-brainer. If marketing budgets haven’t improved a year from now, SRX could stall before its green flag.

From an entertainment point of view, SRX has the Reader’s interest. Netflix’s ‘Formula 1: Drive to Survive’ series turned the Reader into an ardent F1 fan, but American motorsports have yet to attract the same affection. IndyCar vehicles look like F1 cars, but their performance is visibly inferior. NASCAR is a different animal, but its rules and championship system are a major turn-off. The lack of car development and minimization of race strategy are big dings against SRX, but with the right drivers and production, it could become a must-watch next summer.

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