During the first half of this decade, NASCAR television ratings were being described as soaring. Now the adjective often used is sagging.
The average rating for Nextel Cup races in 2005 was a 5.5. It dropped to a 4.8 last year.
But Fox, which will televise Sunday's Auto Club 500 at California Speedway in Fontana, remains bullish on the sport.
The network, under a new contract that took effect this year, will pay an average $205 million a year for NASCAR rights over the next eight years -- a total of $1.62 billion.
That entitles Fox to televise the first 13 Nextel Cup races of the season, which began with the Daytona 500 last weekend. TNT and ESPN-ABC get the rest.
Also, Speed, which is owned by Fox's parent company, News Corp., televises about 70 hours of NASCAR programming a week, which includes the Craftsman Truck races. ESPN has the entire Busch series.
Despite the hefty rights fee, Ed Goren, Fox Sports president, said his network will show a profit with NASCAR, although he declined to specify what that profit might be.
"We went into all our new deals with a mandate: no money losers," Goren said. "And we will make money on NASCAR."
Not only did Goren and his boss, Fox Sports chairman David Hill, sign off on the NASCAR deal, so did their bosses at News Corp., Peter Chernin and Tony Vinciquerra.
"What NASCAR provides is a very sponsor-friendly sport," Goren said. "The addition of Toyota is a plus, and what is beautiful about the Nextel Cup series is, unlike golf, all the major stars participate every week.
"And we think we have assembled one of the best broadcast teams in any sport. Jeff Hammond, Larry McReynolds and Darrell Waltrip have become stars in their sport."
Commentators Waltrip and McReynolds work alongside race announcer Mike Joy. Studio analyst Hammond works with Chris Myers on the pre-race coverage, which Sunday begins at noon, half an hour before the scheduled start of the race. Also, Myers and Hammond will be working in new surroundings. Fox will unveil a new version of its "Hollywood Hotel" studio on wheels -- this one more high-tech.
Sunday's Daytona 500 on Fox got a 10.9 rating, but last year's race, televised by NBC, got an 11.3.
"Last year, NBC had the Winter Olympics as a lead-in," Goren said. "That delivered a larger audience early in the race."
The fact that the rating in the Los Angeles market for last Sunday's race was only a 4.3 doesn't concern Goren either.
"When you consider the size of the market, L.A. has more people watching NASCAR than in places such as Charlotte," Goren said.
Besides stock cars in Fontana, bicycles will be racing in Southern California this weekend as well. The 650-mile Amgen Tour of California concludes in Long Beach on Sunday, with Versus providing partially live and partially delayed coverage Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Saturday's stage is from Santa Barbara to Santa Clarita and Sunday's is in Long Beach.
Shawn Hunter, president of AEG Sports, the promoter of the race, has been pleased with Versus' daily 8-9 p.m. weeknight coverage and the announcing team of Paul Sherwin, Phil Leggett and Bob Rolle. "One of our top priorities going into the second year was to improve the overall quality of the television broadcasts," Hunter said. "With Versus, not only do we get the world's leading cycling experts, we get prime-time coverage."
Last year's race was televised by ESPN2.
Versus, formerly Outdoor Life Network, this year will televise its eighth Tour de France, which begins July 8.
This is Week 2 for NASCAR Hot Pass, the new exclusive $99 DirecTV package that allows subscribers to follow five drivers, each on a separate channel. The five last weekend included winner Kevin Harvick. The five selected for this weekend are Elliot Sadler, Jeff Burton, Juan Montoya, Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt is the only driver picked both weeks.
And besides Motor Racing Network radio coverage on KKGO 1260, Sirius Satellite Radio will broadcast the race on Channel 128 and offer in-car audio on 10 other channels.
There was a time NASCAR was claiming to be the fastest-growing spectator sport. Now mixed martial arts promoters are making that claim. And it has even become a team sport. The International Fight League makes its debut on FSN West tonight at 11. The 11-team league includes the Orange County Condors, who are led by Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and mixed martial arts champion Marco Ruas. FSN will air 22 taped episodes.
ESPN has confirmed a Dallas Morning News report that the network has chosen not to pick up an option on Michael Irvin's contract. An ESPN spokesman said the decision had nothing to do with anything Irvin did or said. Irvin told the Morning News the move would allow him to expand his acting career.
The Tennis Channel, which will share U.S. cable television rights to the French Open and the Australian Open, announced Thursday that it has hired John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova as lead analysts for this year's French Open.
Good news department: Longtime L.A. sportscaster Stu Nahan, who turns 81 June 23, is doing well in his battle with lymphoma. A recent scan showed that 90% of the cancer has been eradicated by chemotherapy treatment and he will undergo more treatment next week.