Summary:

NASCAR is taking back the management of its online and mobile operations from broadcast partner Turner Sports following a steep slide in TV…

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NASCAR is taking back the management of its online and mobile operations from broadcast partner Turner Sports following a steep slide in TV ratings. The league wants to use its digital platforms to help rekindle interest in the sport, which has suffered from flagging attendance.

Under a newly extended agreement by the two parties, NASCAR will move much of the operations for its online and mobile platforms from Turner’s Atlanta-based studios to the racing league’s headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., effective January 2013. Turner, which has operated the popular NASCAR digital platforms for the last 11 years – and has a broadcast relationship with the racing league dating back 28 years – will continue to sell ad time on the platforms.

Between 2006 and 2010, NASCAR’s TV viewership dropped 24 percent on the channels of broadcast partners Fox (NSDQ: NWS), Turner and ESPN (NYSE: DIS). Ratings rebounded by about 10 percent across the board last Sprint (NYSE: S) Cup season, but are still way off from their 2005 peak. An individual close to the league’s digital efforts said NASCAR wants to use its digital platforms to “evangelize” the sport and bring its metrics back closer to their 2005 peak.

NASCAR negotiated its current broadcast deals — which total $4.48 billion — with Turner, Fox and ESPN in 2005, and they went into effect in 2007. Those deals run through 2014. (NASCAR’s rights deal — of just over $500 million a year — is about half of the nearly $1 billion annually the NBA gets.)

Marc Jenkins, VP of digital media for NASCAR, says the league is satisfied with the popularity of the Turner-run NASCAR.com, which averages about 6 million unique users a month. Mobile usage has continued to expand through carriage by principal league sponsor Sprint, he added.

But NASCAR wants to use digital to grow the overall popularity of its sport rather than merely service advertisers – a goal that might not be so congruent with Turner’s long-term interest. “Turner has been a great partner, but at a certain point we can’t keep asking them for favors – we need to do a lot of things that are uniquely in our interest,” he said. “We want to do things like push our content out on YouTube (NSDQ: GOOG) to reach a younger demo. There might not be a lot of ROI in that, but it helps drive the sport.”

While the new deal ends Turner’s editorial management of NASCAR digital — accounting and other parts of the operations will also be moving to Charlotte — it does extend their ad sales partnership through 2016. Matt Hong, senior VP and general manager of sports operations for Turner Sports, said he was unable to say just how many Turner Sports staffers will be affected by the move. “Things will be status quo through 2012, and then we’ll figure it out from there,” he said.

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