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Should other sports leagues follow NASCAR's lead into televised eSports?

With news today that NASCAR, iRacing and FOX Sports will partner to televise the complete eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series schedule for 2020 and the fact that there are no live sports scheduled in the near to possibly extended future, are other sports leagues looking to produce eSports telecasts for their sports?

They should.

What started as an online racing series to increase fan engagement and attract millennials has now secured a deal where iRacing races will be aired nationally on the FOX broadcast network (where available and subject to change), FS1 and the FOX Sports app, beginning with this Sunday’s race at the virtual Texas Motor Speedway at 1 p.m. ET.

FOX Sports will air this weekend's 100-lap race and has agreed to televise all the subsequent races while the NASCAR national series adhere to a break in on-track competition to align with CDC guidance regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last week FS1 televised the opening race from virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway, which included a thrilling last lap duel between race winner Denny Hamlin and the sport’s perennial most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. The event drew nearly a million viewers (903,000), becoming the most watched telecast on FS1 since March 12, when most live sports were halted in response to the pandemic. It was also the highest rated esports TV program in history.

According to Twitter rankings, the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational on FS1 was the most social TV program on Sunday with NASCAR-owned content about the event producing over one million engagements over the weekend.

“The rapid-fire collaboration between FOX Sports, NASCAR and iRacing obviously has resonated with race fans, gamers and television views across the country in a very positive way,’’ said Brad Zager, FOX Sports Executive Producer/EVP Head of Production & Operations. “We have learned so much in a relatively short period of time and we are excited to expand coverage of this brand new NASCAR esports series to an even wider audience.’’

Could we see televised NHL '20, NBA2K MLB The Show and Madden games in and out of season for their respective sports?

We already can watch them on online gaming platforms like Twitch and on sites like YouTube, but would cable networks be willing to run eSports events in prime time slots or afternoons on Saturday and Sunday's when America is accustomed to sitting back and watching live sports.

One NASCAR Hall of Famer is a fan as Jeff Gordon, a six-time Talladega Superspeedway winner, who called Sunday’s virtual race alongside FOX Sports’ Mike Joy and Larry McReynolds, was equally as optimistic about the possibilities the televised iRacing presents.

“The response on social media to last Sunday’s race has been incredible,’’ Gordon said. “We were able to broadcast a virtual race that was exciting and entertaining. It brought a little bit of normalcy back to the weekend and I can’t wait to call the action Sunday at Texas.’’

It's been a slow build. The iRacing Series is actually in its 11th season, it is also one of the longest running eSports series. Before the top NASCAR drivers took over last weekend, 40 of the best sim racers from all over the world have been competing across a 20 race schedule for their share of over $300,000, and whoever sits atop the points in the end will walk away with an impressive $100,000.

It's true; your next door neighbor or the college kid crossing the street walking to class could be a a world class eSports athlete.

If there is no Opening Day, resumption of play in the NBA or NHL or signs point to a possible delay for a NFL or NCAA College Football season, networks might be entertaining the eSports option.

These NASCAR races include competitors from all three of NASCAR’s national series from the premier NASCAR Cup Series to the NASCAR Xfinity Series and the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series. Plus, last week, retired driver Earnhardt and NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Labonte, who finished 18th in the 35-car field.

“We’re overwhelmed by the positive feedback and encouragement sent by industry stakeholders, drivers, partners, media and most importantly, our fans,’’ said Tim Clark, NASCAR’s Senior Vice President and Chief Digital Officer.

“We all can’t wait to get back to racing and our partners at iRacing and FOX have worked with us to do just that – race. We are committed to running these eNASCAR iRacing events as long as necessary."

If other sports are looking at trying eSports competitions and pitching them to cable and network television, Clark has some advice, based on what their goals are currently.

"Providing a platform for our fans to watch and engage with their favorite drivers is our number one priority.”

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