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NASCAR Isn't Dying, But Insiders See A Sport in Transition

8 Aug, 2018

By: Michael Popke

Almost two years have passed since Ed Hinton, a journalist who covered NASCAR for Sports Illustrated and ESPN.com, told The Guardian in September 2016 that “I don’t think it can recover.” He was referring to a sport that had taken a nose dive in 2016 and is till, some observers say, in freefall.

“NASCAR’s jaw-dropping speed and collisions once attracted fans in droves but they have been racing away from the sport even faster over the last decade for a variety of reasons, including the failure to register with millennial viewers,” Reuters reported in May. “A little over 10 years ago, NASCAR was dubbed ‘America’s Fastest Growing Sport’ by Fortune given the mix of soaring TV ratings, packed stadiums and sponsors who flocked to make their brands visible on race cars. But a slew of factors, including high ticket prices, a steady stream of top drivers retiring, and rule changes that alienated the older fanbase and failed to capture the interest of new fans, saw the once growing sport hit a roadblock.”

Yet amid rumors of a potential sale, NASCAR chairman and chief executive officer Brain France recently reminded fans that “rumors are … seldom right.”

"We're focused on growing and managing NASCAR," France told Autoweek.comon July 25. "There's nothing to report on that. The France family, we're locked and loaded in our dedication to NASCAR."

Although NASCAR officials stopped reporting attendance estimates for races in 2013 — the record stands at a season-high 4.67 million in 2005 (nearly 130,000 spectators per race) — television ratings for NASCAR are down significantly this year,” according to Sports Media Watch.

Yet an in-depth report on Forbes.com, based on interviews with several NASCAR and race team executives, declares that “the sport is certainly not dead, and far from dying.”

Here is a rundown of six reasons why, according to the report:

1. A Changing of the Guard

From the retirements of star drivers to the series' efforts to retain its core base while attempting to lure in new fans, the sport is at its biggest juncture. “There’s a lot of new faces, young talent,” [four-time NASCAR Cup champion Jeff] Gordon said. “They’re getting some good opportunities in some really good cars because big names like myself, Tony Stewart and Dale Jr. have stepped away. That’s opening up some doors. But we’ve got to see them produce.”

2. NASCAR Pivots With Monster Energy

Fans identify NASCAR's Cup Series largely by its major naming rights. From 1971 to 2003, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company cigarette brand Winston was the main sponsor. For the 10 years after, Nextel Spring held the naming rights. In 2016, NASCAR announced Monster Energy as the entitlement sponsor for the Cup Series. The deal was the biggest sign that the racing body was looking to expand its brand to a new audience. According to NASCAR insiders who requested anonymity, Bass Pro Shops had also been in the hunt to land the naming rights, yet NASCAR opted for Monster Energy, which has ties to other motorsports properties such as supercross and a younger, more diverse demographic.

3. Executives Throughout NASCAR Seek to Balance Core Fans And Bring In New [Ones]

Approaching 2020, NASCAR has already started the unification process through its executive ranks. Daryl Wolfe was made chief sales and partnership officer of NASCAR and also serves in the role with International Speedway Corporation, which owns a large percentage of the tracks where NASCAR’s premier races are held. According to Wolfe, the issues NASCAR faces with bringing in a new audience while retaining its avid fans are not unique.

“All sports today have challenges,” Wolfe said. “We’re all trying to create more fan engagement, use different channels to reach fans, and use channels to reach new fans. You have your casual fans, and you want to stay connected to your avid fans that are part of the fabric of the sport. … New fans today — whether it’s football, baseball, racing, fans have different expectations as to what the events are like, what socialization opportunities are there when fans come out with friends and family and make memories. So NASCAR has to keep up with the times and at the same time find the right balance between what our traditional fans want and what our new and casual fans want.”

4. NASCAR Fan Loyalty Is the Driver To Sponsorship Success

Sponsorships will always be the lifeblood of auto racing: [They are] the core funding mechanism for the teams. Team executives and drivers are acutely aware of the importance of their relationships with not only current sponsors but also potential ones. NASCAR is arguably the gold standard for fan loyalty, and brands are quick to attach their names to the sport not only to gain awareness but also to build and retain the base of customers who purchase products associated with drivers and teams they’re fans of. According to NASCAR, nearly half of Fortune 100 companies invest in the racing league. In 2018, more than one in four (28%) of Fortune 500 companies continue to invest in NASCAR.

5. NASCAR Looks to Evolve

While fan perception has been that NASCAR is nothing more than a “good old boy” sport, the business is highly sophisticated. Much the way Major League Baseball has experienced an influx of Ivy Leaguers, NASCAR has added executives who are analytically minded. “It’s fair to say we’re in transition, but we also need to evolve,” [says Steve] Newmark [president of Roush Fenway Racing]. “I think the way we operated 20 years ago doesn’t apply in the context of this day and age with how technology is used and how consumers absorb advertiser messaging, and things of that nature.”

6. How Changes Impact Television and Attending Events

[T]elevision ratings have declined, and this isn’t unique to NASCAR. Most of the major sports have seen declines as competition for viewers has grown more challenging with the addition of hundreds of channels on television, streaming video services such as Netflix and Hulu, and gaming platforms. For NASCAR, retaining viewers has come with some fundamental changes.

The addition of stages to races has largely been well received. The format allows anyone to tune into a race at the beginning, middle or end and get the excitement that has largely come with just the checkered flag in the past. … Three out of four avid NASCAR fans 18-34 like stage racing, indicating a positive sign for the future of the sport with millennials. Beyond stage racing, many within the sport see the schedule flooded with too many of one race type. “We have too many mile-and-a-half races,” Gordon said. “All the technology on the cars have put us in a box on those tracks. So anything that shakes it up is something I’m in favor of.”

Based on the Forbes.com report, NASCAR is on track to generate new levels of excitement in the coming years.

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