SBD/Issue 151/Leagues & Governing Bodies

NASCAR Wrestling With Identity Crisis Amid Challenging Economy

NASCAR Is Seeing Its Attendance Drop As It
Struggles To Appeal To Two Types Of Fans

NASCAR is "wrestling with an identity crisis," as it is unclear if the sport can "appeal to both the chardonnay corporate crowd whose trackside condos at fancy new circuits fueled NASCAR's recent growth and the diehards whose unabashed passion for racin' and wreckin' built stock-car racing in the first place," according to Sean Gregory of TIME. Most sports "would love to have NASCAR's problems," as it "still routinely draws more than 100,000 fans for races." But '09 attendance fell around 10%, and empty seats "have pockmarked this year's races in Atlanta; Fontana, Calif.; and even venerable Bristol, which saw its 55-race sellout streak, dating to 1982, end in March." Since '05, average viewership of Sprint Cup races on network television "has fallen a remarkable 25%." The economic downturn "has hit hard" for NASCAR, as corporate sponsorship "has tailed off, car manufacturers have pared support, and a chunk of NASCAR's blue collar fan base can no longer afford a weekend at the track." But perhaps "worse than the bad economy, NASCAR has managed to make auto racing a little boring." The "feuding, aggressive drivers who gave NASCAR its personality seem to have lost their edge, blanded by their loyalty to corporate sponsors and by NASCAR's not unreasonable focus on safety." Driver Clint Bowyer: "I've got Cheerios for a sponsor. I have children at home who are buying our products in the stores and watching us race. I can't go out and act like an idiot on the racetrack." Gregory notes NASCAR also is "clearly suffering from Johnson fatigue," as driver Jimmie Johnson has won four consecutive Sprint Cup Championships. Meanwhile, NASCAR Chair & CEO Brian France indicated that NASCAR is "considering changing its points system, which currently rewards sustained excellence over the 36-race season rather than giving huge bonuses to drivers who win races" (TIME, 4/26 issue).

POWER PLAYER: USA TODAY's Nate Ryan in a sports-section cover story profiles ISC Vice Chair & CEO Lesa France Kennedy, who is "nearing her one-year anniversary" as ISC CEO. Forbes in October named her the most powerful woman in sports, but she "doesn't wield that clout publicly," as she is "reticent to discuss her personal success." France Kennedy "took the helm of ISC at a difficult time," as annual revenue last year dropped $94.1M and profit fell 95% to $6.8M. Meanwhile, there has been a "groundswell of support in the industry for France Kennedy taking a bigger role as the sport has cooled during the economic downturn." NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick said that France Kennedy is "well suited to lead a planned restructuring of NASCAR's licensing and merchandising." Hendrick: "She's had some really good ideas and sees where the market is going. She's as sharp as any CEO I've seen." Just Marketing Int'l Founder & CEO Zak Brown: "Don't underestimate her influence within NASCAR. ISC is the business card she carries, but she certainly has sway in NASCAR." But France Kennedy said that she is "mostly leaving the NASCAR stewardship to her brother," Brian France (USA TODAY, 4/20).

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