SBD/February 22, 2013/NASCAR Season Preview

France Hopes Gen-6 Cars, Patrick Can Create Excitement, Revenue For NASCAR

France thinks the media-rights inflation will continue "for the foreseeable future"
NASCAR Chair & CEO Brian France hopes Danica Patrick running from the pole and a "new generation of cars on show at this weekend’s Daytona 500 race will end a run of disappointing ratings, falling ticket sales and patchy sponsorship" for the sport, according to Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson of the FINANCIAL TIMES. The economy has been "unkind" to NASCAR, and "worries about a shrinking and aging fan base have also affected sponsors." France said, "It's been choppy." He added that some large sponsors have "cut back ... but Sprint has extended its deal until 2016 and 114 Fortune 500 companies now back Nascar, more than in 2008." Edgecliffe-Johnson reported the new Gen-6 cars are France's "latest effort to encourage tighter races around Daytona’s banked turns." They are "based on standard models such as the Toyota Camry and Ford Fusion, but with new features such as wider bumpers and lighter, more aerodynamic bodies" that France hopes will encourage “close competition and lots of passing." Meanwhile, France hopes to extend NASCAR's TV deals with ESPN and Turner Sports "by late summer." He said, “We know the sports landscape is very favourable to premium sports producers and we’ll be pricing for that." France added that he is "confident that rights inflation will continue 'for the foreseeable future' as competition intensifies among networks for events that deliver large live audiences to advertisers" (FINANCIAL TIMES, 2/21). The WALL STREET JOURNAL's A.J. Baime writes NASCAR "will be getting the overhaul it needs" with the debut of the Gen-6 car, the series' "most innovative overhaul since 2007." This machine "aims to put the 'stock' back into stock-car racing." Fans will see "cars recognizable as a Ford, a Chevy or a Toyota" (WALL STREET JOURNAL, 2/22).

SLOW OUT OF THE GATE: ESPN.com's Ed Hinton wrote under the header, "So Far, Not So Good." Following a lack of action during the Budweiser Duels Thursday, Hinton wrote, "We still have yet to see Gen 6 in a full contingent of 43 cars. ... But right now, it doesn't look good. And NASCAR's showcase race is not the best place to flop." The Gen-6 was supposed to "look like your street car," and "it does." Hinton: "And that's about how it runs at Daytona" (ESPN.com, 2/21). SI.com's Cary Estes wrote the drivers have "yet to gain a comfortable feel of the new car design." There were "several multi-car accidents during practice sessions in the week" leading up to the Budweiser Duels, which prompted the drivers to "take a cautious approach during the first actual racing of the season as they continue to learn what the new car can and cannot do in traffic" (SI.com, 2/21). But NASCAR President Mike Helton said there was a "collaboration" between NASCAR, the drivers and the manufacturers on the new car and "that has a lot to do with the energy and the excitement around this car that originates in the garage." Helton: "This is very visible and it reaches all the stakeholders in our sport, particularly the OEMs and the teams, who played a big role in developing it and having it presented the way it is" ("NASCAR Now," ESPN2, 2/20).

LIMITLESS POTENTIAL: USA TODAY's Brady & Ryan in a front-page piece write if Patrick wins Sunday's race, she would "suddenly be better known as a Daytona 500 winner than for her appearances in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue ... and her provocative Super Bowl commercials for Go Daddy." Sports Business Group President David Carter said, "There would be, I hesitate to say, unprecedented media coverage. ... But the amount of coverage if she wins would transcend the racing category." Fox analyst and NASCAR HOFer Darrell Waltrip said if Patrick wins, it would "change this sport forever, take it to another level -- I promise you" (USA TODAY, 2/22). CBS News' Mark Strassmann noted despite Patrick averaging a 28th place finish in her 10 Sprint Cup starts last season, NASCAR “is heavily promoting” her. The sport "hopes she can grow and diversify its fan base, two-thirds of whom are men” (“Evening News,” CBS, 2/21).

CROWD SOURCING: USA TODAY's Nate Ryan reports NASCAR last week announced that it was "getting out of the business of including crowd estimates in its official race reports." The estimates often were "inflated by laughable proportions, sometimes off by 10,000 or more." In "shrouding attendance figures in secrecy, tracks hide behind the excuse that they can't provide them because it's tantamount to providing earnings guidance." But it "meshes poorly with NASCAR's recent thrust to embrace transparency that dovetails with a five-year industry action plan to stabilize an eroding fan base by attracting a younger, hipper and more diverse audience" (USA TODAY, 2/22).

A CASE FOR THE CHASE: SI.com's Lars Anderson wrote many long-time NASCAR fans "still pine for the days of the old points system, but it's hard to argue that the Chase format hasn't achieved exactly what it was designed to do, which was to create more compelling finishes to the season." That begs the question as to why NASCAR's TV ratings and attendance have "taken a nosedive in the last six years." The answer is "complex, but it's rooted, I think, in four overriding factors: the economic downturn, which hit NASCAR fans especially hard; the wide-spread distaste for the Car of Tomorrow, which debuted in 2007; the general lack of thrilling, on-track racing for the last few years; and the growing disparity in the sport between the haves and the have-nots" (SI.com, 2/20).
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