SBJ/20081117/This Week's News
Ho-hum evolution for NASCAR’s Chase
Published November 17, 2008
As it ends its fifth edition, the playoff-style Chase for the Sprint Cup has generated as much or more debate than any facet of NASCAR. The radical departure it represented from NASCAR’s roots was hailed as both a revolutionary move by NASCAR CEO Brian France and a slap in the face to the sport’s traditionalists.
But the question hovering over the Chase is whether it’s really changed anything on the business side.
It would be hard to tell by asking Ed Clark, president of Atlanta Motor Speedway, who cheerfully surrendered an October slot in the 10-race Chase for a date on Labor Day weekend, two weeks before the Chase begins.
“We had to weigh that, but honestly, it didn’t take us long to make that decision,” Clark said of the opportunity to move to a holiday weekend and run at night.
NASCAR’s playoffs, designed to elevate interest at the end of the season and keep the competition closer, has succeeded in creating more story lines on the track, even though Jimmie Johnson appeared to be on his way to his third straight championship. But it has not delivered the playoff-style lift in TV ratings or ticket demand.
Attendance for Chase races continued its downward trend against last year in the mid-single digits in percentages, just as they have all season.
Title sponsorships to Chase and non-Chase races work off the same rate card. There’s little to no premium attached to title sponsoring a Chase event, according to track officials.
Texas Motor Speedway charges fans a premium for tickets to its Chase race, but it’s one of few tracks to do so. At most venues with two dates, the first race in the spring drives more robust ticket sales than the fall race.
TV ratings, once a silver lining to NASCAR’s season, slumped to the finish, with ESPN experiencing declines for Atlanta, Martinsville and Charlotte, while the Texas race was flat. The 3.7 Chase average going into last weekend’s season finale was trending just below the 3.8 number for all 10 Chase races last year. Only three of the 10 Chase races have seen their ratings grow from the first year of the Chase in 2004, and two of those appeared on TNT in the Chase’s early years.
All in all, Julie Sobieski, ESPN’s vice president of programming and acquisitions, gives the Chase a 5 on a scale of 10, while Speed President Hunter Nickell describes it as a work in progress.
“We still see this as a great opportunity to grow the Chase into a playoff and see the lift in key metrics — ratings, ticket sales, sponsorship sales — that other sports get during their championships,” Sobieski said.
“For us, the Chase is our big investment. It’s at a time of year when it’s highly competitive for eyeballs, for sponsor dollars. … If we can get the last race in Miami to pull the same number as the Daytona 500, everyone will benefit.”
But there are significant obstacles to growing the Chase, namely that none of NASCAR’s crown jewel events are part of it. Treated as an entity itself, the Chase is the fourth-most-promoted event on the NASCAR schedule, most marketers agree.
The season-opening Daytona 500 and Speedweeks easily rank first, while the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis and Charlotte’s May combination of the Sprint All-Star Race and Coca-Cola 600 would be second and third.
How can the Chase become a marquee property without any historically marquee events?
“You’re talking about icons on the schedule,” said NASCAR’s Jim Obermeyer, managing director of brand and consumer marketing. And the race date is an important ingredient in making a race iconic.
Would Indianapolis Motor Speedway surrender its July date as the first event on ABC/ESPN’s 17-race schedule and all the promotion that goes with it for a spot in the Chase?
“That’s an interesting premise,” said Joie Chitwood, the speedway’s president and COO. “We’d look at it, but it’s not as easy as saying yes or no. We’d be giving up a lot.”
What about Bristol Motor Speedway and its ultra-successful August date that has sold out 53 straight races and seats 160,000 fans. Think track President Jeff Byrd would swap his date for one in the Chase?
“We wouldn’t change unless a significant majority of our fans wanted to change it,” he said. “In this economy, if you do anything to upset the fans, you’re going to pay for it. As things stand now, that date is part of our tradition. People plan for that weekend. A lot of our ticket holders are still on summer vacation, so it’s really convenient for them.”
Convincing NASCAR fans that the race for the championship is just as important as the race for the checkered flag that day is another obstacle.
“The No. 1 reason fans go to the track is to see who wins that day,” said Mark Dyer, CEO of Motorsports Authentics and a former NASCAR executive. “The championship is secondary. … I think it does require a sort of cultural change for the fans.”
That’s a task that NASCAR, the tracks and sponsors can attack jointly, said Steve Gaffney, director of sports marketing for Sprint.
“Part of our responsibility is to make them care what’s going on with the points,” Gaffney said. “Why don’t we actively engage the fans, whether it’s with SprintVision or FanView, and have a point machination so that they’re reminded of the big picture. That’s on us, to make the Chase more visible.”
That cultural change extends to those marketing the Chase as well. NASCAR convened a group of influential decision-makers at its New York offices last January to tackle the issues facing the Chase.
Among those there were track operators Speedway Motorsports and International Speedway, ESPN, Sprint and Octagon, the marketing agency that represents Sprint.
A branding plan was conceived to present the Chase with more consistency, from the broadcaster to the tracks to the promotions.
“We wanted to make the visibility of the Chase unique from the other 26 races,” Obermeyer said. “When you see that red, white and blue bunting at a baseball park, you know it’s the playoffs. We want the Chase races to have that identity, whether it’s in signage, tune-in messages or the infield grass.”
Eight of the 10 tracks in the Chase bought in, using the black and yellow branding. Texas and Atlanta were the two that declined, saying that the signage, grass infield and other visible track assets were too valuable to donate.
“We have seen the fruits of the cooperation in the branding and consistency, but it’s still a property in its infancy,” Gaffney said. “The devil in the details is that you’ve got 10 Chase races and 10 different track promoters all looking to fill the stands. They have to make decisions in the best interest of their track. The Chase has not been the draw that they hoped it would be, but that’s why it’s important to move it up in stature.”