SBJ/Dec. 2-8, 2013/Opinion

Emphasis is on action for NASCAR’s business plans

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NASCAR hits Las Vegas this week for its annual awards banquet, and SportsBusiness Journal/Daily will be holding our 14th annual Motorsports Marketing Forum that will look at some of the key business issues facing the industry. For NASCAR, this marks the series’ small window to step back, take a breath and assess where things are. Frankly, I think the sport can feel good about some of the action plans it has taken on. Here are a few areas that I’ve been keeping an eye on:

> THE BUSINESS: The question I’m always asked on NASCAR is about ratings, attendance and sponsorship support. On ratings and the overall television front, the story is trending in the right direction. As has been written, TV ratings have stabilized and are not experiencing the downward trend that was so alarming from 2007-10. I won’t get into the debate of whether it’s the No. 2 TV performer after the NFL; that could be the subject of an entire issue, but it’s easy to say NASCAR is a top weekend performer from February through October. Few can say that. The sport also saw some growth in key areas that executives are focused on: young males and Hispanics, which were up 4 percent and 40 percent, respectively, in viewership. The big takeaway is that NASCAR saw interest in the open market for its rights and was able to translate that into significant new deals with Fox and NBC, who will pay a combined $8.2 billion over the next 10 years, and that represents a more than 40 percent increase in rights fees. That’s a positive step and allows NASCAR the chance to build viewership across networks, and their cable outlets, that are excited about it and invested in it.

On the attendance and sponsorship front, it’s a day-by-day work in progress. Face it, tracks overbuilt and have far too much inventory to sell. Ticket sales remain a huge challenge, and tracks are being forced to right-size their buildings, which has to take place for the long term. The problem for NASCAR is even when a race sells a healthy 85,000 tickets or more, it pales to their previous numbers and the optics are negative.

On the sponsorship side, one of my favorite deals of the year was NASCAR’s progressive deal with HP. It was a new partner and a smart deal, as technological innovation is vital for NASCAR as it looks to be more relevant to today’s youth. I liked HP working with NASCAR to create the sport’s Fan & Media Engagement Center in Charlotte, which tracks and analyzes social media trends so that the sport, racetracks, teams and sponsors better understand fans. Some complain to me that one can’t monetize such an effort, but I believe, in the long term, NASCAR can turn that information into a valuable asset. But further down the food chain, tracks and teams continue to fight for sponsorship dollars; evidence of the tough marketplace is the fact that the No. 88 car driven by the sport’s biggest star still has 13 available races entering 2014.

> A LONG TIME TO BE GONE, AND A SHORT TIME TO BE THERE: One element that bodes well for NASCAR was born of another progressive initiative — a breakthrough from its diversity programs. Chairman and CEO Brian France has made a major investment into that plan for years, and many grew frustrated with the long time it took to develop drivers. Some may have even given up and believed it wouldn’t produce any results. But this year, NASCAR got the story lines it’s long sought when Darrell Wallace Jr. won a truck series race and Kyle Larson was selected to drive in the Sprint Cup Series by Earnhardt Ganassi. Those are seeds of growth. … I really like the vision employed by Daytona International Speedway President Joie Chitwood as he looks to remake that historic speedway, and I believe that will be one of the major facility reinventions for all the sports industry to watch. … I’m also interested to see what SMI does regarding potentially downsizing its Charlotte track and the impact of its massive mega-board at the Texas Motor Speedway. Some have argued to me that money could be better spent on other forms of tech amenities for the fans at the Texas track in smaller forms and doses, but regardless, I see it as evidence that tracks are working to improve the race-day experience. … Finally, NASCAR will enter next year with a strong story to tell, as Jimmie Johnson will be chasing his seventh Cup title, which would put him even with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, and that meshes well with the NASCAR/ESPN ad creative that ran at the end of this year. Daytona also should get a viewership boost via Fox’s promotion of the race during its heavily hyped coverage of Super Bowl XLVIII from MetLife Stadium.

> COME TOGETHER, RIGHT NOW: Key to all these changes in the sport is a more macro-cultural shift that shouldn’t be overlooked. One of the elements that NASCAR’s top executives have worked hard on over the last few years is aligning the various constituencies across their sport — series, tracks, teams, drivers — to work together on important initiatives. Too often, groups were working independently and NASCAR especially was seen as making decisions without much, if any, input from the rest of the stakeholders. Alignment, however, isn’t easy, and one top executive likened the process of getting everyone to work together to the excruciatingly slow process of moving a freight ship. Despite the slow nature of progress, better alignment should result in a smarter, more efficient and nimble industry. That’s why it stood out to me when NASCAR President Mike Helton mentioned that during his state of the sport address in Homestead, Fla., where he cited the benefit of bringing in “more of the industry to help us” when making important decisions. He added, “The dialogue between NASCAR and its competitors has never been stronger.” He talked of “a broadening” of leadership, “where the business of NASCAR has more people involved in it to help the industry be better.” This has been a critical strategy employed by leadership, and it’s a smart, but difficult, culture shift for which NASCAR officials deserve credit. Overall, the sport still faces economic and business challenges. It needs to get younger, it needs a more diverse fan base, it needs more new money investing in the sport. NASCAR’s brass understands that and is seemingly embracing progressive plans to address that. That’s often the hardest part of the battle.

> THE LEGACY OF MICHAEL WEINER: I met the late Michael Weiner only once; it was at our World Congress of Sports, where he was a speaker. Our time together was short, but I came away better for it. I have never seen such universal respect and admiration for anyone in the sports business, a testament to his quality, humility and the mark he made on so many people’s lives. Our staff writer Liz Mullen writes of her memories of him on Page 18, and I asked our MLB writer Eric Fisher of his thoughts. Eric wrote me last week: “So much in sports, and life in general, is viewed in binary terms. I win. You lose. Or vice versa. And for more than four decades, baseball labor relations operated essentially the same way, a fractious, scarring battle with players and owners each determined to not only improve their own working conditions but so often to belittle the other side. Then came along Michael Weiner, at once a visionary and pragmatist who saw that protecting players’ rights and addressing owner concerns need not be mutually exclusive ideas. The MLB Players Association is often called ‘the strongest labor union in America.’ There’s a reason for that claim. While so many other unions have faced accusations of being overly top-heavy and disconnected from their members, the MLBPA’s fierce inclusivity of all its players has been a hallmark of its existence. Weiner took that spirit of inclusivity giant steps beyond his own membership, drawing in anyone he met and garnering a truly rare and deep level of respect across the industry. While Weiner is gone far too soon, his ideals and principles remain as a crucial lesson for everyone.”

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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