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Volume 22 No. 34
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Monster provides shift in NASCAR narrative

NASCAR faced another year of dueling narratives in 2016.

While still the largest form of American motorsports, NASCAR has been beset by decreases in attendance and television ratings for years. The sport wasn’t able to shake those trends this season, though it did see upticks in areas such as digital and social media, and continued strength in business-to-business deals. Backers also point out that NASCAR’s numbers continue to rival many top sports’ metrics, even with the downturns.

TV viewership was down about 8 percent in 2016 for NASCAR’s premier series, from an average of 5.0 million per race last year to 4.6 million this year. Attendance figures are not available, but both of the sport’s publicly traded track operators saw decreases in admissions revenue in 2016, as of third-quarter reports, indicating attendance itself was likely down. And the industry became stressed in recent months as NASCAR’s search for a title sponsor went on longer than expected.

Still, NASCAR is emboldened by Monster now filling that title sponsor spot, consumption numbers that TV partners say they’re satisfied with, and what was mostly seen as an improved on-track product.

“I think the biggest issue they’ve got is with the narrative of the doom and gloom of the sport — and it just isn’t accurate,” said David Grant, principal of Team Epic. “The idea of being able to just stop the questions about, ‘Oh my gosh, you have a lame-duck partner [in Sprint] and no one else coming in,’ that’s now over. I think if any other sport could have the kind of popularity, television ratings, presence on broadcast, attendance, on-site consumption [that NASCAR has], I think any sport would jump at that chance. Yet somehow NASCAR is being taken to task for it.”

Grant pointed to the introduction of Liberty Mutual this year as a new sponsor, and longtime iconic NASCAR sponsor Tide making a reintroduction. Alternatively, a few key brands announced exits from the sport, including Dollar General, Farmers Insurance, Cheez-it and Zest.

Jon Miller, NBC Sports president of programming, pointed out that Sprint Cup Series races account for the five most-watched programs ever on NBC Sports Network, which he added had its best year ever in terms of viewership.

Still, some team and brand executives continue to privately say they are alarmed at the incremental slides. For example, at this year’s Motorsports Marketing Forum, Heidi Massey-Bong, senior business adviser of NASCAR sponsorship for Shell, noted the challenge of facing fellow Shell executives and defending spends in motorsports amid ratings declines.

From his perspective, NASCAR Chief Operating Officer Brent Dewar said the sport’s participants are perhaps working more closely together than ever thanks to the new charter system and subsequent new councils like the track council, which was designed to have disparate track owners work together.

However, in the first year of the charter system, which is designed to help overhaul the sport’s ownership model, HScott Motorsports has shut down and Tommy Baldwin Racing has stopped full-time racing. Ramsey Poston, president of Tuckahoe Strategies, which represents outgoing HScott owner Harry Scott, pointed out that these exits, along with last year’s exit of Michael Waltrip Racing, indicate that important team-side issues persist for NASCAR, which is seen as needing to inject fresh ownership blood into the sport.