Challenges remain as NASCAR season ends
NASCAR wrapped up its season with a flourish two weekends ago in Miami, but the sport still faces serious challenges heading into 2018 amid the retirement of its most popular driver and still-declining TV viewership.
The 2017 season saw the introduction of Monster Energy as premier series title sponsor plus a new stage racing format, which splits the race into set breaks. It also saw a continuation of its changing of the guard on the track that started with Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards in 2015 and 2016, and was punctuated this year by the retirement of 14-time most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.
During their state-of-the-sport news conference at NASCAR’s season finale near Miami, Chairman and CEO Brian France and President Brent Dewar doled out positives about the future of the sport while conceding it remains in a state of change. Attendance was up at around 22 of the sport’s 36 annual races, according to France, which included sellouts at the final two events. However, admission revenue was down a number of times throughout the campaign for major track operators International Speedway Corp. and Speedway Motorsports Inc. ISC’s admissions did stabilize in the third quarter and were effectively flat versus the same period last year.
TV viewership for NASCAR is still the largest by far in U.S. motorsports, but for the season between Fox Sports and NBC Sports they were down 9 percent compared to 2016. Last year averaged 4.47 million viewers, compared to 4.07 million this season. NBC Sports was down only 2 percent for its portion of the slate, which narrowed the gap for NASCAR after Fox Sports was down 12 percent for its first half of the year.
Dewar told SportsBusiness Journal that NASCAR continues to deliver for its partners, bringing in some of FS1’s and NBCSN’s largest audiences. He added that the year included 22 weekends where NASCAR was the No. 1 sports event on TV that weekend. Fox said earlier in the year that its ad sales group saw a 5 percent uptick in ad revenue this year, despite its ratings drop.
“I think all of us in sports have our challenges and opportunities on any given day,” Dewar said. “[But] we’re a tentpole sport for FS1 and NBCSN and for their seasons we’re going to deliver some of the biggest audiences they have, and we’re proud of that.”
Sam Flood, NBC Sports’ executive producer, agreed. “NASCAR had a great season,” he said. “To have a new system in place with stage racing and have it accepted so universally so quickly was a really positive step. I think it certainly improved the racing: It added more strategy and drama … and for the audience, that’s a win.”
Flood noted that NBC’s viewership was close to flat for its part of the season, which he said was “amazing and a real tribute to what we’re working on and trying to accomplish with the sport.”
Dewar said the introduction of stage racing, combined with the networks showing more double-picture action instead of breaking for commercials, led to 40 percent more green-flag laps being televised this year. Tracks also innovated off the stages with new promotional ideas, including a food eating contest at the season finale at Homestead that was shown on video boards.
Steve Newmark, president of Roush Fenway Racing, said the industry collaboration has him bullish on the sport’s future. “The unprecedented collaboration in 2017 among the teams, drivers, NASCAR, tracks and our TV partners gives us a lot of optimism that we’ll continue to enhance our product on and off the track, with the end result being better and more varied opportunities to engage with and serve our fanbase,” Newmark wrote in a text message.
Andrew Murstein, majority owner of Richard Petty Motorsports, said he feels the sport is moving in the right direction with the introduction of the charter system, but that more drastic steps need to be taken, including with the Race Team Alliance.
“My personal view is that while the charter system is not moving as fast as I would like, it is moving in the right direction,” Murstein wrote in an email. “I believe the RTA should hire a full-time person like a commissioner. I spoke with [RTA chairman and Chip Ganassi Racing co-owner Rob Kauffman], and while he is doing a good job, we both thought there were a lot of benefits to having someone full time. Rob would be great but he has many other business interests.”
Most believe new title sponsor Monster had a solid start but did experience some growing pains. Some insiders pointed to the challenge of meshing assets Monster received from NASCAR with deals that tracks had with other brands. For example, at the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Ford and Monster both received signage on the flagstand because the track has a longstanding deal with the automaker.
Monster will have to decide by the early part of next year whether to renew its two-year, $20 million annual deal for 2019 and 2020, and industry executives familiar with the matter remain split over whether NASCAR will be able to secure the renewal. Most would like to see a renewal for continuity sake, but some executives were frustrated by Monster’s approach to the sport in terms of reduced activation and what at times were seen as abrasive negotiating tactics. Monster vice president Mitch Covington has declined interviews.
This NASCAR season also saw the sport introduce its enhanced, or two-day, weekend schedule designed to find a more optimal format and save teams money, where on four weekends it only had Monster Energy Series on-track action on Saturday and Sunday and held new fanfest events, mostly on the Friday when there was no on-track action for the premier series. Dewar said NASCAR will continue with the enhanced schedules at more races in 2018.
NASCAR added 12 official partners during the campaign and extended with incumbent partners including Exxon-Mobil and Goodyear. However, longtime beer sponsor Coors Light is unlikely to renew its deal that expires after this year, sources said, though the sides said they were still talking as of prestige.