The 2018 NASCAR season is about 8 weeks away. With it comes a whole host of questions about the future of the sport. Not surprising. We’ve been bemoaning the struggles for the last several years, but the situation continues to get worse. It seems like no matter what button NASCAR execs push, it only slows the bleeding, not stops it.
What will Monster decide?
The biggest question facing Brian France is whether he’s got a title sponsor past next season. Monster Energy jumped in at the last minute to replace Sprint, but it was only a two-year deal with a two-year option. Consider this: NASCAR has had only three title sponsors in its history. RJR/Winston lasted 32 years, Nextel/Sprint 12 years. Monster signing a two-year deal speaks volumes about a company wanting to get tied long-term to this organization.
Bizjournals.com reports that Monster Energy is paying around $20 million annually to sponsor NASCAR, far less than the reported $50 million Sprint was said to have paid. That’s a $60 million swing NASCAR had to swallow with no guarantee past 2018. Bizjournals.com also reports Monster asked NASCAR to extend the December deadline in which they had to give a decision about continuing the sponsorship. NASCAR doesn’t exactly scream young demo, so it’s possible Monster feels the sport doesn’t fit their brand.
While NASCAR has a title sponsor problem, individual teams have it even worse. The economics of running one car, let alone two, for a 36-race season has proven too much for some of the smaller outfits. Teams aren’t usually open about their expenses, but in a 2015 interview with Italian magazine Autosprint, Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner Gene Haas stated the cost of running a NASCAR race car is about $20 million per car per year. That comes to $555,000 per race just for the car. Add in all the mechanics and pit crew members and office staff, etc, etc, etc…you get the idea. Either you need an owner like Haas for whom racing is more of a side gig to the millions he makes as a tool manufacturer, or you need sponsors with some deep pockets. That or a whole bunch of shallower pockets that a team can rotate through. When the duration of sponsorships is no longer measured in seasons but in months or a few races here and there, constantly prospecting for money has become an art. No wonder the smaller teams can’t keep up, they simply don’t have the resources to run competitively for a whole season.
Declining attendance and TV ratings. Not sure what more can be said about the biggest threat hanging over NASCAR. Gate attendance is way down at most tracks and TV ratings set new record lows each year. Fans are simply tuning out a product they have little interest in. And who can blame them? Forbes.com analyzed 23 Cup races in 2017, noting that 18 of those 23 lasted in the three-hour range. That’s an eternity for TV viewers nowadays. Every other major sport is wrestling with shorter attention spans and speeding up the contest, baseball being the most notable. NASCAR should look at shortening races. They should also look at shortening the season, but I’ll leave that for a different time. Network executives have reportedly offered suggestions to NASCAR officials for gaining viewers, such as moving races to mid-week in primetime, but it’s unclear how those suggestions were received.
If you want to tie the previous two points together, sponsorships will be increasingly difficult to come by if NASCAR can’t figure out how to be relevant to today’s fan. A logo on the hood of a car does no good if people aren’t watching a race to see it. Sponsors see the numbers as well and are concerned. NASCAR, for the most part, is still an older fan’s sport. It’s not attracting the key 18-34 age demographic that advertisers crave. To their credit, NASCAR has done something, even if it may not have been the right something. The Chase and stage victories were meant to liven up the race and make it more interesting. Mixed reviews on those changes, the jury is still out. I look forward to the addition of Charlotte’s Roval as a playoff race for 2018. A road course shows off different skills and talents for drivers.
Speaking of drivers, NASCAR has got a pretty good group of young talent emerging. Problem with emerging talent is they haven’t been around long enough to develop a strong following. NASCAR is all about team/brand loyalty, but it usually takes years to build that. The newer faces are off to a great start, with Chase Elliott leading the way. Excitement over Bubba Wallace helps. Add in Kyle Larson, Erik Jones, Austin Dillon, Ryan Blaney and Daniel Saurez and the future state looks good. 2018 will be a year in which NASCAR needs to clearly mark the turning of the page and put its marketing money/muscle behind these guys. This should be the primary focus of the season. Doing that helps build a newer and younger fan base to take over for the aging ones. That, in turn, will help get sponsors excited and more willing to be on board for where the sport is headed. Forget all the nonsense about wanting to promote the “team” of the sport, NASCAR needs new faces and new stars. Get those in line, and all the other points mentioned above become much easier to achieve.