By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. USA Today's Brant James had an excellent summation of NASCAR's search to replace Sprint as its title sponsor, suggesting that this time around NASCAR is a much less appealing - and less costly - sponsorship proposition. This marks just the third time since 1971 that the Daytona Beach-based racing organization has had to replace its title sponsor. James, in an excellent piece, covered all bases in presenting the state of the sponsorship search, including bullish comments from NASCAR executives and from Zak Brown, CEO of CSM Sport & Entertainment (and a rumored player in the future of F1).
To remind everyone, as James reported, Nextel signed a massive (and ridiculously optimistic) 10-year, $750 million deal to become title sponsor beginning in 2004, according to the Kansas City Star, and Sprint, after the takeover of Nextel, signed a three-year extension through the end of this season at a reduced rate of about $50 million in rights and activations fees, according to Sports-Business Daily.
Despite the obligatory bullish comments from NASCAR CEO Brent Dewar and Kim Meesters, general manager of the NASCAR sponsorship search, there is no question that NASCAR is not in a good position and is more of a tough sell than anything else. The spoils that NASCAR enjoyed in its heyday are long gone, and though the racing organization has deep pockets and could fund the series by itself in 2017, it needs a title sponsor in order to save face.
This also aligns with the organization's relentless self-importance and outsized view of itself in the marketing world. Make no mistake, the powers that be in NASCAR believe that the organization is still "the straw that stirs the drink" in the sports marketing business, despite the fact that it peaked - in terms of in-person attendance and TV ratings - back in 2007. The NASCAR brain trust has steadfastly ignored and shrugged its shoulders at the fact that the series has been in decline for nine years, suggesting that the naysayers were just "nattering nabobs of negativism" and that things were all good with the series and the sport.
In the past, NASCAR reveled in the fact that Nextel grossly overpaid in 2004, which warped its thinking to a large degree and contributed to its inflated view of itself in the sports marketing world. And when it still managed to extract a huge sum from Sprint for the last three years, the sense of "What, us worry?" just oozed out of Daytona Beach like a smug cloud that hung in the dank Florida air. The television networks, being insatiable whores for content, no matter where it came from, contributed to NASCAR's bloated idea of itself. And the chief enablers from the auto companies kept the ball rolling and fueled NASCAR's serial myopia.
The reality for NASCAR in this go-around is that not only is the bloom off of the rose, but any "specialness" associated with NASCAR has become a distant memory. All of the blue-sky optimism surrounding the series a decade ago is now so much dust in the wind. How ugly has it gotten for the brainiacs down in Daytona Beach? Much to the chagrin of the NASCAR brain trust, the racing organization has become just another sports property to be parsed and picked over by the content hounds at the TV networks. Don't understand this "content" game that dominates the network honchos thinking? You only have to look at the largely empty grandstands for Xfinity races to understand what the whole "content" game really means, because the TV networks ultimately don't care as long as they can fill the air time - and hopefully - hustle ad space.
What does it all mean? Any organization contemplating a sponsorship partnership with NASCAR will bring a very skeptical and realistic sense of what the racing series' current place in the sports marketing world is. The long litany of NASCAR sins has been exposed and can no longer be ignored: The death march of a schedule (the most ridiculous schedule in all of sports, and that's saying something when you have the NBA and the NHL operating), including the double visits to the same tracks, some within six weeks of each other; the total oversaturation that comes with that reality; the waning interest and attendance that translates into flat to down TV ratings and empty grandstands at its most prestigious events; the painful adherence to traditional NASCAR-isms that don't matter anymore (five wheel lug nuts when the racing world moved to center locking hubs a decade ago, the lack of on-board jacking systems, the use of fuel cans instead of dry-break refueling hoses, etc.); the excruciatingly slow embrace of technology (NASCAR adapted electronic fuel-injection just four years ago, after manufacturers have been using it on production and racing cars for decades). I could go on.
Saying NASCAR should expect less because the sports marketing environment has changed - a common refrain emanating from NASCAR headquarters and with some aplogists - is a fundamental refusal of basic accountability on the part of the brain trust in Daytona Beach. That NASCAR executives refuse to take responsibility for the downward spiral the racing organization finds itself in is stunning and sad. Instead, everything else gets blamed - the changing sports marketing environment, the changing demographics, etc. I wouldn't be surprised if sun spots get blamed for NASCAR's current predicament. You get the picture.
This organization has ignored the prevailing winds for more than a decade. NASCAR could have moved to shorten its Cup schedule, but it didn't. NASCAR could have added more road races to the schedule while still cutting the total number of race weekends, but it didn't. NASCAR could have moved to clean up its pit stop practices to improve safety, but it didn't. In short, NASCAR, as a racing organization, could have initiated myriad changes to present itself as a contemporary entity with a forward take on the future. Instead it put its head in the sand, dodged reality and chose a path of obfuscation, which impeded meaningful progress at every juncture.
Make no mistake, NASCAR will land a title sponsor, but it will be at a dramatically reduced rate. And the changes in the way NASCAR operates - if any - will come in excruciating drips and drabs. And if NASCAR continues to fuel its own painful downward spiral, don't be surprised if it ends up being a regional series again, because that's exactly where it's headed.
And that's the High-Octane Truth for this week.
Editor's Note: Many of you have seen Peter's references over the years to the Hydrogen Electric Racing Federation (HERF), which he launched in 2007. For those of you who weren't following AE at the time, you can read two of HERF's press releases here and here. And for even more details (including a link to Peter's announcement speech), check out the HERF entry on Wikipedia here. -WG
Publisher's Note: As part of our continuing series celebrating the "Glory Days" of racing, we're proud to present another noteworthy image from the Ford Racing Archives. - PMD
(Courtesy of the Ford Racing Archives)
Daytona Beach, Florida, February 17, 1966. Cale Yarborough (No. 27 Banjo Matthews Abington Motors Ford) leading a pack of cars during that year's NASCAR Grand National Daytona 500. Yarborough would run second to winner Richard Petty (No. 43 Petty Enterprises Plymouth GTX) and David Pearson (No. 6 Cotton Owens Southeastern Dodge Dealers Dodge) finished third. Watch a great video here.