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11:40 AM Tue, Sept. 25th

Column: NASCAR’s big changes start at Daytona 500

NASCAR began its 2017 season on Sunday in the traditional way, with the Daytona 500. But if you ask the sport’s most loyal fans, that’s about all the tradition that remains.

One of the most visible changes to the Cup series - stock car racing’s highest level - is a new sponsor, Monster Energy, which is famous for edgy marketing. After an exhibition race the week before the 500, the Monster Girls were seen parading in victory lane wearing skimpy leather outfits, leaving little to the imagination. Offended fans took to social media to accuse them of looking like hookers – or worse. Appropriate or not, sex has long been one of the pillars of NASCAR’s marketing efforts along with booze and patriotism.

Monster is giving NASCAR exactly what it thought it was getting when it signed a short term naming rights deal last year at a fraction of the price it sought. The sport isn’t nearly as popular as it was in its heyday a decade ago. That’s why Sprint elected to pass on an option to renew its 13-year arrangement with NASCAR and why it took two years to find a new title sponsor. According to those familiar with the terms of the new contract, Monster agreed to a two-year $20 million deal, substantially below NASCAR’s asking price of $100 million a year for 10 years.

If you think Monster acquired NASCAR on the cheap, there’s good reason for it. Since 2005 the sport’s TV viewership is down 45%, according to an analysis of Nielsen ratings by SportsBusinessDaily. Those numbers shouldn’t be judged in the abstract, as most sports properties have fallen on hard times when measured by television viewership. But NASCAR’s drop off is twice that of the NBA and NFL viewership has only fallen 8% according to Nielsen data.

A Wall Street Journal article published the week before the Daytona 500 blamed NASCAR’s precipitous fall on dysfunctional leadership. The leadership troika includes Brian France, who heads NASCAR, his sister Lesa France Kennedy, who runs International Speedway Corporation, owner of Daytona International Speedway and a majority of the tracks that host races, and their uncle, Jim France. Fair or not the unflattering article pointed out a number of missteps the three have made since the death of Bill France, Jr. who is the son of NASCAR’s founder, father of Brian and Lesa and Jim’s brother.

Another change this year, which seems to have the support of virtually everyone in the sport, is a new points system. Races are now divided into thirds with points awarded after each segment. The change was initiated by NBC executives concerned by another drop in ratings last year. They insisted on radical changes that would hopefully drive viewership. A group composed of racing-team executives, drivers and track operators along with TV executives devised the new formula and NASCAR signed off on the proposal.

The old is also new this year. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is back on the track. A 14-time winner of the most popular driver award, Earnhardt was sidelined for the second half of last season with concussion–related symptoms that threatened to shelve him permanently. While not the most successful driver on the track, Earnhardt has been the face of the sport virtually from the day his father died in a last-lap accident during the 2001 Daytona 500. While Junior appears to be healthy, medical experts readily admit that concussion science is in its infancy. No one knows what the future holds.

Earnhardt was leading the Daytona 500 at the half-way point but got caught up in a hard crash that had NASCAR nation holding its collective breath. Although he finished a distant 37th he was able to walk away from his mangled car, great news for a sport whose popularity is so dependent on its drivers.

NASCAR can make all the changes it wants, but the best tonic for the sport is tradition, in the form of a healthy Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a Professor in and Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Jordan can be reached at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.