For NASCAR, Older May Not Be Better
In my poking around the other day, I ran across this article from ESPN talking about a real issue that faces NASCAR in the coming years: Their stars are getting grey around the temples, and nobody is really stepping up to take over.
I personally can remember a long time back seeing a young Jeff Gordon making his first appearance at Daytona. I was there, in the infield watching him practice, watching him prove early in his career that he really could do it. His arrival was at a critical time in NASCAR history, with Richard Petty retiring and the sport on the edge of a major upswing in popularity. He stepped into that role and has been one of the poster boys for NASCAR. Now he’s turning 42 and his salad days are long since past, the main course is about done and perhaps we can move on to coffee and desert.
It wasn’t that long ago that NASCAR ran the “Young Guns” promotion with Gillette. Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards and Jamie McMurray were the 6 in 2006, and now… they are 35, 38, 37,35,33, and 37 respectively, not exactly the “young” you would expect. That particularly fan favorite Earnhardt jr is quickly approaching 40 is not a good sign for the sport, which is facing tough times these days.
The whole thing gets a little further into trouble when you look at the sport overall – the same venues year in and year out, almost in the same order every year… the 90s had plenty of track additions and changing dates, with some traditional tracks lost. Now the track selection is a series of corporately owned tracks built more for their ability to sell corporate boxes in the 90s than any real concept for a fan sport.
The results are as we discussed last time, corporate track owned SMI is moving to remove seats from their facilities as they come to realize the product isn’t as popular as it was. Moreover, they face declining demographics, with the fan base seeming to age even faster than the drivers. While Ricky Stenhouse jr is 25, his only other competition for Rookie of the year is his 31 year old girlfriends Danica Patrick, and they are both pretty much flailing, with Danica in particular getting a bit of a reputation for crashing. On last year’s series champ Brad Keselowski is under 30, but this year he is only doing so so. According to EPSN, the average age of the drivers likely to make a championship run (in the contrived chase) is almost 37 years old.
NASCAR’s problems go back to a simple issue of money. Even Ryan Newman, recent winner at Indy, is out of a ride at the end of this year, and he admitted that “20 million dollar sponsorships” don’t just drop out of the sky. That by itself tells you the problem, with 43 cars on the grid (and a couple of pretenders), there is a need for near 1 billion dollars a year of sponsorships to make this really work out, and that’s just not realistic. Years of guaranteed starting spots for the top 35 teams and such as pretty much made it a negative to be an upstart in this game, and few come knocking on the door – and most of them come with minimum money and end up doing start and park to make a profit and lower their risk. There now appears to be enough money to really support maybe 20-25 teams, and the rest are either playing out of the owners pocket or making small sponsors stretch by trying to stay out of trouble racing and taking home a paycheck.
Perhaps the most telling situation is that of Earnhardt Jr, who’s car is short sponsorship for at least some of the races this year. This guy has about the highest possible profile and the most exposure at every race, and there still isn’t a line up to put money on the table.
NASCAR also gets to deal with the fact that Fox is to some extent waving the white flag as well. While they have re-upped and signed up with NASCAR until 2024, they are also on the cusp of shutting down the all auto racing SpeedTV (aka Speedvision) channel, to replace it with Fox Sports 1, which will be as much about stick and ball sports as anything NASCAR. While they have bravely said that coverage will remain the same, it would appear that many of the racing related programs (such as the acclaimed Wind Tunnel) have been chopped and lost. That means less airtime for NASCAR, less freebie promotion, less exposure for their stars, and of course, a slightly lower profile.
While NASCAR seems content to keep playing the same hand of cards every year, reality says they need to change. The same tracks in the same order with the same drivers in generally the same cars with the same sponsors and such year after year basically is a dead end. You don’t bring in new fans by doing what wasn’t working for them before some more, and your existing fan base tends to erode over time as well (literally and figuratively they die off). NASCAR’s spiral won’t stop until they start looking to play things in a different way – and that may only happen as existing stars retire in the next decade or so. Until then, NASCAR just doesn’t seem to want to change, and will keep on keeping on until change is forced on them.