Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Thursday March 17, 2011
It all comes down to money. Racing costs a lot of it. Teams need someone to spend it. And sponsors are the ones to do it-in return for TV time. It’s been that way in racing for years. In the beginning, teams raced with small, local sponsors, because the audience was decidedly…well, local. Races weren’t shown on TV except for the odd clip on Wide World of Sports, right between the bowling clip and some guy wiping out on skis. So local businesses advertised on racecars to draw the local audience to their doors. When the modern era brought more coverage, national sponsors became the norm. Racing got them something valuable: TV time. Overall, it came at a cheaper rate than actually buying commercial airtime, and the added bonus is that they got more time than the 30-second commercial slot.
The Nationwide (then Busch) Series was perfect for a variety of sponsors in those days. Smaller companies which perhaps couldn’t afford the more expensive Cup cars could easily cover a Busch team with cash left over. Even if the TV coverage wasn’t on a major network, they got a return on their investment. Everyone from Nestle (there is something funny about seeing a racecar adorned with the word Crunch, incidentally) to Slim Jims to the Vermont Teddy Bear Company could hawk their products on the side of a car and know the world was watching. Or at least enough people to make it worth it. The Cup teams cost a lot, the Busch teams cost a lot less, and those sponsors could still get a competitive car. At least that’s how it used to work.
Until the Cup teams got in on the act.
It started innocuously enough. Sort of, anyway; one of the cars was fluorescent green and orange and you could probably see it at midnight on a moonless night inside a cave, but it was kind of an anomaly at the time. It was the beginning of something different, though. It was the Roush Racing entry of Jeff Burton, sponsored by Gain detergent. Following on the heels of Roush’s Winn-Dixie-backed entry for Mark Martin, the entry wasn’t even full-time. But it was the start of a slippery slope. Fielded by one of the wealthiest owners in the game, the cars were fast, and the drivers at the top of their game. Sponsors were willing to pay a bit more to be on them, not only for the star power, but because this combination of elite equipment and elite driver were almost guaranteed to run up front, giving the sponsor a solid return for less cost than sponsoring their Cup cars. But the Busch Series teams still did okay in those days at the beginning of the millenium, their drivers won a good half of the races and always won the championship.
But as sponsors wised up to the fact that you could buy a winning car with a Cup star in it for (relatively) cheap in the Nationwide Series, everything changed. The Cup owners landed deals for their Busch teams that would have financed a small-time Cup team easily in those days, and in the process, so began the slow squeezing of the sponsors who were the mainstay of the series-the smaller companies who, remember, couldn’t afford a Cup car. Because now, the cost was that of a Cup car. So Nestle and Slim Jims and Vermont Teddy Bear all went away.
At the same time this change was happening, an influx of casual fans to the sport created the perfect storm that brought the series to its knees, finally driving away even title sponsor Anheuser-Busch, which was eventually replaced by a cut-rate deal with Nationwide. And those fans, by and large, weren’t interested in learning the names of two series worth of drivers. It was easier to follow their favorite in either series he ran. And the sponsors loved it. It was still cheaper than a Cup deal, and they could get the Cup guy for a lot of races, maybe even the whole year-maybe even win a championship. Boy would that be worth some airtime. But they paid more than the old series sponsors ever could. So they left, and teams left with them, even championship stables crumbling in ruin in the wake of the lazy and uninformed.
Fast forward to 2011, and the landscape in the series is bleak. Even the Cup-backed, Cup-driven teams are struggling to find backing, at least in part because they managed to price everyone out of the game, including themselves. Unless you’re a Cup superstar, there’s little TV time to justify the investment. And so the Nationwide teams, the teams who want to race in that series as its own entity and not as a warm-up for Sunday, struggle to stay afloat from week to week. It’s not even the Cup drivers that are the problem, per se. In the 1990’s and before, the Cup guys ran the series-but they most often did so for independent or self-owned operations. But as the owners got greedy, they made the drivers greedy, and greed is killing the series.
Take RAB Racing. RAB is still an upstart in the series, but they’re building it right. They won Montreal last year with Boris Said, their first and only win. This year, with veteran NNS driver Kenny Wallace, the team has two top 10s in three races and sits 14th in owner points-Wallace is eighth in driver points. This is a solid Nationwide Series team. Yet, according to Wallace, they still need primary sponsorship for more than a third of the races this year. Fourteen races have yet to be picked up.
Keep in mind that Wallace should be a sponsor’s dream. He’s outgoing and willing to go the extra mile for his backers with appearances and advertising. He’s a three-time Most Popular Driver in the Nationwide Series and is the only Nationwide regular to hold that honor (Brad Keselowski also has three, but won one of them as a Cup regular running both schedules). Wallace also has 161 top 10 finishes in the series. This guy shouldn’t have any trouble finding backing, right?
Yet the team has that glaring void of 14 races to fill.
Wallace works daily to change that. His many fans will even sponsor the ride in Charlotte this fall-for $20 fans can get their names on the car, a meet & greet with the driver, and photos. When Wallace first ran a fan-sponsored car in 2009, it was an instant success-the names included, among other notables, that of five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. Wallace is well-liked and well-respected in the garage, and it showed. So Wallace and RAB will do the same thing this year-because it means there aren’t fifteen unsponsored races.
And RAB Racing is by no means alone. Phoenix Racing, once a series staple, has been reduced to a part-time schedule with Landon Cassill. Even the Cup teams are struggling-despite being second in points, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has sponsorship for only eight races. Joe Gibbs Racing’s development drivers are woefully short of backers as well.
Why are these teams having so much trouble? The sluggish economy is partly to blame, of course, but the bigger part of the problem falls squarely on the shoulders of the television broadcast team. In most races, a large percentage of the field gets less than 30 seconds of airtime-at a cost far higher than simply buying a 30-second commercial slot in the broadcast. At Las Vegas, for example, Wallace got no independent mentions despite running in the top 10. He was mentioned as someone passed him or if he was racing with a Cup team for a spot, but only in the context of the Cup driver. What kind of incentive is that for a company to fork out a couple million dollars?
That’s right, none. If you can find one, watch a race broadcast from the 1990’s-you will see far more equitable coverage of teams, especially those running well. All that time translates into dollars for a sponsor-dollars that are getting harder and harder to find as a handful of drivers get the lion’s share of coverage.
All of this leads to where we are now on the slippery slope, and that’s pretty near rock bottom. The Nationwide Series, once a thriving series with its own identity, flounders in the shadow of the Cup Series to the point where ESPN has all but said that they will cover the Cup guys to the point of ignoring the Nationwide championship battle if a Cup driver is winning (and one usually is). The greed for a win is at a fever pitch among Cup drivers and owners, and it’s killing the series slowly as backers see little reward and a lot of risk. It’s all about return on investment, and right now, there isn’t a return.
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