It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye.
Remember hearing that phrase as a kid? It was usually connected to doing something like running with scissors, or swordfighting with your brother with the kitchen knives. Anything where the “fun” was getting out of hand and becoming potentially dangerous; hence, the lecture.
Things are getting out of hand.
It’s not an eye being lost per se, but instead teams are bleeding dry while NASCAR pretends there is nothing wrong. Two major sponsors – Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam – announced this week they will not return in 2010, leaving Casey Mears’s future uncertain and Robby Gordon’s tenuous hold on the sport as an independent owner/driver a little bit weaker.
It’s not a liquor company issue that’s driving them away – the industry is weathering the recession well – but rather one of cost/reward. Simply put, these sponsors weren’t getting their money’s worth considering how much they were putting in. So, as soon as one pulled out, there was not reason for the other to stay – for if nobody sees the competition every week, well, you don’t need to fork out to try and compete. Time to move on to a cheaper market.
There are a few things at work in this mess; and while NASCAR denies there’s an issue, rest assured the bleeding continues.
Let’s look at some specifics behind these sudden departures. The first thing going wrong is the skyrocketing cost of a Cup-level team. 10 or 12 years ago, a full-time Cup sponsor could be found for $4-5 million, while a top one might toss $10 million at a team.
But then, someone paid a little more. And then, the competition had to keep pace, so they shoveled out another couple million like common driveway gravel. Before we knew what was happening, suddenly it cost $20 million or more to field a competitive Cup car for a year, while the $5 million sponsor that once got a great deal of exposure in return can’t even buy the hood and quarterpanels of a top Nationwide Series car. And while the biggest companies toss the money into the pot, the smaller ones can’t possibly keep up with them. Some teams have had success running a number of smaller sponsors for a few races apiece, as Gordon does, but that model hasn’t been reliable over the long-term. A solid primary sponsor, or possibly two, for the majority of the season is what keeps a team competitive – and there aren’t many of those left.
Compounding this issue is NASCAR’s habit of snapping up several choice sponsors for themselves when they could be on the hood of a race car. In fact, there have been rumblings of the sanctioning body actually stepping in and taking these from a team if they don’t like the fit. But whether that’s true or not, NASCAR’s practice is definitively destructive to their end product – the racing. If the racing isn’t competitive except for a handful of elite cars, everyone suffers: the fans, the small teams, the track owners and so on. Eventually, this will have to bite NASCAR in the butt… right? Instead of “The Official Toilet Paper and Dill Pickle of NASCAR,” wouldn’t the Charmin Chevy racing door-to-door with the Vlasic Dodge be better for everyone involved? But the sport doesn’t see the long-term benefit of making sure there are teams on the track over the money they can pocket today. 20 years down the road, Brian France will be retired in his upscale condo; why should he care about the state of the family business when it no longer pays his bills?
Another problem that NASCAR is in no hurry to solve is the Cup teams taking the choice sponsors in the Nationwide Series, which reduces the level of competition (and eventually, fan interest) in that series. To their credit, they have introduced a few token cost-cutting measures, but the only one that will make a difference is to limit participation from big name Cup drivers. If you’re a smaller sponsor, it’s a no-brainer where you should land; after all, you can sponsor the same Cup guy in Nationwide for $10 million or so, less than half of what you’d pony up on his big league car. But these small-time deals are putting a big-time killing on the series. If those drivers were not allowed to race, the sponsors could get the exposure they need on the hood of a Nationwide regular, and probably for a couple million less. You can’t blame a sponsor for wanting maximum exposure – after all, that’s why they’re here – but there has to be a way to make it profitable for them without killing off race teams.
Finally, the television networks have to shoulder some of the blame, especially in the Nationwide Series. Too many sponsors who do sign on with smaller teams don’t see 10 seconds of airtime when the Cup drivers control the airwaves. That’s important, as sponsors are essentially buying exposure; a car shown often during a race is a rolling commercial, and commercial time is very valuable. A popular driver should be no problem; in theory, he’ll get more airtime during a race than five or 10 commercials, and that’s money in the pocket of the sponsor. But the airtime has to be there, and more and more often, it’s not. You can’t even count on the networks for one full-field rundown during a race, let alone the 5-10 cars they should be showing. And if these companies aren’t being seen on TV, there is little value in putting decals on a racecar for a sponsor.
And so, the sport bleeds. A few drops have become a steady flow, and if that isn’t staunched, it could become a life-threatening hemorrhage – which means it will be too late. Unfortunately, I don’t know what the answer is right now; but without a cap, there will always be a few sponsors who will throw more cash at teams than anyone else, and those teams will take the lion’s share of spoils in both race results and exposure for the sponsor. If NASCAR were to help, and not hinder, funneling sponsors to the race teams, it would be a start, as would keeping the Nationwide Series for the Nationwide drivers and not the Cup egomaniacs who use it as a cheap way to win another trophy, thereby returning sponsorship to the real teams. So would the networks pledging to show every car in every race a few times.
But clearly, something needs to be done. Before someone loses an eye.