Editor’s Note: Beginning this week, Tom Bowles’ long-standing Monday column moves to Tuesdays. He’ll write weekly here along with Did You Notice? every Wednesday.
The world in 2015 is a strange place, one we still struggle to understand even in the happiest of times. Something as small as a tweet of 140 characters can be used to break up with someone in public, get someone fired or turn a once-petty story viral. Social media, an almost-automatic for everyone under 35, is just as important to someone’s personality as, well, actually seeing them in person. A sentence as simple as a Facebook post can be perceived as weird and suddenly, we’re thinking that an old friend is angry. Depressed. A trained assassin…
OK, maybe not the last one, but you certainly get my point. It’s a tricky world to navigate, one where perception is just as important as reality. If people think you’re doing well, then you are doing well, regardless of whether it’s actually true.
Marketing that perception will be the key to NASCAR’s future in 2015.
Right now, as the sun rises on Daytona Speedweeks there are compelling arguments this sport is rising from the trenches. The economy, once slow to recover has trickled its growth back down to NASCAR teams that survived this recession. The Sprint Cup Series, which dipped below a full-time field of 43 last season, will have at least 45 cars attempting to qualify each week. The XFINITY and Truck Series, while still with lower car counts than they’d like, boast a number of high-profile sponsorships. Different names, like Joey Logano, Kyle Larson, and Chase Elliott, are forming a tidal wave of young talent, poised to replace a retiring Jeff Gordon and even the likes of Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick atop the NASCAR charts within the next couple of seasons.
The new Chase, reviled by so many, did tick the ratings upward (less than 1 percent is still considered growth) and the younger crowd appeared revitalized by its format. The way in which the playoffs boosted that crucial 18-to-34 set is still unclear, matched with a mixed set of numbers, so as a reporter there’s also that critical extra element: word of mouth. In my world, a part of the Northeast that might name more badminton players than NASCAR drivers, the Chase offered a surprising amount of buzz. New York City co-workers asked often about how the playoffs unfolded; plenty of Pennsylvania twentysomethings could call themselves “fans,” whether they liked the designation or not after watching the season finale at Homestead holding their breath. It was a race that sold out, by the way, along with Phoenix, a positive sign during a time when most sports fans are sitting on the couch, holding a smartphone rather than attending an event.
Entering year two, this Chase brings with it an ability for every driver to go all out in the races that matter. No longer will a team spend the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400, or even Southern 500 “stroking” for points. Last season, for the 30 or so teams that could win just one victory was all you needed to get over the postseason hump. Even with a deeper field this time around, that’s probably all you need once again, making DNFs matter less and late-race restarts can’t miss television.
Then, you have Brad Keselowski, a driver whose personality ignited a fan base with passionate opinions we haven’t seen in over a decade. You love him, you hate him… but you’re not indifferent, and that matters. He’ll be a title contender, along with Gordon, creating nostalgia in his final season behind the wheel. Carl Edwards moves to a new team, igniting his chances while Harvick is focused on repeating. The trailer for NASCAR’s movie is ready as clearly, the pieces are in place for a slugfest in this Chase’s second season. The flared-up competition offers hope; television (with new partner NBC) offers fresh faces; young energy brings with it the possibility of a sport on the upswing.
Yet amidst all the pomp and circumstance, plenty of people would still argue the other way. Series sponsor Sprint, after changes at the top, is running from NASCAR like it’s a ticking time bomb. The actual reasons are rooted in a different reality but that’s the perception (see that word again?) after the company chose to end its Cup Series sponsorship after 2016. The pursuit of a title sponsor will be a storyline all season; the sport has had just two since 1972. Finding the right partner will take time, especially for the lofty price NASCAR will command — but there’s only so much time before the public takes “no future sponsor” as a vote of no confidence from the Fortune 500 community.
The sport’s core group of older fans, ones who have been around since the dawn of Gordon’s career in 1992 remain dissatisfied with the Chase. Gordon, the poster child for what this new format can do to a season, had a championship effort before contact with Keselowski derailed it. His hefty fan base, filled with an aging generation, could use his retirement to abandon this sport rather than keep following with replacement Chase Elliott. Keselowski, for his part maintains he’s no Dale Earnhardt and there’s factual evidence to believe it; he is not the most well-known driver in the sport, by name nor is he its most successful. His personality, Kyle Busch’s, Denny Hamlin’s… their aggression causes headlines but we have yet to see permanent proof they put fans in the seats the way Dale Earnhardt winning races did back in the day.
The Cup Series, while filled with a healthy car count still suffers from a lack of new ownership. NASCAR CEO Brian France, once waffling on expanding the four-team limit for men like Rick Hendrick may soon be forced to expand it, simply because no other rich people want to come and play. An expensive sport has been morphed into a mix of country club alliances, a half-dozen programs holding the keys in the form of chassis and engine programs. Want to smell a whiff of contention? You better have $20 million in your pocket per team, multiple cars to share information with and a whole fleet of top-tier technology at the ready. There’s a reason middle-class programs are skipping Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited exhibition race; that extra cash keeps them on-track, a total put back in the budget that once could cover independents over a full, 36-race season.
These budgets will grow better if TV can help grow the sport. NBC, for its part, has marketed hard off the bat and will prove to be a solid partner with FOX. But the world in 2015 is changing; fewer fans have cable, while the ones that do keep forgetting about what’s on network television. How the sport navigates through those realities, finding ways to pump up viewership when declines may be outside their control will decide whether boardrooms choose to give them money. Sports may be entertainment but it’s also a business, after all.
With that in mind, it’s impossible to tell how NASCAR will evolve in 2015, a difficult truth in an age where predictions are a dime a dozen. All I can tell you, entering my ninth year covering this sport is that their glass is half-filled with water. How the millions of fans, hundreds of sponsors and dozens of key players see it — half-empty or half-full — will make the difference in a defining year for this sport.