“May you live in interesting times.” Most of us have heard this blessing that is, upon further analysis, actually a bit of a curse. Some ascribe the saying to the Arabs while most claim it is an ancient Chinese curse. (That notion has become prevalent based on it being used in Star Trek. And not even the good Star Trek, the somewhat cheesy space cowboy camp classic of the 1960s, but Star Trek Voyager.)
If nothing else, the last few weeks in NASCAR have been “interesting.”
After much conjecture and floating more trial balloons than Nena could count, NASCAR surprised many by announcing that the so called “All-Star” package used at this year’s All-Star race and several XFINITY Series events will not be used in the Cup Series again, at least not this year. There had been widespread conjecture the new big drag/pileup plate package would be used several times in Cup between now and the playoffs, possibly at Pocono, Indianapolis and Kentucky.
Not surprisingly, the drivers who are running the best with the current rules package quickly applauded the non-call. On the other side of the fence, track promoters stuck with the unenviable task of trying to sell large amounts of tickets to an increasingly small number of fans decried NASCAR’s decision to stick with the status quo.
Times may be interesting, but my opinion of any new rules package that includes restrictor plates is unwavering even if NASCAR wants to try calling them “tapered spacers.” The plates are going to create artificial excitement, not real racing and as a byproduct they will vastly increase the number of wrecks in Cup races. (Exhibit A: Daytona and Exhibit B: Talladega.)
Yes, the plates tend to narrow the gaps between the talented drivers and the field fillers. But then I suppose if the Olympic sprint races required competitors to duct tape cinderblocks to their feet and breathe through a straw, I could keep pace with Usain Bolt. Yes, something radical needs to be done to save stock car racing; it’s just restrictor plates are not the right answer and never will be. Sometimes amputating an arm is the only viable option and that’s fine for treating advanced-stage gangrene but not a hangnail.
Not NASCAR-related but still on my radar was a decision made by the track at Phoenix and INDYCAR this week. Given that open-wheel racing there has been less than compelling and ticket sales have been abysmal as a result, they’ve jointly decided to end their three-year experiment. Both sides have chosen to move on while wishing each other well.
Wow. That’s an interesting concept. If the racing is no good at a particular track and tickets aren’t selling, the track loses its place on the calendar. I wonder how many tracks would be dumped from the Cup schedule if the same standard was used? (Or at least how many would be cut from two dates to one annually?) My guess is that if the same standard was applied to this year’s Cup slate, the season would be wrapping up in the next three to four weeks.
There were also some hints released this week as to NASCAR’s plans to motor on after the Monster Energy title sponsorship packs up their rocks and rolls after 2019. Barring a last-minute miracle, NASCAR will go without a title sponsor for its top division for the first time since before Winston became the sport’s benefactor back in 1971.
NASCAR now envisions a tiered sponsorship for the Cup Series. Imagine a pyramid (not a pyramid scheme yet) with those companies toward the top paying more for more exposure and rights. Ideally, NASCAR would like to see three or four companies at the top of the pyramid spending about ten million dollars a year for the privilege. And ideally, Deana Carter would move into the vacant house at the top of my driveway/lane and invite me over for a beer.
For comparison’s sake, Monster is said to be on the hook for about $20 million a year to be the sport’s title sponsor. That’s already down substantially from the $50 to $75 million a year that Sprint is thought to have been spending for the same title sponsorship and well below the $100 million price tag NASCAR was gunning for back when Sprint announced they were leaving. You know what they say… $10 million here, $10 million there and all of a sudden you’re talking about real money. Deana Carter is said to be worth $5 million but as her new neighbor I’d urge her not to sponsor NASCAR. It might dry up the free beer supply.
Here’s the part I found interesting. One of the names being tossed around as a potential “Big 3” or 4 sponsor is Coca-Cola. (You know, the folks who sponsor the World 600, right Tom Bowles?) Aren’t Coke and Monster already financially involved? What would that adjustment include, the same Monster Energy woman wearing different T-Shirts?
Already, there are some hints of a seismic shift in how sports marketing dollars are spent. Anheuser-Busch is a big dog in this arena, spending $350 million a year in sponsorship. That’s $10 million less than Pepsi, but a good deal more than Coke which has about $265 million of skin in the game. (Note that these are the company’s total sports marketing budgets, not what they spend on NASCAR.)
AB has announced that as current deals expire and come up for replacement they’ll restructure those deals to reward performance. One would imagine the beer giant is pleased with how well Kevin Harvick is running in the Busch car this season to date with an added bonus of Clint Bowyer in another SHR car sometimes flying their colors. Under the new deal, Harvick and SHR would receive a base dollar amount with bonuses for race wins, making the playoffs and potentially winning a championship.
But how would a similar arrangement work for NASCAR sanctioning body sponsorship dollars? AB would pay a base amount with bonuses for improved TV ratings or attendance. Yikes. Such trends in attendance and ratings are on a decidedly downhill slope in the sport. So if Anheuser-Busch were to sign on as a top-tier sponsor (and their name is being bandied around as well as Sunoco and Mobil 1) how would their financial commitment be structured? And would other companies want to structure their partnership in the same manner?
Then one has to look at what NASCAR is offering sponsors on the various tiers. There are said to be 50 companies that are official somethings-or-another of NASCAR. (Though if you can name more than a dozen of them, I want you as my partner on Redneck Jeopardy.) What would they be offered? And what if there’s a conflict between potential sponsors?
Right now, the most visible conflict of interest in the sport involves Monster and PepsiCo, which offers its own line of energy-type drinks. (As if Mountain Dew wasn’t already an express ticket to Planet Zoom for most of us.) Monster is, of course, NASCAR’s current top dog sponsor. PepsiCo has a long-term deal with Hendrick Motorsports. As such, HMS cars only run Monster decals where and when required. If you look at the cars and driver uniforms of the four Hendrick stars, they are notably absent the Monster logos in promotional photos, TV commercials, at driver appearances, etc.
Perhaps that’s not as big a deal as it once was with Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. no longer competing full time, but I’m told it has been a source of some consternation. And to the best of my knowledge, Earnhardt still has a personal services contract with Pepsi though he will soon be a full-time Monster Energy Cup announcer. What’s the over/under on how often Earnhardt uses the term “Monster Energy.” My guess is the correct answer is “no more than his contract says he has to.” (Likewise, Earnhardt has a contract with Chevy and it’ll be interesting to see how he handles that conflict as well.)
Whatever their level of involvement is with the sport, I want to see what NASCAR guarantees those sponsors in exchange for their marketing dollars. (Guaranteed or with performance clauses.) Among the potential benefits involved are increased visible signage (in the stands and on TV) and perhaps naming rights for select events.
There are two great big hogs at a trough that is no longer overflowing the way it once was. Naturally, NASCAR is one of them in that it is, after all, their garden party. The other is the TV networks, FOX and NBC, whose billion-dollar contracts keep this whole enterprise afloat currently. Neither FOX nor NBC has any realistic expectation of ever breaking even on their investment on the sport. They are simply hoping to plug their primetime entertainment programming on the mother ships or boosting awareness of their rival cable sports which also compete with ABC/ESPN (though the Mickey Mouse folks bailed on NASCAR years ago.) Yes, the TV folks sell advertisements; so many, in fact the commercials can make the sport almost unwatchable on the tube but it’s not a breakeven proposition.
Other big swine trying to get their snout in the trough include the track owners. The two major ones today are SMI (Bruton and Marcus Smith and their gang) and ISC (owned by…who else…the France family who also run NASCAR. In no other sport is there such a clear conflict of interest which is probably why NASCAR or the ISC or both are currently up for sale.) Those track owners want to sell naming rights to their events (the Cruex Jock Itch 500K or whatever) and signage at their track.
But what if NASCAR decides such deals fall under their purview? It’s already been messy at times. When FOX first signed on to broadcast NASCAR they didn’t want to use the name “Lowe’s Motor Speedway” (as Charlotte was known back then) unless Lowe’s bought ads during the broadcast. The disagreement grew so heated at one point Charlotte’s promoter, Humpy Wheeler, threatened to take a set of bolt cutters to the cables running to FOX’s TV truck.
In FOX’s very first NASCAR race broadcast they incited what became known at “Hat-gate”. When they showed the starting lineup, drivers were shown without their sponsor logos on their caps and uniforms unless that same sponsor also bought ad minutes during the broadcast. It seemed at that point if a sponsor wanted any meaningful exposure they needed to not just pay the team they sponsored but the TV networks and the owners of the track they were running at as well.
That’s a lot of hogs to feed. It was also about the time sponsorship dollars at the team level started on their current downward trajectory. Then, you had that infamous hot summer night in July when one soda company was title sponsor of a race but all the teams running up front were sponsored by a rival pop company. So the presenting network did their damnedest not to show the cars that were leading the race. You remember. The same race where KFC ran the granddad fights with grandson over side dishes commercial so incessantly that all but the hardiest fans just turned the mess off.
The team owners are also trying to get their snouts in the trough, even though they are being shouldered aside by the two biggest hogs at the moment. But they want their share as well, because after all, NASCAR can’t run races, the TV folks can’t broadcast them and the track owners can’t sell tickets to the events if no teams show up to race. And it seems as of late NASCAR is being particularly heavy-handed in outright competing with the teams for sponsorship dollars while not increasing the now-secret race purses to offset the loss of income.
In almost every instance, if you look at a sponsor that is now “the official something of NASCAR” those companies once provided some level of sponsorship to one or more race teams. And if addition to competing for those sponsors NASCAR is also giving exclusives that keep rival companies from sponsoring a car there’s a real problem.
Say (strictly hypothetically) McDonalds becomes a Tier One NASCAR sponsor and as such the other big “eat it and beat it” burger joints aren’t allowed to sponsor cars. That’s a huge loss of potential sponsorship dollars at the team level and, of course, to the drivers. (The move would also not be without precedent. No other tobacco companies were allowed to sponsor Cup cars while Winston was the title sponsor. No other gasoline companies were allowed to sponsor race cars because of Unocal 76’s deal with NASCAR. Thus, other rival companies had to advertise their other lubricants rather than rival brand gasolines.)
There was a time Jack Roush’s four-car team was a powerhouse in the sport. When the sponsorship dollars started getting lean, Roush wasn’t willing to accept lesser amounts from existing sponsors opting to seek new “marketing opportunities.” Nowadays, it’s rare either of the two Roush entries vie for even a top-five finish anymore.
Oddly enough, it seems lately the drivers are the littlest piglets trying to grab some leftover slop. They are, after all, easily replaced with someone younger and cheaper if need be. But in the end, it’s the drivers that are strapped into cars doing 200 mph into a corner and it’s the drivers the vast majority of fans show up to see or watch on TV. My guess is that it’s incredibly rare to find someone in the grandstands who’ll tell you, “My favorite car insurance company sponsors this event so I decided to come out and see what all the fuss is about. What time is kickoff?”
In the end, troughs are not actually a free lunch for hogs. Their purpose is to fatten up those hogs to optimal size. At that point, they’re demoted a few notches down the food chain. Is that bacon (presented by Hormel) I’m smelling around here?
These are, in fact, interesting times.