The sport of NASCAR has gone through a couple of booms and at least one recession in its lifetime.
The first boom was when the RJ Reynolds Tobacco money came in and brought the sport from the fringe to the forefront.
The second boom was when the other corporate money came into the sport and the television networks jumped on board shortly thereafter.
The bust came when the biggest star in the sport was killed competing in the sport and the subsequent car developed to be safer made the racing and the identity of the sport quite generic.
As the sport struggles to rebound from that recession, there are those in the broadcast world who think that their contribution to the sport is more important than the sport itself.
Try as they might to push that agenda, the bottom line is that racing is what makes the sport and the broadcast of the events to the masses is secondary to the events themselves.
This week FOX’s Mike Joy put forth the idea that companies who are sponsoring race teams and do not purchase advertising during the race broadcasts are getting free exposure. It is a safe bet that M&M Mars or Nationwide spending some $20-$30 million would love to have Mr. Joy explain to them how that investment constitutes free exposure.
The simple fact is that it is far from free. It is a common belief among sponsors and marketing companies that the amount of money spent by a sponsor on activation should, and usually is, as much or more than its commitment to the race team. If that is true — and it has been for most of the last three decades although seems to be slowing down the last two years — then feeling that those companies should spend as much again, if not more, to prop up the race broadcast networks is an outlandish expectation.
The problem that is facing the broadcast networks — and somehow it seems as though they are just realizing this — is that they paid WAY too much money for the broadcast rights to the sport in 2012 with the contract starting in 2014. ESPN and Turner Broadcasting were interested in being a part of the broadcast package going forward when the contracts were going to end at the end of 2013, but the ratings for the sport had been relatively consistently falling from the mid-2000s. They simply weren’t going to bid a huge amount to carry the sport.
NBC had branded the former Outdoor Life Network/Versus Network into the NBCSport Network in 2012. CBS Sports also was looking to acquire more live sports for its newly branded CBS Sports Network. As a result, there was a huge demand for live sports and a limited supply. For whatever reason, the folks at Fox and NBC would ultimately pay somewhere in the neighborhood of $8.8 billion for the 10 years of NASCAR coverage from 2015 through 2024.
You read that right, two networks paid $8.8 billion for a sport whose ratings had been dropping for somewhere in the neighborhood of a decade.
Say what you will about Brian France — and most fans of the sport have very little nice to say about the man — but he truly deserves to be in the NASCAR Hall of Fame simply for the fact that he was in charge when he managed to get that astronomical amount of money out of two different networks for a sport that was slowly dying.
Now that the broadcast partners are truly having to face the fact that they are over committed to NASCAR for a product that they simply can’t sell enough advertising to cover, they are taking to trying to strong arm the sponsors of the sport into paying the tab for their stupid mistake.
Many fans may remember 2001 when FOX was first broadcasting the sport and it came to Charlotte Motor Speedway in May for the All-Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600. The race track had not long before been rechristened Lowe’s Motor Speedway. The folks in Wilkesboro, N.C., who wrote the big checks to Hendrick Motorsports and SMI to put their name on the track and the racecars felt like they’d put enough money into the sport, so they didn’t buy advertising on the network for the weekends.
When it came time for the All-Star broadcast, the track was described as The Track in Concord, N.C. As you can imagine, one O. Bruton Smith was a wee bit perturbed that his showcase racetrack was not being called by the proper name. It is believed he told the folks at FOX that they would call his track by its appropriate name or he would have their production trucks towed out of his speedway.
Apparently the folks from Daytona didn’t appreciate that threat and informed Mr. Smith that he could do that but he would never host another race under the NASCAR banner at any of the tracks owned by SMI, the parent company who owned Lowe’s Motor Speedway and several other tracks that were on the schedule at that time.
In the end, Lowe’s, along with many other sponsors in the sport, agreed to purchase the airtime in order to have their products or companies mentioned during the broadcasts.
The sport is different 18 years later. There isn’t the amount of money going into the race teams or the broadcasts. The teams saw this coming years ago and have been trying to control costs, from the Race Team Alliance to reductions in numbers of cars to the charter system. The folks with the TV cameras made a 10-year commitment with a whole bunch of zeroes on the check, so they’re stuck right now. They have some influence right now on things like start times and some other nuances of the scheduling, but that very well may be coming to an end too.
There are some clauses in the contracts that will afford them the opportunity to bail early on the promises, but part of that is more of a drop in ratings. And don’t look now, but the ratings are trending upward. The new package has created some exciting races. This year’s 600 was one of the best races that event has seen in over a decade. Jim France and Steve Phelps, along with the rest of NASCAR management, are doing a good job of turning this ship around. It is no longer rudderless, and it is making strides in the right direction. Will it ever get back to its heyday? We’ll have to wait and see. 10 years ago no one thought the NBA was going to get back to where it is now.
One thing is for sure about this sport: NASCAR has been around for 70 years, and for a bunch of those years there was no television. For a bunch more there was limited television coverage. For the last 25 years the coverage of the sport has been intense and expensive, and there is a very real possibility that it is too intense and too expensive.
When 2024 rolls around, the money committed to covering the sport will probably not be as great as it was the last time. Then again, if the sport gets back to pulling ratings like it did in the go-go ’90s and early 2000s, it very well may bring in $10 billion or more.
There is still a great demand for live sports and a rather limited supply. One thing you can bank on: the drivers, the teams and the cars are what the fans want to see. They don’t care how they see them or what they have to do to see them. The true fans of this sport will consume the sport ravenously as they always have.
The broadcast partners can reap benefits from it, but they aren’t, never were and never will be the reason for the show. That tail will never wag that dog.