An open response to NASCAR's Brian France
Prior to last Sunday's finale at Homestead, NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France released an open letter to NASCAR fans. While I lack anything approaching Brian's inside knowledge of the business, there's one thing I know plenty about; being a NASCAR fan (the intended audience of his message). The following is an open reply to the most powerful man in stock car racing.
Dear Mr. France,
This time a year, we as fans have a lot to be grateful for. Alone among American sports, NASCAR provides us with a sport to follow for over nine months of the year. By the time the upcoming holiday season is over, the pre-season thunder testing will be upon us and Daytona will be just over the horizon. Thanks in no small part to the thousands of man-hours and millions of dollars spent by the company you head, NASCAR remains the safest form of auto racing in the world. The passing of Jason Leffler (among others) in a Sprint Car accident reminded all of us just how remarkable NASCAR's safety record has been over the last decade. Mr. France, you also secured the immediate financial future of stock car racing with the new television contracts signed this past summer. But not all is well.
NASCAR has always been a family business for you. The series began under the iron fist of your grandfather, Bill France Sr. He cared little for what others thought and did what he thought was necessary to protect the sport and the family business. Your father, Bill France Jr, did likewise. It was under his leadership that NASCAR went from a southern racing series to a multi-billion dollar enterprise with a national presence. But he never lost touch with the foundation of the sport. He protected NASCAR's connections with the fans that were there from the very beginning.
Without question, NASCAR has lost that connection with those fans today. The Sprint Cup series left tracks such as Rockingham and North Wilkesboro and scheduled more races in places like California and Chicago. Even tracks with long-standing traditions like Darlington's Southern 500 found their dates changed for no apparent reason. The season-long points championship, unchanged in decades, was replaced by a de facto playoff system. Drivers that the fans could identify with were replaced by corporate spokesmen in firesuits. Long time title sponsors Busch and Winston were replaced by Nationwide and Nextel- who themselves are either gone or about to become so.
Some of those changes were inevitable. Winston could not continue as a title sponsor for reasons both political and financial. The steadily escalating costs involved with car sponsorship dictate certain kinds of behavior from those receiving the checks. And the only way to grow the sport was to put live races in front of people who'd never seen them before; Chicago and Los Angeles are two of the largest media markets in the country. Not having a track or race near those markets was crippling in the attempt to grow outside of NASCAR's southern roots. There's no way Fox and NBC would agree to pay $8.2 billion for a series that rarely left the southeastern states.
But Mr. France, that television contract has done something else to the sport. Like many of your stick and ball counterparts, NASCAR is fast becoming a sport where the live product is less important than the televised one. I'm sure you know the financials as well as I do; with attendance declining, television revenue is a larger portion of NASCAR's total income every year. Even if attendance rebounds in the years ahead, the enormous increase in rights fees starting in 2015 will dwarf whatever nominal gains are made at the track. In fact, should the tracks close their doors and not sell a single ticket that year, they would still have greater revenue than they do today.
What that means is that NASCAR must be a compelling television product. The racing must be better, the television experience must be better, and the number of viewers watching at home must be better. Networks do not spend billions of dollars to broadcast 500 parade laps; they expect an on-track product worth the investment.
And an experienced businessman such as yourself knows that no matter how independent you want to be, those billions in television revenue do not come with no strings attached. As long as the races are compelling and the ratings are good, their voices will be relatively quiet. Those partners will simply wish to have a seat at the table, only offering the occasional suggestion. But should the action flag or the ratings fall once more, those “suggestions” will become ever louder. They will remind you that your sport would collapse under its own financial weight without their dollars. The NFL has changed mightily over the last 20 years with numerous rule changes designed increase scoring and make for a more entertaining product for its television partners. Is your sport above the NFL?
NASCAR races on DVD from Amazon
The sad thing is that many of the things NASCAR has abandoned in the past 15 years would make for a better television product. The Sprint Cup visited Kansas twice this past year and both races were awful to watch. Put one of those races in Rockingham and there is no doubt which race would be far more entertaining. The Nationwide series, which has no mid-season points reset, had a far more compelling title race than the one we saw on the Cup side. Darlington, which lost one of the sport's oldest traditions in its Labor Day weekend race, made a brand-new tradition out of Mother's Day weekend. The sight of the drivers standing side by side with their mothers let fans identify and build a connection that is sorely missing from today's sport.
Yet instead of recognizing the value in these traditions, NASCAR is taking them away. Brought back to life by Andy Hillenburg, Rockingham hosted a Truck series race the past two years. Instead of working with the track through its recent financial struggles, NASCAR pulled the fall K&N race and next year's truck event from the schedule. Darlington's Mother's Day race will go elsewhere next season- but the moment simply will not be the same as no other track has the history of “The Lady in Black”. Most of all you continue to tout the greatness of the Chase despite multitude of voices against it- and the chaos surrounding it this past season.
Mr. France, your open letter praised the passion of the fans and noted that, “It does not go unheard or unnoticed.” Given the money, time, and effort spent on the new social media center, I have no doubt that this is true. But if so, the time has come to reward that passion. The time has come to give the fans something in return for the loyalty they have given you. The era of “Father Knows Best” force-feeding change to fans who do not want it needs to come to an end. No, NASCAR cannot turn back the clock to 1985, 95 or even 2005. However, the series can and should identify ways to start re-building a connection to its own past- and should do it at the sport's highest level. A Sprint Cup race at Rockingham would be one hell of a good start.
I thank you for your time. #NASCAR