Fiscal reality limits what can be done to NASCAR's schedule
One of the most common refrains in trying to improve NASCAR is to make a major overhaul of the series schedule. With the season stretching from February through November, the Sprint Cup is already the longest grind in professional sport. Yet subtracting races isn't a realistic option, no matter how much better a 32 race schedule might be overall. And with two major corporations owning virtually all of the current Cup dates, there is precious little room to shift what's already there without provoking either a stockholder's backlash or legal action. So what is NASCAR to do?
Few would argue that NASCAR can or should add any races to its current schedule. As now constituted, the Sprint Cup has 36 points paying races and 2 exhibition events for a total of 38 race weekends- leaving only a 14 weekend off-season for the teams to prepare for the next year's grind. No other sport comes close to the nine months NASCAR spends at the track. The very length makes it difficult for the sport to capture and maintain attention in a crowded American sports marketplace.
But cutting races outright is equally unappealing. NASCAR just signed a series of contracts with NBC and Fox that will pay the series billions of dollars through the end of 2024. Those networks signed on for live content to fill both network broadcasts and their ancillary sports networks. Removing races from the equation would be tantamount to breach of contract, providing either network the opportunity to re-negotiate a lower annual price. With ESPN and TNT both showing little interest in extending their current deals, NASCAR would be unlikely to get the same kind of per-race payment that their new contracts call for if the networks had a do-over.
So NASCAR's schedule isn't going to contract. There are still a number of tracks not currently on the Sprint Cup schedule that are worthy of a date. From the revived Rockingham under Andy Hillenburg to the Iowa Speedway, the Cup series would benefit greatly by adding some variety to their schedule. Far too many current races are held on the cookie-cutter intermediate tracks that produce aero-dependent cars and poor racing. In fact, the only track added to the schedule since 2001 is yet another of the dreaded courses, Kentucky Speedway. At least that track's weathered surface offers hope of something beyond a 200 lap parade. But it's a far cry from the racing to be had at the 7/8ths mile track in Iowa's cornfield.
The problem is that all of those tracks are independently owned. Speedway Motorsports and International Speedway Corp operate the tracks that host 31 of the current 36 series dates (33 of 36 if you consider Dover an ISC track). Both are publicly traded companies who must answer to shareholders on a quarterly basis. They would stand to lose millions of dollars from the removal of a single Cup date. That loss would cost shareholders money both in real terms and in equity value. NASCAR's France family controls ISC at present but a major loss in share value would undoubtedly weaken that control. The company will benefit from the new TV deal but those benefits have already been factored into its current share price.
Read up on NASCAR at Amazon!
SMI, operated by Bruton Smith, has long been an uneasy ally of NASCAR. In fact, Smith once ran a competing stock car series before joining the France family in the NASCAR business. He's proven on more than one occasion that he's willing to use whatever means necessary to protect what he's built over the years. That's why the company willingly spent hundreds of millions of dollars acquiring tracks such as Rockingham that it had no interest in ever running races at. Instead, those purchases were designed to move Sprint Cup dates to other, more profitable tracks in the SMI empire.
So it would take enormous fiscal concessions from NASCAR and/or ISC to make SMI willing walk away from one of their current Cup. Those are exactly the kinds of concessions that ISC's shareholders are unwilling to accept. The only possible solution would involve an end run on ISC from NASCAR directly. As NASCAR itself is privately held, they are in a position to make concessions to SMI on items such as sanctioning fees and TV rights revenue sharing. But when was the last time anyone saw NASCAR leave money on the table?
Of the remaining five race dates, ISC has a major hand in two of them. Dover Motorsports Inc. is another theoretically independent company that doesn't directly impact NASCAR, ISC, or SMI. But a cursory look at its largest shareholders show that DMI is controlled by the same shareholders as ISC. It's highly unlikely they would sit idly by if NASCAR moved to take away either of the two races at Dover- particularly if the race dates went outside of the family to an independent operator such as Rockingham.
So the series is left essentially with three race weekends. Two are at the tricky triangle in the Poconos, where the Mattioli family's track has hosted two NASCAR races a year for decades. They've been ripe for the picking for years but NASCAR has respected the handshake agreement with the late Dr. Mattioli and kept the races intact. The track itself has responded with major capital investments including a repave. With attendance and race quality rising over the past three years, there's little reason beyond availability to pull a date now.
The last remaining weekend is NASCAR's annual trip to the Brickyard at Indianapolis. Despite poor racing, the Brickyard 400 remains one of the more valued stops on the circuit for sponsors, teams, and drivers. The prestige of running at Indy is something NASCAR is loathe to walk away from. No matter how much improved the racing would be, it's hard to sell replacing the historic Brickyard with another track.
The best option may well be to take a page from the NFL's book and examine the possibility of turning meaningless events into ones that count. The NFL currently plays four pre-season and 16 regular season games but the league office has floated the idea of turning two pre-season games and adding them to the regular schedule.
NASCAR could do something similar with one or both of its exhibition events. The Sprint Unlimited, while long a fixture on the schedule as the Bud Shootout, isn't a major draw. Speedweeks in Daytona would run just fine without it and the date of the schedule could be moved to a track not currently on the docket. The Sprint All Star race, while a decent fan draw, has struggled to provide an on-track product appealing to sponsors and television viewers. Why not take that race date and award it to another track in the area (looking at Rockingham in particular) that can offer fans and viewers something different- and do it in a points-paying race?
Time may well prove to be NASCAR's biggest ally in moving away from the intermediate tracks. Many sprung up in the track-building boom of the 90's and will approach their middle age in the decade ahead. Ownership will face the necessity of spending tens of millions of dollars to keep those tracks viable. With sagging attendance and ratings, will the investment seem worthwhile? Or will SMI and ISC choose to “partner” with other tracks instead? It's already happened in Nashville, where the track opened in 2001 is already forgotten by NASCAR. Could tracks such as Chicago and Fontana follow suit? The dollars and sense that make up NASCAR's current fiscal reality will ultimately tell the tale.