Five reasons why NASCAR isn't racing to oblivion
There are plenty of articles out there critical of the decisions NASCAR has made over the years. I've written my share and without a doubt there will be more in the years to come. That criticism comes in large part from wanting the sport to do better, from wanting NASCAR to be as good as it can possibly be. And part of writing on the sport involves doing a great deal of reading what others are writing as well. I came across an article on Friday that moved me enough that I felt it deserved more than just a one or two sentence comment or email to the author; the article was, “Racing to oblivion,” written by Autoextremist columnist Peter De Lorenzo. In it, Mr. De Lorenzo essentially argues that the insular environment in both NASCAR and IndyCar has pushed those series beyond the point of no return and will ultimately result in their failure
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With all due respect, despite a handful of poor decisions of late, the reality is that NASCAR isn't going anywhere. Both in financial terms and fan engagement terms, NASCAR remains a player in the American sports landscape. Listed below are five reasons why the sky isn't falling and NASCAR isn't racing to oblivion any time soon.
1. That's $8.2 billion with a B
Earlier this year, NASCAR signed a pair of television contracts that will pay the series an average of $820 million per year. Over the following ten seasons (2015 through 2024), NASCAR as a company will take in $8.2 billion dollars in television rights fees before a single ticket is sold or a single sponsorship signed. Despite the steady drumbeat of stories about NASCAR's aging fanbase and declining ratings, two networks thought enough of the product to pay a huge sum of money for the rights to broadcast racing. Moreover, these agreements represented a huge increase on the current contracts- meaning that NASCAR is going to have more money to play with on the R&D front and in race purses. Higher purses and more research will funnel down to the teams in many different ways and will only help improve stock car racing in the long run.
2. “The Outlaw” makes the Chase
While his actual Chase effort has fallen short, the fact that Kurt Busch and his single car team made the playoff field is a shot in the arm for a host of other small outfits. They now believe that with the right driver and the right technical alliance, they too can make the Chase at some point in the future. That's clearly the thinking at Germain Racing, who will join Furniture Row as technical allies of Richard Childress Racing. The reborn Phoenix Racing under Harry Scott's ownership will continue their work with Hendrick Motorsports but now they appear to have sponsorship as well. More competitive teams means more competitive racing and that's something every fan appreciates.
3. They're still trying
Lost in the Chase news was a practice session at Charlotte two weeks ago that demonstrate NASCAR hasn't given up on beating the aerodynamic advantage of clean air. That session (and the countless hours of wind tunnel work leading up to it) may prove to be the very salvation of the sport. Financial reality dictates that the dozers won't be plowing under the intermediate tracks any time soon. So the challenge is to find a way to make those tracks better. These tests show that NASCAR is willing to open up the book and find a creative way to reduce aerodynamic advantages. In the past decade, NASCAR has implemented a number of different changes in an effort to improve racing. Some have worked, some haven't. But the fact that they're willing to (privately) admit the problem and spend real money to fix it shows that they're still trying.
4. The next big thing(s)
NASCAR is on the verge of the best crop of young drivers to hit the sport in nearly 15 years. This year saw Ricky Stenhouse in a full time ride at Roush Fenway Racing and while the results aren't stellar, he's getting his shot. Next year will see Austin Dillon, Justin Allgaier and Kyle Larson run the Sprint Cup schedule in competitive equipment. Behind them are a host of other talented young drivers including Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney among others. The sport desperately needs the next big thing to step up and capture the crowd the way Jeff Gordon did in the 90's and Dale Earnhardt Jr did in the 2000s. Racing is an entertainment product that depends on fans identifying with the athletes and younger fans haven't had many to choose from of late. That's changing in a big way.
5. Attendance and ratings aren't what you think
Stop me if you've heard this before. “NASCAR's TV ratings and attendance figures are in a steep decline. People aren't showing up at the track and aren't watching on television. It's not just the economy, people aren't interested in racing anymore!” It's a story written regularly since 2008-9 when the economy melted down and many forms of entertainment took a financial hit.
Here's the reality. While NASCAR doesn't have the same level of buzz it did a decade ago, they've essentially stopped the ratings bleeding. Average ratings for the first 35 races this season (including the Sprint Unlimited, Daytona qualifying, and All Star Race) are 3.64 with 5.8 million viewers. The average TV audience for a NASCAR race between 2009 and 2013? 3.73 with 5.8 million viewers. In other words, it's been a completely average season for NASCAR on TV and a tight title race could actually make it an above average one.
Full review of NASCAR TV ratings on Another Left Turn
The attendance figures are a trickier matter. NASCAR stopped reporting track attendance figures of this year so there's little data in terms of fans in the stands from 2013. But a look at the 2007-2012 attendance figures shows that while some tracks are in a steep decline (Michigan, Dover and Indianapolis chief among them), most are not. Tracks such as Pocono, Martinsville and Las Vegas held virtually steady while Fontana and Watkins Glen saw their numbers increase in 2012. A look at the SEC filings from Speedway Motorsports and International Speedway Corp (who own the vast majority of NASCAR's tracks) show the companies remain profitable with steady revenue.
Would they- and NASCAR as a whole- welcome growth? Absolutely. But the climate of negativity surrounding NASCAR's future prospects is far from reality. The aging fanbase and aerodynamic concerns are major ones that cloud the outlook for NASCAR 25 years down the road. But the series has time to work on those and will have a huge influx of new dollars to work with in the next decade. In other words, they're hardly racing to oblivion right now.