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How did NASCAR get into such a mess?

Two decades ago, NASCAR was a regional sport trying to make its way on the national stage. It did that and in the past two decades it’s done nothing but consolidate. There’s been no forward momentum in the sport, which is ironic given that we’re talking about auto racing. What does NASCAR need to do to change up its situation so it doesn’t undo all the good work Bill France Jr. did to bring the sport out of its southern heartland?

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Crossroads

On the face of it, the current TV deal with Fox Sport and NBCSN is the only thing NASCAR has going for itself. Together the two deals bring in $820m a year. Each network also spends additional funds marketing their shows which help promote stock car racing but these guys need some bang for their buck. They need a return on their investment so let’s stop seeing them as a sugar-daddy happy to keep footing the bills and instead picture them as investors looking to make a return on their profit. Although Bill France Jr. warned that “too many sports are controlled by TV” in a Stock Car Racing Magazine interview with Benny Phillips in 1985, he obviously didn’t give that warning to his son. The Chase for the Championship, it’s reboot as the Play-Off and all of the race realignments that took place over the years could be argued benefited TV more than fans, race tracks or teams.

Brian France

His arrest in August 2018 raised some questions about NASCAR’s CEO but his actions before were also cause for alarm. Endorsing Donald Trump’s election was a mistake. It suggested that the work NASCAR’s done to bring itself out of its insular southern roots was done for show rather than for the purpose of reinventing and modernising the governing body. Will his absence from the helm be a good thing for the sport?

Sport for sale?

Is NASCAR for sale? How destabilising for stock car racing was news that NASCAR was up for sale? Brian France called Sirius Radio and said that “We're focused on ruling and managing NASCAR” but there’s no smoke without fire so are the France family looking to get out or is Brian France the one looking to make a move? The family’s response that they’re looking for investors was less than convincing.

By the numbers

Both live attendance and TV ratings have dropped dramatically over the last decade. In 2014, an average of 5.3m Americans watched the races each week. A year later, the number was down to 5m. In 2016, just 4.6m viewers on average tuned in. In 2017, the average was 4.1m viewers over the 36 NASCAR Cup Series races. That’s a steady decline in viewership which suggests viewers are being shed regularly and they’re not being replaced by new one. NASCAR no longer publish the attendance figures but no one could argue that they get anywhere near the 129,733 per race average that the sport enjoyed during the record-setting 2005 season in which 4,670,400 people attended the races.

Future

NASCAR is always slow to react when change is needed so perhaps they have something planned already. They took 6 years developing the Car of Tomorrow, which was commissioned in response to Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001. Do they have plans drawn up for the future? The tracks on the current schedule are under contract until 2020. The current TV deal with Fox and NBC runs until 2024. Can any meaningful changes be made before those two renewal dates are reached?

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