Reports Of NASCAR's Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated
We have a number of clients who are major NASCAR sponsors investing over $20 million annually, so we have been asked for our perspective on some of the issues several times over the past year or so. If you ask me, there's way too much gloom and doom around, not to mention a little bit of schadenfreude from those in other sports. Let's look at some of the claims and try to put an objective lens on them.
- Attendance was down by 10% last year. Frankly, I'm shocked it was not worse than that given the depths of the recession. People need to buy groceries -- they do not need to go to a NASCAR race -- so the fact that 90% continued to go is quite a testament to fan loyalty. By the way, baseball attendance was off, too, and some NFL teams had blackouts for the first time due to not selling out the stadium. We aren't sounding the death knell for those sports.
- Average viewership is down by 25% since 2005. Hard to argue with that fact although, if the average rating was five, then it is still almost four, which more or less every sport other than the NFL would sell its mother for. NASCAR's been keenly aware of the problem -- the move to fairly consistent start times of 1 p.m. EST this year is a direct response, as is the decision to let drivers "have at it" on the track and create more excitement (and flying lessons for Brad Keselowski).
To me, the biggest factor in the drop has been Jimmie Johnson's four straight titles. As we saw in Formula 1 ratings when Michael Schumacher won multiple titles, fans get bored if the same guy wins all the time. Johnson's personality doesn't matter -- he could have Tina Fey's wit in Danica Patrick's body and we'd still be bored by now.
Another problem is that paint schemes change so frequently that it's hard for the casual fan to pick his or her guy out. For years, Tony Stewart fans looked for the orange #20 car in every race. Now it could be the Old Spice, Office Depot or Burger King car, depending on the race.
The other factor people often overlook is the growth in popularity of college football (which is a real competitor to NASCAR in its Southern heartland) and the NFL -- both of whose seasons interfere with the end of the NASCAR season.
My feeling is that NASCAR ratings will stabilize where they are now and will start to improve a little when Johnson's dominance starts to slip as it eventually must ... mustn't it?
- Sponsorship is down. This is, indeed, trouble. If you looked around the paddock in 2001, you saw the same sponsors every week on the same cars. Now, there only are a handful of sponsors that have the mega-bucks to sponsor every race at over $20 million for a top driver, and several drivers have lost their rides.
NASCAR's problem is that it priced sponsorship like real estate. When the market was hot, prices climbed out of connection with reality, doubling in 10 years. My belief is that the sport will ultimately have to adopt some Formula 1-style revenue sharing, once the small teams begin to tumble due to lack of sponsorship. The fact remains, however, that our clients in NASCAR are still seeing excellent ROI. NASCAR delivers better ROI than any sponsorship except the USOC because its fans are far more loyal to sponsors' products.
NASCAR has its issues, but it is very far from being terminal.