Television ratings have dropped sharply, and so have ticket sales. Debris cautions are up, but the beating and banging that used to define the sport has been on the decline. On-track passes for the lead are a rarity, making the duel between Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon in the closing laps of Sunday’s race in Pocono a welcome sight.
While the numbers rattled off by the critics are all well and good, NASCAR can now point to the only number that matters: 8.2 billion. Say what you will about the state of stock car racing, the folks in Daytona Beach just put the wraps on an $8.2 billion television package that will keep the sport swimming in money until 2024.
That’s bad news for anyone hoping for drastic changes to the on-track product.
The last deal, an eight-year, $4.5 billion package, was put together back in 2006 when NASCAR could still trumpet its status as the fastest-growing spectator sport in America with a straight face. Even after the CoT ushered in some of the worst racing the sport has ever seen and the bottom fell out of the economy, NASCAR just managed to sell its television rights with a 46 percent higher price tag.
What does this tell us? It tells us that NASCAR is more of an exercise in marketing than an arena for competition. Much is said about NASCAR’s quest to compete with the NFL, but in reality, the sport has more in common with “Mad Men” than with any of the other professional sports that grab the attention of casual sports fans in North America.
When I look at Kahne, I don’t think of Tom Brady. Instead, I think of Don Draper, the fictional ad man with a delivery so smooth he could sell a Chevy to Jack Roush. Sure, Kahne’s got an excellent shot to make the Chase this season, but his real value to Rick Hendrick is that he’s got a knack for selling insurance, motor oil and cheap haircuts to the masses.
Don’t believe me? Why don’t you ask Ryan Newman how far winning 50 poles and 17 Sprint Cup races will get you in the sport these days. Not as far as the ability to throw on a bikini and hawk GoDaddy.com, apparently.
What NASCAR sold its television partners wasn’t a garage full of hotshot race car drivers; it was a trusted group of product spokesmen that transform NASCAR races into the most successful infomercials ever devised. People watch for the speed and the storylines, and in the process, they make unconscious decisions about what brand of paper towels to buy. The brand loyalty of NASCAR fans is a commodity that television networks can turn into ad revenue, and NASCAR just cashed in on that fact.
Then there are the drivers. What today’s stars of the Cup circuit lack in personality, they more than make up for in marketability.
There is no way Mark Martin is still among the 43 best stock car racers on the planet in 2013, but he’s still out there driving because he’s NASCAR’s version of Art Linkletter. Martin is a familiar face and a trusted voice, so he’ll always be able to find a ride. I fully expect him to be in the AAG Reverse Mortgage Ford in 2020.
So if you’re hoping NASCAR is going to do something to bring back the wild action that made the sport so popular in the first place, you might as well forget about it. Can you imagine messing with the formula after signing a deal as fat as the one NASCAR just signed?
Who needs passing? If the cars get next to each other, some of the rolling billboards might get damaged. And if wrecks start happening more frequently, a couple of the pitchmen might lose their temper and start rolling around in the pits like a couple of rednecks in a bar fight.
Why, the thought of fisticuffs happening in plain sight of all the sponsors up in the suites is almost enough to make NASCAR executives feel faint.
Kahne was a big winner on Sunday at Pocono, but he was hardly the only winner. After climbing out of his car in Victory Lane, he was quick to tell the television cameras he couldn’t have done it without the help of Farmer’s Insurance, Quaker State, Time Warner Cable, Great Clips….
Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at email@example.com. You can hear him Monday mornings at 9:05 on “Good Morning Tri-Cities” with Tom Taylor on 870 AM and 100.7 FM.