Now that 2017 is over – and I think it was a good year for Monster NASCAR Cup Series racing as far as competition goes – naturally we turn our attention to the season ahead.
There are many challenges for NASCAR this year but then, the same could be said at the start of every past season.
But the issues now, I think, have much more to do with NASCAR’s very survival.
For several years now NASCAR has had to deal with dwindling interest, popularity and television ratings. And then there is the matter of money. Less and less of it has become available and willingly spent by sponsors, the very lifeblood of the sport.
Let’s start with money because it is, literally, the foundation for the issues facing NASCAR.
Unlike in days past, teams have found it very difficult to secure major sponsorships. Remember the time when one sponsor’s name and colors were on a car for an entire, uninterrupted season?
That is long gone. Teams have had to secure fractured sponsorship to compete for a full season. You’ve heard about sponsors paying up for a handful of races, which compels organizations to find others who will also dole out cash on a limited basis.
Only by cobbling together varied sponsors have teams been able to compete. The number of single, season-long financial backers has decreased appreciably.
Yes, the economy has had something to do with that. And, let’s admit something here, when teams had money, and a lot of it, they spent freely and somewhat needlessly, in my opinion – testing? private planes? luxurious motorhomes? over the top salaries?
But the financial support literally crashed with the recession of 2008, when team personnel layoffs were not easily counted. Things haven’t been the same since.
As mentioned, it is more than the economy. To many companies with a notion to become sponsors, they pause to determine if it’s worth it.
NASCAR’s sagging attendance and television ratings have much to do with that. When the sport’s popularity was booming the numbers justified the spending. Now they do not.
Even Monster, the energy drink brand, committed to just two years of series sponsorship, the smallest tenure ever.
It was supposed to have announced its future association by now, if any, but it has hedged until the spring. There is any number of reasons for this, but undoubtedly Monster is considering the value of its investment.
In other words, it is looking at the numbers.
And I would not doubt the television networks, and their potential sponsors, are doing the same thing.
No one should be surprised if NASCAR is conducting a quiet, behind-the-scenes hunt for new financial backing.
But how successful it will be has a lot to do with the numbers – the fans in the stands and the TV ratings.
Fans and television, together, form NASCAR’s biggest confrontation. There is no easy means to make the figures rise.
But, to put it in the most rudimental terms, NASCAR has to continue to court new fans while satisfying those long-time aficionados who have felt slighted.
It’s like one NASCAR Hall of Fame driver told me: “We’re lucky that we were in the sport at the time we were.”
Again, there is no easy answer.
But here are a couple of notions that appear obvious.
Don’t mess with the competition. One thing that has ruffled the “old time fan” feathers is the seemingly constant changes in rules, regulations and championship formats.
All gimmicks aside “stage racing” and the current playoff system seem to work. At least there is no reason to make any changes, in my opinion. Leave it alone.
These formats are by no means popular with every veteran fan but if any wholesale changes are made it is simply going to drive them further away.
One of the reasons such changes were made was to cultivate younger fans. It has been only partly successful so why not let things settle down?
A competitive magnet might serve to attract young fans – and older ones for that matter.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was that magnet for a long time. He wasn’t the only one, of course, but like those before him, he is retired.
There is a void.
As much as NASCAR needs a villain it needs a hero. And one who lures the attention of young, interested fans is perfect.
NASCAR can’t create him but he’s out there. Perhaps it will be Chase Elliott, who has a legacy as big as Earnhardt Jr.’s. Maybe it’s Ryan Blaney, Eric Jones or William Byron. Of course, there’s always Bubba Wallace – or someone still under the radar.
Again, all of this is a very simplistic review of the problems NASCAR faces and how they may be overcome.
I don’t have to tell the sanctioning body what it faces.
It has overcome obstacles before and with the right decisions and policies, it will again.
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