Ninety Miles an Hour down a Dead End Street
I bid you welcome gentle readers, and of course we extend the hand of friendship to whomever it is at NASCAR that scans this piece for heresy or other felonies and misdemeanors. What you’re about to read was written in May of 2004, the first year in the reign of Brian France, ergo the first year for the “Chase for no Sponsorship”, as it was so aptly tagged by our Lady in Black. For those that think I worry too much, talk too much or whatever, you are undoubtedly correct, bless your hearts, but please read through this piece, written 13 years ago, and notice that almost every word promises the outcome we see today, with empty grandstands and plunging TV ratings.
Of late, we’ve had much discussion about the short fields and the obvious shortage of sponsorship in NASCAR today. We’ve shared ideas about the sanctioning body siphoning funds away from individual teams and claiming sponsorship money for its own. Today, when I was answering a question from a reader, it suddenly became crystal clear that there may be another, but related cause for the tightening of the purse strings by corporations that used to sponsor race teams or even those that might have done so in the future.
For the first fifty years of its existence, NASCAR was always able to brag about the fact that its fans were the most brand-loyal fans of any sport in the world. If a company put its name on the hood of a racecar, NASCAR fans selected that company’s product over any other for the simple reason that the company was a NASCAR sponsor. It was just that simple. There was a family atmosphere in the sport and fans felt that in patronizing a sponsor, they were actually helping a family member to get ahead in the world. It’s funny, but I don’t recall there ever being a sponsor crisis before now.
Ah, but gentle readers, things have changed. Drivers no longer race for the Winston Cup; it’s the Nextel Cup now. (The guys that think too much patriotism is bad for our image) It’s no longer a down-home southeastern sport; it’s as if one can hear Horace Greeley saying, “Go west young man; go west!” So westward we go, to the new super palaces of racing that are springing up as if they are as free as the prize in your Cracker Jack box. Everywhere you look, from the tracks to the television, it’s all about the “show”, but take a close look toward whom the show is geared today.
Yes, the networks with the big-bucks contracts are FOX and NBC/TBS, but if you close your eyes, you’d swear that it was being brought to you on MTV. Somewhere, someone in a suit has decided that stock car racing should be presented in a manner that will attract more young people to the fold, while seasoned fans are muting their TVs and reaching for their radios; of course, some are just reaching for a fishing pole or a garden trowel and leaving the TV off completely.
“Oh”, says NASCAR, “but look at how many seats we’re filling at the pretty new tracks.” Yes, for the moment, there are jeans sitting in those seats, but according to plan, those jeans are not being worn by Billy Bob and Betty Jo. (Remember, the word “Redneck” does not promote the proper image) The overwhelming majority of those over-priced seats are being filled by people with cute “Soap Opera” names like Madison, Ashley, Trey or Jamie; after all, that fits the “image.”
Now, hold your fire; it is not my intention to pick on or alienate the younger generation. Given enough time, you will be where I am and the cycle will continue ad infinitum. The point that I’m making is that these younguns have been raised in the economy of the day, where most purchases tend to be made at discount stores large enough to house the population of Rhode Island. Shopping has become a game, and to win the game, you have to find and purchase the cheapest item in every category. Brand loyalty? What’s that?
If you were a company intent on getting the most bang for your advertising buck, you might find a pastime aimed solely at the youth movement not to your liking, especially if your product is of high quality and not readily available in the giant “Marts.”
In recent days, we’ve seen several large corporations take their leave of NASCAR’s Nextel Cup division in favor of some other marketing strategy. Gone and sorely missed are Pennzoil, Sirius Satellite Radio, Harrah’s Casinos, CITGO, Grainger and Exide Batteries. Is it possible that those companies, along with others that have moved on, saw something in their bottom lines that warned them this particular form of advertising was no longer working the way that it used to? Have the changes in the targeted demographics contributed to the decline in interested sponsors because there is no longer sufficient return to justify the expenditure?
I think it’s just possible that the “show” has run afoul of that old “Law of unintended consequences.” While NASCAR and Nextel have been dressing up the sport and striving to polish its “image”, they’ve succeeded not only in driving away many of the old-school fans, but many of the high dollar sponsors as well. This won’t work for long folks, and just down the road a piece we have another litmus test coming up, that being the “Chase for the Championship.”
No one really knows yet how that new part of the game is going to affect the sponsorship side of things, but there have already been reports of sponsors preparing either to bail or to rewrite contracts for 2005 in a manner reflecting performance. (If you don’t make it into the elite top ten, you don’t get any more money.)
If that comes to pass, one has to wonder what will become of the “show.” If there are only 20 or 25 teams with enough sponsorship money to make the show, are there enough field fillers out there to make up the difference? Would anyone pay to watch it in that event?
Bear in mind that I am not an economist, but I do possess more than a modicum of something called common sense and have the ability to apply basic logic and follow it to a conclusion. No one will argue the fact that within NASCAR, it is all about the money, and that no doubt applies to sponsors as well as the big brass in Daytona.
Just follow the money trail folks. If sponsors or their corporate pencil pushers are figuring out that the bottom line is dropping and does not support massive advertising budgets such as are demanded in NASCAR, they are going to rescind that sponsorship, and have already begun to do so. It’s not the economy, as I see being suggested by the suits, it’s the bottom line. If the fans do not support the sponsors, then there is little reason for the sponsors to support the sport.
Your writer is an avid fan of “Classic Country” music (Didn’t ya just know that!) and many moons ago, Hank Snow sang a song whose lyrics might well describe the situation that now prevails. The song was originally about a love affair, but it’s not much of a stretch to apply the logic to the situation at hand.
“Warning signs are flashing by us but we pay no heed;
‘Stead of slowing down the pace, we keep picking up the speed.
Disaster’s getting’ closer every time we meet,
Goin’ 90 miles an hour down a dead end street.”
I really dislike saying, “I told you so”, but dear gentle readers, I told you so… in this and many other articles as our once proud sport, like castles of old, began crumbling and falling to the ground. This is a list of sponsors found in the 2006 spring Bristol race, picked at random. Many others have quietly come and gone in the intervening decade.
USG Sheetrock, Office Depot, Dodge Dealers/UAW, Home Depot, Best Buy, Waste Management, Schwan's Home Service, UPS, DuPont, Little Debbie, Texaco/Havoline, U.S. Army, Cingular, Alltel, Sharpie, GMAC, Tide/Downy, Stanley Tools, Aaron's, A.T. & T.
That’s just the ones from one random race, and none were sponsors on “field filler” teams. All were on competitive cars. There are so many more whose names are not on that list, but are just as gone. It’s rumored strongly that long-time Chip Ganassi Racing sponsor, Target, will exit NASCAR for the 2018 season, and they undoubtedly won’t go alone. I wish I had the answer… the panacea that would make it all better, but like that runaway motorcycle, I fear it’s a lost cause. This voice has been crying in the wilderness for many years. The fans listen and applaud, but it all falls on deaf ears in Daytona Beach, or New York City, where our erstwhile CEO hangs out these days. It’s been a great ride for all these years. Does it really have to end?
I’m going to add one more song, which fits some words found within this piece. This is for my dear friend, Vivian Simons.
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling. It looks so good on you!