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Back in Gear

NASCAR is going 'back to basics' to halt its ratings lull and regain core fans. 3/14/2008 08:00:00 PM Eastern

In 2008, two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup series champion Tony Stewart has picked things up right where he left off last season—by returning to form as the sport's resident bad boy.

Last April, angered by the actions of the sport's sanctioning body, the veteran racer compared NASCAR to professional wresting. And this year, with the season only six weeks old, he has already allegedly punched 2004 Cup champ Kurt Busch in the middle of a disciplinary meeting, and after a recent race went ballistic on a tire manufacturer in an interview.

“Goodyear can't build a tire that's worth a crap,” he barked about one of NASCAR's most significant partners.

But a funny thing happened to Stewart this year on the way to the infamous NASCAR disciplinary hauler. Last year's mouthy actions earned Stewart a season-long probation, and the kind of dressing down that had him telling reporters, “It's a little tender for me to sit right now.”

This season is different. NASCAR officials and their TV partners, hyper-aware of the sport's two-year ratings tumble, have chosen a new “back to basics” strategy, a welcome return to recently absent core fans. By letting drivers be themselves and show some personality, NASCAR's hoping to lure the faithful back.

So Stewart's penalty for getting into fights this season and publicly humiliating a league partner? A six-week probation.

Like a set of charmed parents, NASCAR officials are probably sporting hidden smiles over the fuss. The sport saw its once-skyrocketing viewership growth hit the wall as it went through change after change in recent years, attempting to bring in new fans beyond its Southern U.S. base and compete with the NFL for Sunday afternoon viewers. But before the green flag waved at the Daytona 500 in February, NASCAR had decided to slow up and rekindle momentum.

So far, the plan is cooking with gas. Thanks in part to NASCAR's efforts—and aided, undoubtedly, by the return to success of the sport's biggest superstar, Dale Earnhardt Jr.—a turnaround has begun. After two straight years of erosion, and despite almost everything in network television falling, the early portion of NASCAR's ratings is actually up, with the March 9 race in Atlanta up 19% on the year. Even the monotonous rain-delay coverage of the season's second race in California topped the NBA All-Star game for viewers.

“There are a lot of sports ratings down, but what I like about NASCAR is they are not just saying all sports are down, they are trying to do something about it,” says Turner Sports and Turner Broadcasting Sales President David Levy.

BUILT ON PERSONALITIES

The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, now a 60-year-old sanctioning body for the country's most successful form of racing, managed fine for decades without one overarching major television package, or tracks in many top markets.

Its formula was to build on the popularity—and personality—of its hard-charging drivers. Superstars like Dale Earnhardt—the fabled “Intimidator” who won seven championships—were the heart of the sport. But roughly 50 years after its inception, NASCAR was pushing its boundaries beyond its blue-collar Southern roots.

The networks took notice. In 1999, NASCAR inked its first comprehensive national television package with Fox, NBC and Turner Sports, for $2.4 billion.

Until that point, NASCAR's television package was a mish-mash of coverage, with different networks covering races every other week, and only 10 races airing on broadcast as late as 2000. Beginning in 2001, the racing outfit finally had the consistency it wanted to build out the sport's television footprint.

New fans came in droves. Television ratings rose rapidly as NASCAR took its place as the No. 2 sport on television behind the National Football League. Fox, which covered the first half of the season, posted a 29% jump over the previous season's ratings; NBC and TNT, sharing the second half, averaged a 3.9 adjusted national rating per broadcast, up 34% from a 2.9 in 2000.

And NASCAR drivers were gaining traction on television screens away from race day, with Earnhardt rival and Madison Avenue favorite Jeff Gordon becoming a occasional fill-in host for Regis Philbin.

That momentum carried through most of the TV deal, which allowed NASCAR to cash in when it expired. By now, Brian France, who'd been instrumental in fashioning the first deal, had succeeded his father, Bill France Jr., as the sport's CEO. Waiting to line the NASCAR coffers were ESPN and ABC, which replaced NBC in the new round of coverage that kicked in last year. NASCAR got a massive 40% bump in rights fees to the tune of roughly $4.5 billion over eight years.

“We learned there is something inherently solid about NASCAR and its ability to attract and keep an audience,” says sports consultant David Carter of the Sports Business Group.

DALE EARNHARDT AND JANET JACKSON

But racing side by side with the TV money flowing in and the hoopla surrounding NASCAR's meteoric rise were broad shifts and shocking sea changes. When the smoke cleared, the sport that had maintained an amazing record for marketing itself had begun to lose touch with much of its core.

The most tumultuous change came at the start of the big 2001 TV deal. Finally ready for its close-up, NASCAR suffered its worst tragedy in 20 years when Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the season-opening Daytona 500. The death of the man who many felt defined the sport's rugged roots was a massive blow.

With the sport reeling, and the desire to spread beyond the traditional base still strong, the governing body continued some steps to move NASCAR in different directions. New tracks sprang up in Kansas and Chicago, replacing beloved stops in the Carolinas.

In 2004, the new TV deal also saw the departure of 30-year title sponsor Winston, replaced by Nextel. And in the ultimate move to compete with the NFL, the sport instituted the 10-race “Chase for the Championship,” a playoff-format late-season rush to the title. In a sport marked by tradition, the changes seemed to be coming at 200 mph.

The 2004 NASCAR season hadn't begun when Janet Jackson bared her breast at the 2004 Super Bowl. Once the FCC started to react, everyone broadcasting live events got understandably skittish. In NASCAR, on-track shoving matches between drivers were met with stiffer penalties. And when Dale Earnhardt Jr. uttered “s--t” in a live post-race interview in 2004, he was hit was a $10,000 fine and docked 25 points.

“All of us in sports had to take a look and understand what the FCC was trying to do, so we reacted to that,” says NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston.

Other changes were greeted by fans as assaults. NASCAR's endless—and ultimately failed—attempt to build a track in New York was distracting. Toyota became the first non-U.S. manufacturer welcomed into the sport in decades. And most significantly, the cars themselves changed. In reaction to increasing calls for safety, the sport introduced the “Car of Tomorrow” body and mandated the cookie-cutter design's use among all Cup teams. Meanwhile, the new generation of drivers—from now-two-time Cup champ Jimmie Johnson to Kyle Busch to Kasey Kahne—had replaced extremely popular retiring stalwarts such as Bill Elliott and Rusty Wallace.

SCREECHING TO A HALT

While NASCAR was busy reaching out and reinventing, its celebrated ratings growth screeched to a halt. Ratings in 2006 were down year-over-year for most of the season, including off 10.6% for the Chase for the Championship playoffs on TNT and NBC. Some speculated that NBC's lame-duck status in its last year was a factor. But the introduction of ABC and ESPN in 2007 didn't stem the tide, as NASCAR's overall ratings fell another 8.2% for the year.

“The sport had been growing and all of a sudden everything was different,” says Fox Sports chairman David Hill. “For many people, change is regarded with suspicion and not embraced.”

Adding insult to injury, NASCAR officials were perplexed by constant criticism of their decisions not only by drivers and fans, but broadcast partners as well. In the face of a constant negative barrage in 2007 that sounded like bashing, NASCAR advised racing teams and broadcasters that they were hurting the sport by being so negative.

“NASCAR said, 'Criticize us when we make a mistake, but don't go out and tell people not to watch us,'” says one sport insider.

BACK TO BASICS

Prior to this season, NASCAR executives offered the welcome reversal of taking the sport back to its basics. Ads promoting races began to stress embracing a gloried past as much as moving forward. And this year's 50th running of the Daytona 500 was a nostalgic lovefest, featuring appearances by many of the sport's bygone legends.

But a major part of the initiative is also simply letting drivers be themselves once again, FCC be damned, in hopes that more of them will expand their bases among fans new and old. “These guys have to express themselves and we are going to let them do that,” says NASCAR's Poston.

“[NASCAR] is changing perception,” adds Hill. “We think old fans are starting to come back now. But you don't have to target one or the other. If you do the job the right way, you target everyone.”

And so far, so good for Fox and NASCAR. While there are 30 races left in the season and TNT and ESPN/ABC haven't yet revved up their Sprint Cup coverage, the ratings falloff has, for now, subsided. Heading into the March 16 race in Bristol, Tenn., Fox had recorded five-year highs for two straight races. The March 2 Cup race in Las Vegas, for instance, earned Fox a 6.2/12, a 13% gain over last year's 5.5/11 for the race.

Stemming the ratings drop-off for an entire season would obviously come at a great time for NASCAR and its TV partners, as the value of sports properties looks strong as ever at present. Not only are live events relatively TiVo-proof, and thus more attractive to advertisers, they look even better with so much of network television trending down.

JUNIOR ACHIEVEMENT

The return of Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport's favorite son, to the front of the standings may be the other important tonic the sport needs.

Many a fan believes the most convulsive change the sport experienced in recent years happened last May, when Dale Jr. controversially departed from Dale Earnhardt Inc., the company his late father built, to join rival powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports. But after finishing last season dismally, Dale Jr. began the new year by winning the non-points Budweiser Shootout at Daytona, sending shock waves of excitement to fans of the sport's five-time Most Popular Driver Award winner.

“As he goes, so goes a lot of the sport,” says Sports Business Group's Carter.

Even Brian France admitted during the pre-season, “If Dale Jr. has a big year, that will help.”

More victories for Earnhardt could usher fans back to their sets, watching him do smoky post-race burnouts and soak in the cheers. If that happens, given all that NASCAR has invested in a return to its roots, Earnhardt wouldn't be the only one smiling.

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