Is NASCAR Back on Track?CEO Brian France on his plan to continue a ratings uptick, what ESPN needs to do better and his timetable to jump-start TV talks 1/16/2012 12:01:00 AM Eastern
Once the meteorically rising star of television sports
ratings, NASCAR banked into the wall six years ago, when
its TV audience began a steady and precipitous falloff
through 2010. But the 2011 season was a welcome
reversal for the auto racing outfit, as numbers rose for
the first time in six seasons with a 10% bump in total
viewers and a 17% climb in the elusive male 18-34 demo.
While proving cause and effect regarding television ratings
is often a fool's errand, NASCAR had plenty going
for it in 2011, including a wildly competitive season leading
to a storybook ending in which two of its most wellknown
drivers literally battled to the last lap of the last
race to decide the Sprint Cup championship. NASCAR
wants to build on that momentum by launching new
long-term initiatives to rev up parts of its business like
social media to attract a more young and diverse audience.
The ratings rise has not remotely returned the sport to
its halcyon days when it was often mentioned as heading
to become the No. 2 TV sport behind the NFL, and its
audience has been aging up. But NASCAR does have a
positive momentum story to tell right now, and the timing
couldn't be better. While its current TV deals with
Fox, Turner and ESPN (which split the season into thirds,
in that order) don't expire until 2014, CEO Brian France
would like to move talks along sooner than laterâ€”which
makes sense given the astronomical fees being paid to
rights holders these days thanks to the new players in the
market and the relative strength of live sports in this long
tail world. And France is bullish on NASCAR coming off
the start line fast in 2012, which opens with the sport's
biggest race, the Feb. 26 Daytona 500 on Fox, kicking
off a season that will also include consistent participation
from ratings draw Danica Patrick.
France sat down with B&C editor-in-chief Ben Grossman
to talk about what went wrong, what helped turn
things around and what the sport needs to do better to
get its ratings back into Victory Lane. An edited transcript
of their conversation follows.
You guys were once the up-and-coming story in
TV sports. What happened?
A lot of sports leagues that are well-marketed and wellwatched
have their own cycles of momentum. If you
look over a long horizon, some sports will have better
moments over a period of time. When they do in our
case it was great, and even when we don't, we are still a
very strong franchise; someone else might just be having
a [better] moment. That's a lot of it. It's not surprising,
no one [goes up] forever.
Is getting the young male demos
back up to where they used
to be your top priority?
Yes. That's everyone's issue. If you
look at other sports that have been
aging for different reasons, they
didn't adjust the game a little bit,
not enough offense or whatever else;
you see leagues making adjustments.
We're in the same boat, trying to
tweak things and figure it out.
Ratings seemed to possibly
bounce off the bottom last
year. Do you know why?
We do. Story lines matter, and if you
are fortunate enough to get those it's
very helpful. In our case we have an
additional challenge and that's keeping the racing competitive;
there's a mechanical component to that, there is
parity. We had 15 winners last year [in 36 races]. We had
close ! nishes, and the final part of the year was dramatic,
of course. When the story lines come together organically,
and when it all comes together, you get a great outcome.
How do you improve on last year?
The good news is that a finish like that always propels
you into the following year. Anytime you have an incredible
playoff run in sports or a seventh-game moment,
the feeling that fans get [from] one season into
the next is dramatic. That will help us. We will get off
to a fast start, there is a lot of momentum. But we need
other story lines to develop. We'll see how that goes.
Did your ratings bounce come from traditional
NASCAR fans, or more casual sports fans?
The biggest increase came from the demographic we
wanted the most, which is the young male demo,
which would make me think it is more of a casual fan
that is looking on any given weekend frankly at what
are the interesting games or races they want to watch,
and we get caught up in that. We had a lot of new
winners, like [Daytona 500 winner] Trevor Bayne, who
captivated the casual fan and helped us.
What were you doing to draw the traditional
NASCAR fan last year?
What they like more than anything
is a focus on the racing. The marketing
and the rest of it, they are less
interested in that. They like it when
close competition happens. So we
create really competitive racing. We
are not as an industry talking about
sponsorship and things, they don't
care about any of that. They just
care about how is my driver doing
or how is my team doing.
So the "Have At It, Boys" philosophy
for the drivers is for
Those are the kinds of things they
like. So we can affect them from a
format and how we oversee the
events. But we can also get in our
own way on thatâ€”we can trip ourselves up.
Then how did you go after the casual fans?
We did some things like streamline the points system so
they can follow and understand it easier. We created a
wild card like in every other sport for how you get into
our playoffs based on wins. And then there are some
things that just fall your way, certain drivers that have a
lot of charisma. We had two of the best in our sport in
[runner-up] Carl Edwards and [champion] Tony Stewart.
Do it all correctly and you get a shot at those fans.
What did your TV partners tell you about last year?
They liked the fact that we really got working on things
we could control. And we were working on things in
the future, like our youth initiative and social media and
digital media that will help draw people in the demo to the broadcasts and the events. We have done an impressive
amount of internal review and I think they appreciate
we are not hoping for things to just go our way.
Did NASCAR used to just hope for things to go
I don't think we did, but we are doing more. We are
hiring smarter, better people and we are investing
more. Even in this economy.
What did TV partners tell you they want to see
you do differently?
They were pretty satis! ed with the presentation of the
events. Fox has always wanted to not have an open
weekend after the third or fourth weekend, they were
pretty critical about that, and we eliminated that.
[With] the schedule, there is always input on start
times. We moved them around a bit last year and we
will do it again this year. But it's not just about what
they want from us. We are pretty aggressive about what
they need to do for NASCAR. It's a two-way street.
So what do you want from them?
We are always the sport that is under-covered given the
ratings and size of the events. In particular, ESPN. They
just have so many platforms. So we are pushing real
hard with them to have a more integrated approach.
We have hired people to service them better, so we can
help them accomplish that. They have the most assets
to be deployed; it doesn't mean everyone else doesn't
have some big ones and good ones. We are going to
work to make them a better partner.
How do you respond when they say there is no
news to cover midweek from your sport?
That's fair. We have to help them understand what is
important midweek, and why it matters if a team has
problems back at race headquarters, how that's going
to hurt them at the following event, or if they historically
haven't done well at a track, how are they going to
change that? A lot of that is us educating their editors
or producers as to why that's important.
Your TV deals are up in 2014, but when do negotiating
windows open with your current partners?
Not for a little while, but we are having conversations,
because a lot of our partners have been clear they
would prefer to renew. All things being equal, our first
hope is that the incumbents do renew.
Do you want the same set-up, where each TV
partner takes a third of the season?
That may change. I don't know exactly what, but we
are going to look at that. We will have an open mind
to a certain extent.
But doesn't it make sense to have that continuity,
so fans know where the races are week to week?
That is certainly a valid thing to say. I just don't know if
it will work out that way. I do know Turner would like
more events. But it's also subject to all the calendars,
and you need to ! gure out how to make that work.
Have you been surprised about the pricing for
recent deals like the NFL, Olympics and World
Cup? Do you ever step back and say, "Wow"?
Yes, I do sometimes. Right when you think the values
are one place, they move up.
So given that, do you want to move your TV
talks along earlier?
I think you are seeing some of the other leagues renew earlier
than their windows would indicate. The NFL certainly
did that recently. And so we are not actively in a bunch of
high-level negotiations, but there are clearly some really
good indications that our partners want to make sure they
are with us for a long time, and we want the same.
When will talks heat up?
I think it could heat up at any time, that's my sense. It's
not cold now, we are having conversations. My sense is
things will happen sooner rather than later, and sooner
than they normally would in a cycle of renewals.
Will Daytona ratings be up this year because of
the competitive finish to last season?
It probably will be because of the momentum.
Will ratings continue to climb overall this season?
I don't know what all is going to happen in match-ups,
and we will have the Olympics which will have some
negative effect on us. If we can make that up in other
places, sure. There is an enormous thing on thisâ€”do
you get the right match-ups. All that stuff really matters,
that's the last 10-15%.
Where are you on broadcast versus cable? Do
you need to be on a broadcast network, is that
important to you?
We certainly see the line blurring, that's for sure. There
is still some cachet to being on a network, and a little
more in the distribution universe as well. So we certainly
see where money is going. And subscriber fees
support higher rights fees. We get that and we generally
think the line is pretty close, but I think there is still
a network cachet that exists.
Are you going to change the postseason
I think I'd be shot if I changed the format, frankly.
We are not going to change the format.
Is your season too long?
It's long, and it's long because we can only play one
game per week. And we have 36 events. It's long by
definition, but it's necessary and it works fine.
How much does it hurt that Dale Earnhardt Jr.,
your most marketable driver, doesn't win races?
It hurts. It hurts. He is trying to win and get his
team to have the confidence to not only win one but
rip off more. He did improve and made the Chase.
He's a big franchise. He's the most popular driver in
NASCAR, so it would help us if he would win.
Are you taking back digital rights from Turner?
We are partners in those rights now and we intend to
have a lot more influence on those rights. There will be
some partnership component with Turner, but we will
have a much more dynamic role in that relationship.
When does that happen?
We are in those discussions now.
Why do you want that?
They would agree with this: We have to have more
control over digital rights, and for a variety of reasons.
Notably, sometimes when you are just financial
partners, there are strategic things that are going to
be important to us but not to them. So we have to
change the relationship to accommodate our strategic
interests, and they agree with that.
You and your teams have been affected by the
economy. How challenging was 2011 from a
It remained challenging, but I think most of our partners
would tell you there was a turn in 2011 to the positive.
But it would be inaccurate to say we are unaffected by
things. The uncertainty of all these companies we all hear
about, that they are so careful to deploy assets and hire
people, does and can have an effect on sponsorships. But
we renewed Sprint and some [other] big companies.
If you could put a race anywhere
that you don't currently have one, where would you put it?
Is that on the horizon at all?
with this economy, not until things change around.
Would a New York race help TV
don't know. It would certainly help the advertising community that supports the
networks, that's for sure. It would help us on some level, but I don't know how
NBC has a new network, Turner
wants more sports for TruTV, CBS has a new network, Fox could launch a national
sports network at some point. Do you want to be on an upstart network?
would have to look at it. There are certain distribution thresholds and programming
positions that a given cable network will have to have for us to put our
premium product on, but we have a lot of other product too. It's certainly good
news for right holders, though. And if you look at all the deals that have
transpired over the last 12-18 months, it's never been more valuable to have
important sports programming.
How much did the wild finish to
your season actually help ratings?
know it did. We don't know the number. There is still a little bit of art going
on with the science. But it does create those game-seven moments.
Is it better to have a dominant
figure like Tiger Woods or parity year to year like the NFL?
think both have appeal. In certain points along the way you want both. In
particular if you have a driver in our case that has a lot of bravado and
personality to match a great performance. Someone like Tony [Stewart]. A
dynasty has been good for most leagues. When they happen, they are good.
Your title came down to clean-cut
Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart, who might punch you in the face at any moment.
Who is a better spokesman for your sport?
thought about that before they settled it, of course whoever won won, but I
came to the conclusion both would be good champions. Carl is going to win some
championships, he's just too good not to, so the way Tony did, I think it
worked out the way it needed to.
Everyone talks about creating
superstars, but does your sport need villains?
think some version of a villain, yeah. I think you need people that no one
cheers for, I think that's healthy. But there are limits to that. It's great
when there is someone that acts different, has a little bit of bravado, that
typically is good.
So do you want drivers fighting
by the trailers or not?
don't want to see things escalate to that. But they have emotions and we don't
want them to have to put them in a briefcase either. They ought to show their
emotions and all of it, that's fine. There are limits, but I would like to see
them show more, not less, of their emotions.
What do your TV partners tell you
about that? SportsCenter shows a lot of fighting and big hits in hockey
are not going to tell us they would like to see a boxing match on the
What do you as a sport need to
get better at?
of things. Social and digital media is a great opportunity for everybody, but
even more so for us because we are under-covered.
Do you need to grow social and
digital media because you are so far behind everyone else?
would say we are middle of the pack. We are lagging behind some groups for
sure, but we are not at ground zero.
The Democratic National
Convention is coming to Charlotte this year. Are you doing anything with that?
are, I don't know what, but we are going to have a good time with them coming
in. It's obviously a whole different medium, but it's in our backyard and we
will aggressive there.
In all your internal research,
what did you learn that surprised you?
learned there was a lot of work to do, despite all the success we have had in many