While NASCAR still has a lot of work to do to get back to where it was a few years back when it was the darling of the sports TV world, its ratings seem to have bounced off a bottom last season and NASCAR enters the upcoming Daytona 500 and 2012 season with some momentum from a Hollywood ending to 2011 in which the championship literally came down to the last lap of the entire season. So when I sat down with NASCAR chief Brian France last week in his Los Angeles offices, I wasn’t sure how forthcoming he would be when I asked about his upcoming TV deals and plans to continue the ratings uptick the sport saw in 2011 after multiple years of numbers that skidded downwards.
I had heard France was relatively guarded, so I was pleasantly surprised with our hour-long conversation in which he really didn’t duck anything - revealing his plans for the 2012 postseason, his strategy for his upcoming TV talks, and what he needs more of from ESPN and Dale Jr.
Here is what France had to say on several key NASCAR topics. For an edited transcript of the entire B&C January 16 cover story (for subscribers only), click here.
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 this year [in 36 races], we had close finishes and the final part of the year was dramatic, of course. When the storylines come together organically, and when it all comes together, you get a great outcome.
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? [The “Have At It Boys” philosophy], 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 that, we can trip ourselves up.
You say you’re pretty aggressive about what your TV partners need to do for NASCAR. 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.
Your TV deals are up in 2014, but when do your 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. . . I think [talks] 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.
Are you going to change the post-season Chase format?
I think I’d be shot if I changed the format, frankly. We are not going to change the format.
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.
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?
I 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?
I 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?
No, we 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 highlights.
They are not going to tell us they would like to see a boxing match on the straightaway.