Sitting in the press tent at the NASCAR Chase for the Nextel Cup playoff series, championship contender Tony Stewart facetiously pondered whether he should be NASCAR's ambassador—the star to bring new fans to the sport.
“Does it pay extra?” the often surly Stewart deadpanned. “It really doesn't matter to me.”
Whether Stewart steps up or not, the bigger question is if finding a mainstream superstar matters to NASCAR as a television property. While the sport's ratings and popularity have skyrocketed in recent years, many believe a Michael Jordan or a Tiger Woods would help NASCAR shed its rural image and woo “the blue state” sports fans.
Make no mistake, NASCAR is a sport rife with colorful stars whose passionate fan bases make them as adept at selling motor oil as they are at turning left at high speeds. But outside of Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and maybe Stewart, most of today's top NASCAR drivers are hardly household names.
“They have superstars within the industry, but most have not transcended the sport,” says Dennis McAlpine, analyst with McAlpine Associates, who has covered the sport for the better part of a decade.
But if dominating the Nextel Cup series is a prerequisite for achieving stardom, the structure of the league doesn't help.
“Part of the problem is, it's hard to be dominant in the sport because NASCAR goes out of its way to make the cars equal,” says McAlpine. “It will be difficult to have a dominant driver come out.”
There is equally strong sentiment that NASCAR doesn't need a Tiger or Michael to boost its popularity. Some in the business say there are plenty of stars and that aspects of the sport—crashes, flare-ups between drivers—add to its growing prominence as a television property. The clips of driver Robbie Gordon hurling his helmet at the passing car of driver Michael Waltrip in a recent race were great fodder for the sports-highlight shows.
“I think it may be a little short-sighted to think one superstar is a panacea,” says David Carter, president of Sports Business Group, a consulting company. “Maybe all they need is a little more notoriety for the stars they have now.”
It's not like NASCAR's hurting, anyway. It has a six-year, $2.4 billion TV deal (see story below), and according to the IEG Sponsorship Report, the sport took in $1.5 billion in sponsorship revenues last year, compared with $785 million for the NFL and Major League Baseball combined. NASCAR says it moved more than $2 billion in licensed products at retail last year, 2½ times the total from a decade ago.
NASCAR also has an advantage in that its stars compete every week, including all the way through the playoffs. Unlike golf, in which TV ratings fluctuate based on who is competing (particularly Woods), NASCAR drivers have to compete in every single race if they are to stay in contention for a top-10 finish and subsequent playoff spot. NASCAR execs boast they have an All-Star Game every weekend.
Only 10 drivers qualify for the Chase for the Nextel Cup playoff series that spans the last 10 races, but all drivers still compete in all the races. NBC and Turner Broadcasting are thankful for that fact this year, with big names like Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. failing to qualify for the Chase.
Still, some say that NASCAR could be even bigger, if only it attracted more-diverse competitors.
“If anything, there is a lack of heroes in certain demos,” says McAlpine. “They don't have a Hispanic hero or an African-American hero. Those are audiences they still need to attract to keep growing.”