It may be a little funny that NASCAR’s brand, perhaps the most American of America’s many brands, is being led by a man with the last name of France -- Chairman Brian France, that is. There is nothing funny, however, about NASCAR’s declining television ratings.
One of the nation’s most popular spectator sports has suffered ratings declines in all categories on all networks over the past few years. Fox saw its NASCAR ratings plunge 10 percent from 2008 to 2009 after falling 9 percent the year before that. What does the brand plan to do to stop the hemorrhaging?
“Mix it up.”
In a recent statement, Chairman France called NASCAR a “contact sport,” adding that he would like to see drivers “mixing it up” more in the coming season. The call to “mix it up” was accompanied by calls for more “driver expression” and “emotion.” In less subtle terms, what the chairman means is that he wants drivers to crash into one another more often. Obviously, crashes make for more dramatic races that make for better ratings -- but at what expense?
There is, however, a genuine branding angle beyond increased spectacle. After years of tightening rules regarding contact, many NASCAR fans complained that the sport had become too antiseptic and departed from its roots. NASCAR President Mike Helton summed it up:
"There's an age-old saying that in NASCAR, 'if you ain't rubbing, you ain't racing.’ I think that's what the NASCAR fan and NASCAR stakeholders all bought into and all expect."
Funny, because less than three years ago, one of the sport’s greatest stars, Tony Stewart, speculated that changes in rules would eventually undermine the sport and the NASCAR brand. Ironically, at the time Stewart was rebuked and threatened with disciplinary action over his remarks.
Of course, NASCAR’s move to invigorate the brand could backfire if an increase in “rubbin’” leads to a tragic accident. Such an event would certainly bring scrutiny to the managers who encouraged recklessness -- and possibly harm the brand more than any ratings loss.