Tuesday, January 25, 2011

NASCAR Must Join The Digital Revolution

There is a lost generation of NASCAR fans out there; a millions-strong group of men and women who have failed to embrace a sport that continues to captivate their parents and grandparents.

Males between the ages of 18 and 34 were once one of NASCAR’s strongest demographics. Now, multiple studies indicate that young men are no longer spending Sunday afternoons glued to their televisions, watching NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing. Has that vital demographic truly abandoned NASCAR? Or have they simply discovered ways to access the sport using new technologies that are not measured by traditional yardsticks like the Nielsen TV Ratings?

In this writer’s humble opinion, if NASCAR is looking for its “lost generation” of male race fans, they’ll have to find them online.

The explosion of digital technology in recent years has given fans new choices in how they access the sport. Most televisions sold today are wifi capable, allowing viewers to cruise their favorite websites and pull NASCAR programming and information directly from the internet. Cell phones can also access the worldwide web, putting up-to-the-minute statistics, race results and live streaming video at our fingertips at any time of the day or night. Satellite radio allows motorists to enjoy an entire race – from green to checkers – without the interruptions and terrain-related signal fade that plague traditional terrestrial radio.

With all that new technology at their disposal, many fans now choose to DVR each weekend’s race for later viewing. Others choose to monitor the race on their computer or cell phone, while others are content to watch a Monday morning highlight package on television or the internet.

Sadly, NASCAR’s ability to respond to these changing habits has been handcuffed by two ill-conceived (though well meaning) contracts. The sanctioning body’s long-term pact with Turner Sports has confined all NASCAR-branded internet programming to Turner’s NASCAR.com website. Turner has done little with that monopoly, offering fans a meager helping of live race coverage, consisting mostly of its real-time “NASCAR Track Pass” statistics package.

The Turner contract prevents any of NASCAR’s television partners from streaming their race coverage online. It also prevents the sport’s radio broadcast partners – Motor Racing Network, Performance Racing Network and Sirius/XM Radio – from offering an online listening option to their listeners. Sirius/XM is even prevented from offering its weekday NASCAR talk shows online – including one hosted by this writer -- despite repeated good-faith attempts to negotiate such a deal with Turner.

NASCAR’s contract with Sprint also hasn’t helped. While Sprint’s revolutionary Fan View technology has been a boon to fans at the race track, the company has been less aggressive in providing options for fans not in attendance. Worse, other cellular providers are prohibited from providing virtually any form of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series coverage to their subscribers.

That must change if NASCAR is to take its rightful place in today’s digital society.

The need for a new-age NASCAR media plan was never more apparent than during last week’s Sprint Cup Series test at Daytona International Speedway. SPEED-TV covered the action live, but most fans were unable to tune into the weekday afternoon telecasts while at work. For the first time, however, the network also offered live streaming coverage at SPEEDTV.com, and fans took advantage of that online option in staggering numbers; enough to crash the network’s server on at least one occasion.

The message was clear and unmistakable. NASCAR fans are clamoring for more and better ways to enjoy their favorite sport online; just like they can the National Football League, National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League. It is up to NASCAR to clear the way.

The sport’s current contracts run through the 2014 season, but NASCAR cannot afford to wait that long to make an important series of changes. It’s time for the sanctioning body to get tough with both Turner and Sprint, demanding concessions and the modification of existing contracts to better serve fans that are no longer willing to remain glued to the boob tube for four hours, or more.

While NASCAR missed the boat in anticipating the digital revolution, efforts are underway to begin the process of catching up. That’s the good news. An immediate, multi-faceted outreach program is needed to recapture the 18-34 male demographic, before they truly become the “lost generation” of NASCAR fans.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11:26 AM

    Dave, not only would a change such as this open up the 18-34 male demographic, but it would (or should) look at the world-wide demographic. There are several expats as myself (missionary in Japan...48 yr old NASCAR fan for over 40 years) that would be able to listen to shows like yours through the week, and would like to share our enthusiasm for the sport with others.
    It is my hope that NASCAR and their sponsors/ contract holders would take a serious look at this soon.