By Steven Taranto – Follow at @STaranto92
March 2, 2017
Each year, the Daytona 500 serves as the single largest opportunity for NASCAR to thrust itself into the national consciousness and provide the general public with a reason to talk about auto racing. Leading into this year’s race, NASCAR racing was indeed on the lips of people across the country: But not in the way that NASCAR would hope.
Days before the race, the Wall Street Journal’s Tripp Mickle and Valerie Bauerlein published a piece titled “NASCAR, Once a Cultural Icon, Hits the Skids”, outlining the sport’s recent struggles with sagging ratings and attendance. The article portrayed NASCAR as having negotiated the title sponsorship of its premier division, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, from a position of weakness, and raised serious questions about NASCAR’s leadership: Including an outright scandalous assertion that NASCAR CEO Brian France sold his stake in the sanctioning body to other family members more than a decade ago.
For the past several years, discussions of the problems that NASCAR – And auto racing in general – has faced were primarily contained to the sports industry itself. But the Wall Street Journal took chatter from race fans and industry insiders and placed it on the lips of general salarymen across the country – Leaving the sport with a black eye before its single biggest race. As Ryan McGee stated for ESPN, “It’s one thing to know what’s happening — it’s another kind of pain entirely to see it in a boldface font.”
Though the Wall Street Journal launched NASCAR into a national spotlight in a less than flattering fashion, its effects are already tangible in that industry figures have been galvanized to stick up for the sport. In a press conference, team owner Joe Gibbs refuted the story, defending the sport’s health and leadership and suggesting dishonesty on the Journal’s part. Gibbs claimed that he was interviewed for the Journal’s story, but was neither quoted nor referenced. “I think we all know that you can take a series of interviews and probably slant it any way you wanted to,” said Gibbs. “I just kind of felt like this thing was already going in a direction.”
On Twitter, team owner Chip Ganassi was much more blunt in sticking it to the Journal. “Hey WSJ,” he declared, “the Daytona 500 has sold out of tickets!!!”
Team owners were not the only industry figures to show solidarity in the face of the Journal’s story. In a response to the article on LinkedIn, Kyle LeValley, Principal of Sports Marketing company Caboom Enterprises and former Director of Corporate Sales for the NHRA, argued that the Journal “failed to provide adequate context for the statistical content [of the article] and included elements that could be considered gossip or hearsay”.
LeValley downplayed NASCAR’s declines in TV ratings and attendance by pointing out that other major properties both inside and outside of the sports world have seen dramatic declines in recent years, such as the NFL Pro Bowl (Down 47% in ratings over the past six years), the Oscars (Down 70% in ratings from its all-time high in 2000), and College Football (Home attendance down for the sixth-consecutive year and at its lowest since 2000). He also defended the France family’s management style, claiming that while it wouldn’t be accurate to absolve the sport’s first family of any mistakes in decision-making, it would also be fallacious to pin NASCAR’s decline solely on them.
“Anybody following sports and entertainment knows NASCAR’s peak is in the past, but it wasn’t fair to position NASCAR as the only entertainment property that was once stronger,” concluded LeValley. “Just because it’s best days are behind it, doesn’t mean NASCAR isn’t still a viable sport.”
Kimberly Meesters, who until recently served as manager of Sprint’s sponsorship of the Cup Series, echoed this. “Regardless of the change in audience size, NASCAR is still a sizable property, with a highly engaged fan base 38 weeks of the year…When priced right and activated correctly, it is a smart investment.”
While it would be presumptuous to say that the Wall Street Journal’s article was intended as a hit piece on NASCAR, it is no doubt hurtful to NASCAR’s image as a premiere sport. However, for a sport that still faces an uphill climb in entering mainstream conversations the way sports such as the NFL and NBA do so seamlessly, the Journal may have given NASCAR exactly what it needed: The attention of the general public and a platform to show the country all that the sport is and can be.