Once hot NASCAR sideswiped by economy
Wake up and good morning. Gentlemen, turn off your engines. Who's letting the air out of the tires of the phenomenal NASCAR growth machine? In recent days, the prospect of job cuts is scaring the likes of motorsports-concentrated Charlotte, N.C., and cast a pall over the season finale in Homestead, Fla., where team owners and drivers say their sport, like many other industries, has been dragged down by the economy. So says an extensive story in the Charlotte Observer. Listen to seven-time Cup series champion Richard Petty:
"It's nothing we can control. I don't know if anybody can control it. We'll have to tighten our belts just like anybody else. You won't see a single team that doesn't do it."
Welcome to the bursting of the NASCAR Bubble. After years of obsessive fans and a boom in sports racing, it seems the same consumer spending cutbacks that's hurting department stores, small retailers, restaurants, car dealers -- you name it -- are finally reaching the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, what we all know as NASCAR. Check out this story in the St. Petersburg Times about the concerns of Aric Almirola, the Tampa native who, at 24, is set to take over in 2009 as the full-time driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet at Dale Earnhardt Inc.
You want signs of a slowdown? Attendance dipped at many races and was down on average about 10 percent, thanks in part to the summer's high gas prices, the Observer reports. And sponsorships are struggling, with General Motors announcing in July it would slash its NASCAR spending. There's even talk among race teams whether the dip in corporate sponsors will lead to fewer cars in the field for the 2009 season-opener, the Daytona 500. The race's 2009 4-Day Earnhardt/Petty/Sprint Tower ticket package, by the way, is just $680.
Next year, reports the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Delray Beach-based Office Depot will split primary sponsorship of Tony Stewart's car with Old Spice, saving the company millions of dollars. "I think everybody is always looking to be cost-effective in how they do partnerships of any kind," Old Spice spokesman Jay Gooch told the newspaper. "It makes them look at alternate models."
Notes Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College in Massachusetts. Because NASCAR depends more than other sports on sponsorships - which give teams more than 70 percent of their revenue - the tightening of corporate budgets means "some difficult times ahead," he told the Observer.
"I suspect that NASCAR will be more negatively impacted by the downturn than any of the other major sports."
Let's let the numbers from the Sun-Sentinel story tell the rest of this belt-tightening tale:
-- 250 miles: average distance a fan travels to a race
-- $50,000: about half of NASCAR fans earn $50,000 or less
-- $1,000: average cost to attend a race weekend
-- -10 percent: drop in NASCAR attendance this year
Perhaps the headline on the New York Times story about corporate pullbacks on sports sponsorships in general says it best: "As the Economy Worsens, Is There Money for Play?"
-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist