The nation's second-most-popular sport — behind football — is based in Florida and has suffered tough times recently, but seems poised for a rebound in 2011. And in their own small ways, three Florida university students from Tampa Bay are helping that comeback.
The sport is NASCAR, the family-owned Daytona Beach business giant that governs auto racing sporting events that NASCAR says attract 75 million ultraloyal fans.
In recent years, NASCAR was sideswiped by declines in sponsorships, merchandise sales, race winnings and subsidies from automakers. Forbes magazine noted in February that since 2006, fans have tuned out, with TV ratings down 24 percent, while leaving more than 40,000 empty seats at some 2010 races. Even one of NASCAR's most famous teams, Richard Petty Motorsports, last fall found itself scrambling for cash just to race on weekends, and then sold at a fire-sale price of $11 million.
So how do three college students from Tampa Bay fit in this sports picture? They're part of an outreach program called NASCAR Kinetics, started by NASCAR to challenge students teams to figure out how to boost NASCAR's brand on college campuses.
Teams from 12 universities, three in Florida, were asked by NASCAR to tackle several business case studies, including marketing ethanol in the racing sport. The contest culminated this month by arming each five-student team with $1,000 to plan and put on a viewing party of a televised NASCAR event that promoted both NASCAR's brand and sport sponsor M&M.
No college credit is awarded for this work, which was substantial. Winners attend a major NASCAR event and get to network with NASCAR marketing people. An internship may also emerge.
"It's a win-win," NASCAR marketing manager Steve Sweeney says. Students get to deal with real NASCAR business challenges. And NASCAR gets fresh input and the chance to build its sport brand on university campuses where football and basketball typically dominate.
NASCAR also has an aging fan base. "All sports are looking for younger audiences," Sweeney says.
Student Justin Leiser, a devout NASCAR follower, heads the University of Miami team. He's from Safety Harbor and attended Berkeley Prep in Tampa. A senior, Leiser already has racked up summer work at Homestead Miami Speedway. He graduates with degrees in media management and sports administration and hopes for work in the NASCAR world.
UM held its viewing party at the Smoke't BBQ restaurant near the campus. To promote the party, Leiser dressed up as NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby from the Will Ferrell movie Talladega Nights.
The University of Florida's NASCAR team boasts two locals: junior Cameron Powell, a Brandon Senior High grad, and sophomore Courtney Kraemer, a Tampa grad of Plant High School. Both are sport management majors.
Some team members pitched the viewing party on campus dressed as M&Ms. The UF viewing party was held at Gator's Dockside in Gainesville. It drew 221 people entertained by a bracket-style NASCAR video game competition and a NASCAR-themed trivia game.
The winning college team will be notified Friday.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]