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Brian France: Ignore NASCAR's troubles
Forget the departure of Red Bull, the rollbacks of other sponsors and the persistent attendance struggles at some tracks.

Forget, too, that premier teams such as Richard Childress Racing and Roush Fenway Racing likely will run fewer cars next season due to a shortage of sponsors. Or that some teams may not be back at all.

And pay no mind to the decline in sponsorship rates, estimated to be off by anywhere from 25 percent to 40 percent in recent years. Ignore, too, the plight of Matt Kenseth, the 2003 champion who sits second in the current championship standings but still lacks a sponsor for the 2012 season.

And that only scratches the surface.  The Nationwide and Truck series are in even worse shape.

In an interview this week on the business side of racing, NASCAR Chairman Brian France said it’s worth taking a closer look at what the sport has done to reverse its fortunes amid lingering economic anxiety and a fan base hurt by higher gas prices and persistent unemployment.

“No one is feeling like these are simple times, but we’re feeling like this has been a good year for us,” he said.

Through 32 of 36 races, TV audiences for Sprint Cup races have increased by 10 percent over last season, according to Nielsen figures. That reverses a five-year slide between 2006 and 2010, when NASCAR lost 25 percent of its viewership.

Other highlights include recent sponsor extensions with Kraft, Goodyear and Bank of America, deals that include the sanctioning body as well as tracks and race teams.

On the track, Carl Edwards, the current points leader, has a chance to dethrone five-time reigning champion Jimmie Johnson.

It’s unrealistic to think NASCAR could emerge unscathed from the recession and the slow recovery, France said. But amid the setbacks, he sees cause for optimism.

“We’ve had a number of sponsors join us,” he said. “We’ve had some leave. But the net has been a growth year for us.

“Now that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It doesn’t mean that the teams aren’t working a lot harder to obtain primary sponsorships or anything comes easy because the economy is still (bad), as we all know.”

On some of the sport’s major issues, France seems confident that NASCAR remains a coveted property. Among the key issues:

• The next TV deal. NASCAR signed its current eight-year, $4.5 billion contract with ESPN, Fox and Turner Sports in 2005. It started in 2007 and ends in 2014, which means NASCAR, based on previous negotiations, would like to have the next broadcast contract finished by 2013. France offered no timetable but volunteered an emphatic comment — “Certainly, we do” — when asked whether an increase in TV rights fees is expected.

“The thing to keep your eye on is how many sports properties have priced their media rights in the last 15 months and how that’s working out,” he said, referring to recent negotiations such as the Pac-12 Conference’s $3 billion contract with ESPN and Fox, representing a five-fold increase. “It’s pretty favorable.”

• Title-sponsor negotiations. Sprint has two years left on its 10-year, $750 million contract to put its name on NASCAR’s top series. Last summer, Sprint executives said they hoped to renew the agreement, a notion France endorsed.

“You’ve heard me say our goal is always to renew with the incumbent provided it’s a good fit for both companies,” he said. “It’s certainly been that. So my goal is to ultimately get a renewal and those conversations are ongoing. We’ll see how it plays out.”

• Assistance to race teams. France and NASCAR are doing more to help teams land sponsors, including joint sales pitches and greater collaboration, he said.

NASCAR has also launched a campaign to bring technology and environmentally friendly companies into the sport, an effort that started with the addition of ethanol-blend fuel being used on the track this season.

“If you look at the typical companies that sponsor within NASCAR, you won’t see a lot of technology companies and you won’t see very many green companies,” France said. “We’re trying to change that.”

• His future. France, 49, became chairman in 2003 and almost from the day he assumed control of the family business, speculation has followed about how long he will stay on the job.

When the question arose this week, France offered a mixed message, refusing to commit to a lengthy tenure but promising to take NASCAR into brighter economic days.

“I’m certainly locked and loaded for the foreseeable future,” he said. “Maybe a long time or maybe not so long. I’m very focused on what we have to do. I want to lead us through this time and position us well into the future and that’s what I’m committed to do.”

He reiterated his belief that efforts to broaden NASCAR’s audience will pay off in future years with an influx of Hispanic and African-American fans, another way of increasing interest in the years ahead.

In other areas, he acknowledged setbacks. Teams lacking sponsors or merging have or will soon cut hundreds of jobs in the industry. Some of those will migrate to start-up teams, but, overall, France said, “You’d always like to have momentum in that area rather than doing more with less.”

At the sport’s Charlotte shrine, the NASCAR Hall of Fame, smaller crowds and operating deficits haven’t diminished the $200 million museum’s potential to be an attraction for years to come, he said. Instead, France said the hall of fame’s struggles stem from the economy and tighter family budgets.

Industry experts agree with France that NASCAR has made strides from the doldrums of 2009 and 2010, when ratings and attendance plummeted.

“It’s better than last year and headed in the right direction,” said Mike Boykin, executive vice president of sports marketing at GMR Marketing, an adviser to NASCAR sponsors. “It’s still a long way from where people want it to be. These are positive first steps.” Scenedaily.com

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