NASCAR considers changes to its falling souvenir business

On Thursday, just as NASCAR teams were arriving at RIR for tonight's race that will complete the field for the series' championship-deciding Chase for the Sprint Cup, business executives were meeting at NASCAR headquarters in Daytona Beach, Fla., to hash out the future of the sport's at-the-track souvenir business. Sales of T-shirts, caps, jackets, miniature die-cast cars and other racing souvenirs – once a robust revenue stream for NASCAR, its tracks and teams – have lagged as NASCAR race attendance has diminished and fans have grown more reluctant to spend. As a result, stock car racing's leaders are contemplating changes to the on-site merchandising of apparel and other souvenirs. "We are working with the industry through a robust process," Blake Davidson, NASCAR's vice president of licensing and consumer products, said Friday. He declined to provide details but said "we are pleased with the progress we have made in identifying next steps."

For decades, strolling "Souvenir Row" has been part of a race fan's day at the track. Week after week more than 20 haulers line up end-to-end outside the track, forming a gantlet of retail outlets. Each trailer is rigged to open as a sales counter where fans can buy goods emblazoned with images of a driver, his car and his sponsors. After two decades of growth, the souvenir business cooled sharply in an era of recession and a belabored recovery. In June, Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal reported that sales dropped from more than $2 billion in 2008 to $1 billion in 2010. Insiders say the decline has continued.

In 2009, Motorsports Authentics, NASCAR's official trackside vendor, had to renegotiate its licensing agreements with race teams to avoid bankruptcy, according to a filing that year with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The company – a subsidiary of International Speedway Corp., which owns a dozen major speedways including RIR and Daytona International Speedway – dodged bankruptcy by transforming itself into a trimmed-down business, shedding more than half its 400 employees by 2010. But even for a streamlined operation, having more than 20 trucks logging tens of thousands of miles to keep up with NASCAR's 36-race, coast-to-coast schedule is a costly endeavor. This year, NASCAR and Motorsports Authentics are looking for a change to the merchandising model. The revenue split is expected to say the same – 15% to the tracks, 10% to NASCAR teams and drivers, the rest to Motorsports Authentics. But officials have talked about switching from trucks to tents, possibly a compound of circus-scale tents shared by race-team merchandisers.

Earlier this year, NASCAR invited interested parties to submit proposals for a new approach to souvenir sales. NASCAR President Mike Helton said the number of responses was "in the teens, if not 20." If all goes according to NASCAR's plan, the new model will be ready to implement by the middle of next season. Richmond Times Dispatch

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