Page views and social media mentions are spiking. Merchandise and diecast sales are booming. Even crowds for qualifying have ballooned.
With two runner-up finishes in the wake of his second Daytona 500 victory, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is enjoying the best start of his Sprint Cup career, and virtually every available barometer reflects an accompanying bounce in buzz for NASCAR – except the most important indicator.
TV ratings have been down for the first three races this season, prompting debate about whether the success of the 11-time most popular driver can spur nationwide interest in stock cars.
“I don’t think it’s an easy question to answer,” NASCAR chief marketing officer Steve Phelps told USA TODAY Sports. “Yes, it impacts the sport positively. He has a massive following, and his fan base is energized. But trying to measure an impact is difficult, and we look at a number of things. Ratings are one indicator, but we’re not overly concerned about that. It’s way too early to tell where that’s going to net out, and we think we’ll absolutely see some gains.”
Phelps said Daytona’s 5.6 rating (a 43% drop from last year) was devalued by a six-hour, 21-minute rain delay that put NASCAR’s crown jewel against prime-time programming competition. The declines weren’t as precipitous for Phoenix (down 3%) and Las Vegas (4%).
Phelps said the metrics most important to NASCAR sponsors are TV ratings and attendance. Though there were no sellouts, Phelps said NASCAR was encouraged by this season’s crowds, particularly an estimated 25,000 for qualifying at Vegas. Ticket sales for the July 5 race at Daytona International Speedway also doubled over a year ago on the Monday after the Daytona 500.
Phelps said NASCAR would continue monitoring grandstand trends in Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, which has filled barely half its 160,000-seat capacity for the March race the past three years.
“We’re feeling things are moving in the right direction,” Phelps said.
Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage said ticket sales for his track’s April 6 race are tracking the same as last year, but he has seen anecdotal evidence that Earnhardt’s surge has enthused fans.
“Whenever Junior does well, we all do well,” Gossage told USA TODAY Sports. “At the same time, no one person determines the sport’s success or failure. It’s just that Junior contributes it more to it than probably anybody. I can’t tell you how many people, even non-racing fans, have bumped into me and asked about him. “Is his success good for 10,000 more in sales or another ratings point? Not necessarily, but it sure helps even if I can’t show you a ticket report that shows it. Ratings and attendance don’t turn on a dime. I know Junior’s success sells tickets and isn’t running people away.”
It seems to be driving growth in digital and social channels. NASCAR.com web traffic mushroomed in February for unique visitors (up 55%), page views (68%) and videos (122%) from last year, and the social media volume about the Daytona 500 during the race increased 67%. Earnhardt’s Twitter debut hours after taking the checkered flag also helped drive more than 380,000 mentions of the driver over three days after the race.
The No. 88 Chevrolet driver also has helped rev business. Daytona 500 merchandise sales at NASCAR.com climbed 1,454% in the two days after Daytona with Earnhardt gear up 998% in the same timeframe over Jimmie Johnson (last year’s winner). Online retailer Fanatics.com reports Earnhardt merchandise is up nearly 1,000% over the first three races of 2013, and Lionel Racing is predicting Earnhardt’s die-cast will become the best seller of the company’s four years in NASCAR, doubling the sales of the previous mark (from Earnhardt’s 2012 win at Michigan International Speedway).
“These are important signs, and in totality, it does tell the story,” Phelps said. “It’s a positive to get Junior Nation out there wanting to show their colors; that’s great for NASCAR, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his sponsors.
“But there also is a buzz among casual fans and even non-fans that he won the Daytona 500.”
The buzz, though, isn’t analogous to the impact a weekend charge by Tiger Woods might have on a PGA tournament’s ratings. Brian Gordon, CEO of Engine Shop, a New York-based marketing agency that works with corporate sponsors in sports, said that’s partially because there isn’t as much predictability to a NASCAR weekend but also raises questions about the sport’s fortunes being tied to its drivers.
“I would ask whether we really believe NASCAR is a star-driven sport or whether we want it to be,” Gordon said. “Jimmie Johnson by all accounts would qualify as the greatest star potentially in modern major sports, and if you compare what he did to a Michael Jordan or LeBron James or Derek Jeter, it really didn’t have that kind of impact. People weren’t tuning in to see if Jimmie Johnson was going to win another championship.
“NASCAR has to look at what are the reasons people are watching and getting interested. It seems it’s about things other than who’s behind the wheel, which I think could be a good thing. I think it’s about, ‘Can you keep the sport relevant?’ People are craving more information. How can you make it more engaging and get them inside and connected to the sport? The easy thing to do is to say, ‘Let’s make a star famous, and then people will fall in love with the sport,’ but I don’t know if that’s the case.”
NASCAR has tabbed “driver starpower” as part of a six-pronged plan for rebuilding its fan base for the 21st century. The other planks are focused on digital/social media, youth, Generation Y, multicultural and product relevance, which helped trigger the introduction of new formats for qualifying and the Chase for the Sprint Cup this season.