The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season begins in earnest on Sunday at Daytona International Speedway with the 63rd running of The Great American Race (last weekend’s Busch Clash was an exhibition). The Daytona 500 has long been NASCAR’s season opener (since 1982), but little else about this year’s 38-race slate (includes Busch Clash and the All-Star Race) resembles the same old NASCAR that fans have come to expect (think: 1.5 mile ovals). Over the last two decades, “[NASCAR was] lucky if [the schedule] had one venue change or one format change. We have seven this year. These are bold [changes the sport] hasn’t done before,” President Steve Phelps said. Considering NASCAR’s precipitous fall from its mid-2000s peak, it is more than reasonable to wonder why the sport hasn’t previously tried to better position itself from a scheduling standpoint.
Our Take: Phelps called the 2021 schedule “the most dynamic and bold schedule [NASCAR] has had in five decades.” The ’21 Cup Series circuit will include three new stops (see: Circuit of the Americas, Road America and Nashville Superspeedway), six road-course races (up from three in 2020) and a highly anticipated dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway. For perspective, the sport’s top series hasn’t held a race on dirt since Sept. 30, 1970 (at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh).
Historically speaking (at least during Phelps’s tenure), it has been difficult for NASCAR to make significant changes to the schedule, in part “because the company [it] merged with [in Oct. ‘19]—International Speedway Corporation—was a public company. ISC had a responsibility to make money for its shareholders,” Phelps explained. That meant moving scheduled races from ISC’s 12 venues was a non-starter. “Even if it was good for the sport, it didn’t make sense financially for them,” Phelps said. NASCAR had similar issues with Speedway Motorsports, which controls seven race tracks, including Bristol and Charlotte Motor Speedway, and was publicly traded until Sonic Financial took the company private in September ’19. Five-year track sanctioning agreements (which began in 2016) and some initial resistance to change from the sport’s broadcast partners also limited NASCAR’s ability get creative with scheduling in recent years.
But with the track sanctioning agreements now expired, Fox and NBC are beginning to embrace the idea of new tracks and layouts, having seen the success of the road-course race in Charlotte in 2019. Moreover, with the sport’s two primary track operators now operating as privately held entities (ISC tracks are now considered NASCAR tracks), Phelps was finally able to implement the shakeup needed prior to the 2021 season. “Our fans have said they wanted more road-course races. Our OEMs [have] said they want more road-course races and our broadcast partners [have] said they wanted more road-course races. So, that’s what we gave them,” he said. The expectation is that the “bold” scheduling changes will boost television ratings and result in increased ticket sales at the new venues.
One change NASCAR didn’t make to the schedule was Daytona’s date. In fact, Phelps said that pushing the season back was never really something the sport considered—even though it’s likely that races held later in the summer and fall will be able to have more fans than those taking place in February and March. “The expectation from our fans, broadcast partners, sponsors—really everyone in the ecosystem—was if you can race [safely], go race. Because if not, [the sport appears to be] really just about the money,” Phelps said. The desire to maintain the momentum gained last season (see: television ratings) was also taken into consideration when NASCAR decided to proceed as planned.
Sportico has written extensively about the amount of public money being raised for the purpose of acquiring sports and entertainment assets. But Phelps notes the importance of being able to make strategic decisions in NASCAR’s long-term best interests, something he says was challenging with ISC and SMI focused on quarterly earnings. Presumably, more publicly held companies would result in sports leagues and their partners finding themselves misaligned on goals more often.
Eric Grubman (Chairman/CFO, Sports Entertainment Acquisition Corp) doesn’t see any reason for rights owners to worry about that. The former NFL EVP explained that the league has long negotiated media contracts “with the long-term viability of the sport in mind—along with getting a gazillion dollars. And all of the broadcast networks were public companies [during those negotiations]. The difference in time horizon has existed for as long as I can remember in the negotiation of media contracts.” Grubman explained that ultimately, all negotiations come down to leverage. In other words, if Grubman is accurate looking back at his experiences, and we assume that such a landscape prevails going forward, then we believe NASCAR’s troubles with ISC and SMI weren’t related to public capital—they were related to who had the leverage.