On Monday, NASCAR unveiled its new "Media and Fan Engagement Center," a 500 square foot area at NASCAR Plaza that, in partnership with HP, boasts 13 high-definition 47" screens to "monitor, analyze and better understand the current media landscape in order to respond more effectively and efficiently to fans and respond more rapidly to national, local and global media."
Sounds like a NASA Control Center, huh? Well, pardon me for thinking Truman Show.
“The Fan and Media Engagement Center build has been a thorough process more than a year in the making, and we are excited to see it come to life,” NASCAR CEO Brian France said. “We believe this tool has the potential to be the best of its kind in sports – the first ever to combine not only social, but also traditional and broadcast media analysis. We’ll be able to use this to help our industry and business partners and better connect with NASCAR fans across the world. It’s another example of our commitment to innovation.”
Innovation. After all, this is the sport that adopted fuel injection... last year. And most companies, including NASCAR, have been combing through data analytics and social media monitoring for some time. This is a PR move that does nothing to affect the product on the track, the main catalyst of fan engagement. (Oh hi NASCAR, I know this just popped up on one of your fancy screens as soon as it was published.)
The sport has embraced social media – though don't tweet in the car – and it certainly doesn't hurt that two of the Sprint Cup Series' last three champions are arguably its most impactful users.
It was also the #2 trending sport on Twitter, a fact that's been championed about significantly. It is an accomplishment, though it isn't without context. While the NFL and MLB bracketed NASCAR, each of those leagues' teams also champion their own hashtags – as evidenced by the San Francisco Giants coming in fifth – which potentially limits their specific hashtag use significantly. While hashtags for drivers not on Twitter like Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and teams like Hendrick and Roush exist, they're not used nearly to the extent of team hashtags from stick and ball sports. In a larger summation, NASCAR would likely be dwarfed.
For a sport that always talks about its fans, the social media echo chamber for them has never been more crowded. And while the exposure atop the Twitter trends every Sunday is nice, that exposure is largely free. It's the revenue from TV that pays the bills.
When it extended its TV contract, or partnership, as many in the industry are keen to say, Fox upped its per year commitment to NASCAR significantly; the total package was a 36 percent increase from the previous agreement between Fox and NASCAR despite NASCAR viewership dropping about 10 percent in 2012 after increasing in 2011 for the first time since 2005. That annual value increase from $220 million to approximately $300 million in 2015 is another example of the power of live sports.
Those TV ratings presented alongside NASCAR's apparent social media clout also seems a bit incongruous. If fewer people are watching NASCAR, especially in the coveted 18-34 demographic, it stands to reason that it's simply a process of NASCAR's hardcore fans, the ones who watch over 30 races a year, becoming more adept at Twitter, Facebook and other social media channels and immersing themselves in almost every race weekend.
It certainly can't be a case of fans engaging in social media but not tuning in, right? NASCAR's digital media compliments to race broadcasts, while improving, are still a work in progress. Over the past two seasons, ESPN has made most Chase race broadcasts available via its WatchESPN application and RaceBuddy on NASCAR.com while RaceBuddy has also been available for TNT races. NASCAR recently started managing NASCAR.com from Turner and has promised strengthened digital content, but the full extent of those features have yet to be unveiled.
(It's also worth pointing out that while the TV audience for the 2011 Daytona 500 wasn't far off from each game of the 2012 NBA Finals, Lebron James boasts almost 7 million Twitter followers while Danica Patrick, the most recognizable driver in mainstream America on Twitter has less than 700,000 and Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski each have approximately 355,000 followers.)
There's a certain form of irony in a Fan and Media Engagement Center that's not open to the public (likely because of its purposeful placement in NASCAR Plaza) and walled off from everything else in the office around it.
Given the sentence I quoted in the first paragraph, the cynic in me sees this ritzy data center as a fancy way to monitor and attempt to control the company message as best as possible fronted as a service to fans. With the cacophony of voices in social media, it's a task without turn-by-turn navigation. But combined with the constantly dwindling number of independent voices following the sport on a weekly basis, it's certainly an achievable one, especially as soon as something threatening pops up on any one of those 13 flat-screens.
From this vantage point, it seems that the key to engagement isn't one with a bunch of flat screens and people watching every tweet and post. It's the racing. New fans aren't going to tune in to watch a single file parade at another 1.5 mile track, let alone jump on Twitter unless they're going to use hashtags that no one at the command center is going to want to see or respond to.
Hence the expectations being placed on the Sprint Cup Series new car, which may soon be crushed underneath the weight of all of them. If you didn't know any better, the car could reasonably be interpreted as the second coming in motorized form. If all goes according to plan, the car won't have as much grip and be harder to drive, allowing side-by-side racing to be more common at those intermediate tracks and, believe it or not, be easier to crash. More passing and crashes, two things destined to increase fan investment. What more could anyone want from a NASCAR race?
And if the new car doesn't produce racing distinctly different from its COT predecessor? Well, no hashtag or analytic tracking will be able to polish that up or promote it effectively. For all of its flaws, the NFL's rise to the top is a product of its compelling games and close finishes, not on the back of a public relations strategy.
That's NASCAR's key too. An effective social media and communications strategy hinges largely on the product that the company produces. For NASCAR, it's the racing. Entertaining and intriguing competition is a powerful thing.