When NASCAR announced Monster Energy as the Cup Series’ new title sponsor in December of 2016, there was boundless optimism from CEO Brian France that the partnership between the two would be long and fruitful.
“We’re very confident that this is the right partner for us, and we’re looking forward to having some fun with it,” France said. “By the way, we’re in the fun business. We’re racing cars. We’re crowning champions. We’re — this is where people come to have fun, right? Our speedways and watch us on television, what better brand to have associated with us than the people who understand that.”
“So we couldn’t be more excited.”
It’s hard to find much excitement in NASCAR’s announcement Tuesday that Monster would be renewing its contract for just a single year. The energy drink signed on as a sponsor for two years with a two-year option but is now just contractually tied as the sport’s sponsor for three total seasons.
NASCAR COO Steve Phelps said the decision to drop to one option year was mutual and it was “highly unlikely” that Monster would return as the title sponsor of the Cup Series in 2020. Instead, NASCAR is examining an approach with multiple high-level sponsors of its top series instead of a single title sponsor with those companies’ sponsorships bundled along with track and television ad buys. Monster could be one of those companies after 2019.
Based on Phelps’ comments Tuesday, it sounds like an approach that many Cup teams have taken in recent years because of skyrocketing racing costs. Instead of having one company as a primary sponsor for the whole season, nearly every car in the Cup Series field has contracts with multiple companies to fill all the races.
The change was one borne out of necessity for teams, who had a hard time getting a single company to pay what was needed to finance a race team for 36 races. And it’s hard not to see it being a similar adaptation for NASCAR, who is all but putting a public end date on the Monster experiment just 15 months into the partnership.
“Every partnership we’ve ever had in this category, which is only two [Winston and Sprint/Nextel], we always extended and always went on for a long time, and that’s our hope here,” France said in December.
My how quickly things change.
When Monster was announced, NASCAR said it was hoping the sponsorship from the company would enrich the sport’s appeal to younger fans. The average age of NASCAR fans is one of the oldest in American sports and the sport is seeking relevance among younger fans who have gravitated to soccer and the NBA.
France twice described Monster as “edgy” in December and also made multiple references to how fun the brand was. In the short time Monster has been the sponsor, the most drastic change the company has brought to NASCAR is the presence of its Monster girls, who are ubiquitous in victory lane after every race. A year after Monster’s models invaded NASCAR races around the country, Formula 1 said it would stop the practice of having “grid girls” at its races, saying the custom “clearly is at odds with modern-day societal norms.”
NASCAR’s search for Monster took almost two years. Sprint announced it would leave NASCAR after the 2016 season all the way back in December of 2014. A report in the spring of 2015 said NASCAR’s asking price for Sprint’s successor was $1 billion over 10 years. Monster’s tenure will be 30 percent of that alleged duration ask and likely far less than 10 percent of the total asking price.
Monster’s arrival came as NASCAR’s driver transition was at full-churn. Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart left the sport before the company took over and Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were only around for the company’s first season. The company’s alignment with NASCAR’s youth movement made sense and helped with the sport’s promotional push of who it hopes will be the stars of the late 2010s and the entirety of the 2020s.
But while Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson made the playoffs in 2017, the present is still dominated by drivers in their 30s and early 40s in the case of Kevin Harvick and seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson. As the average age of the first five winners of the 2018 season is above 35, it’s hard not to feel that NASCAR is promoting the future at the expense of the present.
That feeling was exacerbated last week, days before news of Monster’s short-term extension and prospective NASCAR business model overhaul was known. NASCAR very quietly announced the 2019 Cup Series schedule — it was almost like a whisper — with absolutely no buildup. Probably because there are absolutely no changes to a schedule dominated by tracks 1.5-miles in length that tend to not produce the most compelling racing.
The lack of schedule changes is because NASCAR is locked into a five-year sanctioning agreement with its tracks to host Cup races. Those agreements expire after the 2020 season, meaning NASCAR can’t overhaul the schedule until 2021, a year after its new sponsor model could debut. And — if the promotion of the young guys is any indication — when Elliott and Blaney and Larson are racing each other for titles.
That’s a lot of hope and change to pin on years that are more than a sun orbit away. And it’s an especially long-term play for a sport whose television ratings continue to drop year-over-year. While Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway was on the Fox Sports 1 cable channel, it had half the television audience (1.7 rating) of the same race on Fox (3.5) just five years ago.
While NASCAR’s move to plan for the future is certainly a pragmatic one, its near-term success is just as important as its long-term prowess. A five-year business plan isn’t very workable if years one and two don’t have the rebound you need.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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