Steve Phelps gives state of the sport, talks Confederate Flag Ban, Charters, Why Cup won’t go behind a paywall and the return of practices/qualifying, my take from the call

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — Steve Phelps spoke to the media on Friday, two days ahead of the 63rd running of the Daytona 500. He spoke on a number of topics from NASCAR’s response to the Confederate Flag/social injustice, to the TV package to future practices and qualifying and everything inbetween.

Here’s are the main takeaways.

Confederate Flag Ban

Early last summer, NASCAR banned the Confederate Flag. It was a huge move for the sport to move past the racial stigma. This country was divided then with riots and protests. NASCAR wanted to include all and made the wise decision to ban that flag.

Phelps spoke to that topic at the start of today’s call.

“I think if you look at where we were from being the first sport back without fans, then the first sport back with fans, those were important things. Some great things that happened on the racetrack, us being innovative in how we got back, just a different way for us to do business.

“I think if you look back to what happened in early June to mid June, probably those moments, that two and a half weeks, was the seminal moment for our sport. It opened up an aperture to a brand-new fan base. Our fans are so welcoming. You’ve all been to the racetrack, you see what it’s like when an avid fan that has a new fan that comes with them.

“There was a question at the time: did NASCAR go too far to ban the Confederate flag? Social justice, is that something a sport should do, NASCAR should do? Do we have permission to do it? The answer is yes. The question was: How is that going to affect our core fan, our avid fan?

“A couple weeks ago we got our brand tracker for 2020 back. Looked at a number of different things including the health of the sport, the health of the brand, all which are soaring, which is fantastic.

“One of the most important questions that was in there was a question about how our avid fans felt about the stance that NASCAR took on social justice and the banning of the Confederate flag. If you bear with me for one second. These are all avid fans broken into three segments of time spent: 16 plus years as an avid fan, four to 15 years as an avid fan, or zero to three.

“16 plus, three-to-one favorable to unfavorable about how NASCAR handled social justice and the banning of the Confederate flag.

“Four to 15 years, six-to-one favorable to unfavorable.

“Zero to three, eight-to-one.

“To me, it really speaks to our fan base. If you go to a racetrack and you’re walking through the campground, you go up to someone, they’re going to offer you a beer, a hot dog, they’re going to say, Hey, who is your driver?

“They say, Hey, I’m new to NASCAR.

“Come in, I’m going to tell you about NASCAR, how great this community is, what it’s like to be a fan of this sport.

“We have an opportunity with so many different things where we are bringing these new fans who are going to sample our great sport. It’s an exciting time.”

Expect More Changes To The Schedule For Next Year, Fans, TV and OEM’s Dictated Adding More Road Courses For 2021

NASCAR went radical with big changes to the 2021 schedule. Between seven road courses, a dirt race, COTA, Road America, Indy road course, additional races at Darlington and Atlanta and more, 2021 will look nothing like the recent past. Now, what about 2022? Will we see more changes?

“I’m thrilled with the schedule. As I said, it’s a bold schedule. This is something that we’ve been creating for a long time, to be able to put out a schedule that looks like this one.

“The fans had said they want more road courses. The OEMs said they want more road courses. Our broadcast partners said they wanted more road courses. As evidenced by what happened on Tuesday night, I think having stockcars on road courses works well. They’re slipping and sliding, they get into each other. It puts on great racing.

“I think for us, as we think about ’22, will we continue to have schedule variation, additional changes? I think the answer to that is yes. What that looks like, I’m not sure at this particular time.

“We have a promise to our fans that we’ll continue to create new opportunities at new venues and new formats. That’s what we’re going to do for ’22.”

NASCAR Not Willing To Go Behind A Streaming Paywall

With NBCSN going away by the end of the year, it put NASCAR in a tough spot. For the races that were slated to be on NBCSN and not network NBC, they’ll now move to USA. Phelps is okay with that. But in terms of moving to the streaming service NBC Peacock, he’s not willing to make that move yet.

I don’t blame him.

While some say this is the future of sports on TV, I don’t buy it yet. Racing isn’t big enough and the fan base young enough to watch events online. They’ll absolutely lost viewership if you move some races behind an online paywall.

Luckily, Phelps agrees.

“Yeah, listen, streaming services, to your point, are the hot thing right now. There’s a lot of funding that’s going into the streaming services.

“It’s hard to predict what will happen with the streaming services moving forward. Do I envision a time when NASCAR Cup Series races are being streamed and that’s the only place you can get them? I would say right now that’s not something that’s on our radar.

“I think that making sure there is a place where people can watch over the air, broadcast, is important to us. It’s important to our teams and our sponsors. Cable, we’ve got a good balance at this particular time.

“Do I think there is a role for streaming services within NASCAR? The answer to that is yes. Different content that we can put through a streaming service like a Peacock is important, right? I think that with funding going in that particular direction, that can work out very well.

“We have an OTT product right now called Track Pass in a partnership with NBC that’s doing incredibly well. Do I believe that there’s a place for motorsports and NASCAR specifically in streaming? The answer is yes. I just don’t see that being done in the foreseeable future for our NASCAR Cup Series races.

“NBCSN announced they were going away at the end of the year. We have a phenomenal relationship with the NBC people. We will find the right home for our races. If it’s USA Network, that’s a potential. Is it big enough? USA Network actually has six million additional homes than does NBCSN.

“Again, nothing has been decided. Do I think we’ll find a great race for our racing with NBC? I do. I don’t foresee, as kind of a follow-up to the previous question, I don’t see us being pushed over to Peacock. That’s not something we would want to do, at least as it relates to the races themselves, the Cup races specifically.”

Expect Practices/Qualifying To Come Back For 2022, But Beyond…?

NASCAR showed last year that we don’t need a bunch of practice and qualifying sessions to put on a good show. They did just fine without them. It also saved a bunch of cost for the teams as well without the need for extra tires, fuel and equipment. In turn, they didn’t need to bring backup cars which as a result, meant less manpower needed at the track too.

All that combined for significant savings for these teams.

The tracks and TV though want them back. They see a value to them for their networks. Phelps said that they’ll bring them back for the most part a year from now but only doing so because of the addition of the new car. They’ll need on track time since you can’t simulate that without turning any laps on the track yet.

But, what about 2022?

“The great news for us is they can’t get enough of our content. As far as the practice and qualifying, the reduction in P and Qs, we decided to have more iRacing pro invitationals. We decided to create new content with them or work with them to create new content, which that part isn’t ready to be announced but will be announced soon.

“We’re excited that our partners want more NASCAR. We had on NBCSN and on FS1, 60 of the top 100 programs for each of those networks. That’s important. The cable companies want to have programs that are going to drive ratings. That’s what we do.

Do they want to have more practice and qualifying? They absolutely do. I think for 2022 we will go back, my feeling, back to more practice and qualifying.”

Back Of The Field With Charters Will Be Looked At

Some fans were left with a bad taste in their mouths that Rick Ware Racing could put two cars at the back of the pack in the Duels yet someone like Ty Dillon was forced to go home. See, Derrike Cope, the winner of the 1990 Daytona 500 and driver who’s not made a Cup Series start here at Daytona in nearly two decades, fell two laps down in just 27 laps on Thursday night. He nearly caused a melee on the backstretch towards the end with how slow he was going on the apron.

Meanwhile, Dillon finished sixth in his Duel and missed out on one of the four open spots into the Daytona 500 by a couple of feet.

How is that fair?

I get the charter aspect. While it has made it hard to break into the sport’s premiere series since there’s only 36 of these, it’s also made it more like stick-and-ball sports too. There’s only so many NFL, NBA or MLB teams. Each are privately owned.

Why can’t NASCAR have that?

They’re drawing attention from new partners wanting to jump in too. We have three new teams alone in the Cup Series this year and two of those are Michael Jordan and Pitbull. They’re replacing some teams that have departed too. So, how can these teams make it to where the past teams didn’t?

That’s the gap that’s needing to be fixed. The big issue is money. The back teams want to win, but they don’t have the money to spend to be competitive. But, they own a charter and can attract sponsors which helps them actually make more money than some of the bigger teams.

See, the bigger teams spend millions to stay up front. They’re not operating on much of a profit. The lower teams throw away the chance of a win to turn a larger profit. In turn, you get backmarker pay to play drivers without any shot in hell at winning.

The aesthetics at times looks bad.

Well, NASCAR is going to really start looking into those backmarkers from now on. After three years, they can start taking Charters away for the bottom dwellers.

“We want to make sure that everyone is bringing a competitive race car to the racetracks. That is something that we are very keen on having. If you’re not competing, this isn’t the right series for you. You should be competing in a different series.

“There are some things that we are undertaking to try to make sure that if there are folks out there who want to compete, want to buy a charter, that they have the ability to do that.

“We have to make sure that we are putting out the best field that we can. Obviously someone needs to finish 40th, right? But we need to make sure that the ones that are finishing 40th don’t continue to be the same cars that are finishing 40th.

“We will look to see what measures we can put in place. We’ve got some things that we have started to look at to make sure that people are bringing competitive cars and they’re running to the best of their ability.

“We have a contractual obligation with our charter system and our owners. Making changes to it are not easy, right?

W”ith that said, there is a provision in the charter that says you need to come and you need to compete. We need to make sure that is happening.

“Whether there is a change to the bottom three rule moving forward, I think that you all have seen some maneuvering that has gone on with respect to the bottom three rule, the ability to have someone lease a charter. It’s not perfect.

“I think the intention of the bottom three rule and leasing, they were not supposed to be tied. I think it’s an unintended consequence to something that we thought was in the right interest. The reason why we had leasing in the first place was if a team that’s been involved for a long time lost a major sponsor, they’d be able to lease that charter for a year, then have it back when they were able to get the sponsor, a new sponsor on that race car. Don’t want to belabor that point.

“There are things we are looking at, are doing that will ensure that people are competing. They have to compete. They need to be competitive on the racetrack.”

NASCAR To Promote Drivers More Outside Of Race Tracks

“There’s no question, our drivers are obviously the stars of the show. They’re the ones with the personalities. They’re the ones that fans care about. So any time we can use them as brand ambassadors, we’re going to do that.

“I think you’ve seen that repeatedly, whether it’s drivers being in Super Bowl ads, drivers that are going to short tracks, or drivers who want to become owners. Every opportunity for us to connect with a fan where they are with our drivers and showcase things, I think it’s important.

“I think like the Denny Hamlin commercial for Domino’s with his PJs, that’s a fun ad that showcases NASCAR and Denny to a national audience. They poured a lot of gas on that, spent a lot of money on that creative.

“It’s other things as well. It’s not just commercials. It’s where they go in their everyday life, how they are talking about NASCAR. We’ve got an entire new group of both drivers as well as owners who are doing that.

“You look at Pitbull and the thing he did yesterday, how he’s talking about NASCAR. Michael Jordan is doing some things from a media perspective today that will be on FOX in the prerace. I’m not sure I was supposed to say that (smiling).

“But it’s exciting, right? It’s a new opportunity for us to connect with a new fan. Our drivers are the face of that, whether it’s Bubba Wallace or Danny Suarez, the people’s champ Chase Elliott, or it’s Kyle Busch or Kevin Harvick, any number of our drivers in all three of our national series.

“There are great storylines in all three national series. There’s storylines in ARCA, storylines at home tracks. It’s an exciting time for us as a sport. I hope you all feel that momentum and the wind at the back. You guys are a big part of that.”

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