Nascar has spent a great deal of time, and resources, trying to appeal to an audience of younger fans through the years. From initiatives such as “Nascar 2000” at the turn of the 21st century to its own Saturday morning cartoon series to media outreach aimed solely at attracting a younger audience, the sports executives have tried to get youths across America interested in Nascar for some time. And while those efforts through the years produced some results, most of them were disappointing.
Any company trying to market its product wants to attract consumers in the 18-to-34-year-old demographic. That’s the demo advertisers, particularly those who buy TV time, sell to. In 2005, when many argue Nascar was reaching the height of its popularity, only 4.5% of the demo was in the 18-34 range; by 2014 that percentage had risen to just 9%. In 2019, the average age of fans was 42.
Fast-forward to 2020. This past Nascar season was like none other. The sport, like most professional leagues, was forced to shutdown for 10 long weeks because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The sport’s executives worked hard behind the scenes trying to put together a way to get its product back on track. While that work was going on behind the scenes, the sport tried to find a way to remain relevant. That’s where the iRacing league stepped in.
IRacing is an online racing platform that has lingered around the fringes of the sport for years. The league, sanctioned by Nascar, pits online racers against each other for a full season of online racing awarding a season championship.
A week after the shutdown was announced a group of industry workers, and a few current and former drivers, set up an online race amongst themselves that anyone with an internet connection could watch. Shortly after, Nascar announced the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series. Racing returned to network TV, albeit all online, as drivers raced “sim rigs” from their homes against each on virtual tracks, both real and imagined. Fox Sports and FS1 took turns broadcasting the events in place of the normal Sunday events that couldn’t happen.
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Those events ranked as the highest-rated esports TV programs of all time. And according to numbers released by Nascar at season’s end, there were 2 million viewers who had not previously watched Nascar prior to the shutdown who tuned in to the seven eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series events.
Suddenly Nascar was enjoying mainstream media attention and soon other racing disciplines followed with online racing leagues of their own. For those not familiar with the online gaming world, there are ways to follow along, other than TV, via such platforms as Twitch and livestreams on YouTube. In 2020, Nascar’s digital engagement increased by 56%, and saw an 18% increase in mobile app downloads while Fox recorded a 30% increase over 2019 with more than 431 million views across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. In all, Nascar content was distributed in over 190 countries and territories. Nascar also received praise from TikTok as one of the “brands that inspired us.”
All this digital engagement brought more good news for Nascar after the season ended. The online world, and particularly online gaming, belongs to the youth, largely by the demographic known as Gen Z, born between 1997 and 2015. Recently, tech company Morning Consult released a report of the fastest growing brands of 2020, and it showed that Nascar made inroads with Gen Z in 2020. Something it has been trying to do for years. The report showed that overall, Nascar ranked number nine out of the twenty fastest growing brands for Gen Z.
According to the report, Nascar saw 7.9% growth among the 18-23 demo, topping such brands as Pepsi, ABC TV, and Snapchat. That’s a nice uptick considering it wasn’t something the sport set out to do when 2020 started. And it all started when Nascar debuted the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series.
“That was kind of a pivotal moment,” Nascar’s senior vice president of marketing Pete Jung said this week. “Candidly we didn’t know sort of what to expect. We’re broadcasting these on Fox and, you know, gee is anyone going to watch, are people going to get engaged? And literally, we were able to end up, with the iRacing folks, that technology is phenomenal.”
The first iRace was held at the virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway which in real life would have been the next race on the schedule that very same weekend on March 22. Current driver Denny Hamlin, who won the season opening Daytona 500 one of only four real-world races that took place prior to the shutdown, held off former driver and popular Nascar personality Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a photo finish. Viewers were hooked.
“I think if you look at just those six or seven weeks when we were not on the track and we were broadcasting the pro invitational iRacing events,” Yung said. “That’s when I think we (Nascar) saw some new headlines, and we got a couple million of new viewers that had not watched one of the races in week one through five of the season before we had to pause things. “
Those viewers according to Yung, “Tended to be, no surprise, but just a lot younger,” he said. “And a good bit more diverse as well.”
That diversity was helped by the stance Nascar took when it returned to the track shortly after the subject of racial equality spread across the country. Nascar has access to a myriad of data, not only from its own fan council, but third-party sources as well. Jung said that showed that Nascar’s stance on the racial issues resonated.
“Some of the social justice issues,” Jung said. “Bubba Wallace and the stance around Black Lives Matter, and some of the statements that we made and as an organization, as a league, as an industry, and then similarly on the ban of the Confederate flag. When we talked to both the US population, but specifically when we talked to younger people, both fans and also just younger people in the United States the favorability in general of those decisions really played well for the brand and consideration of the sport.”
“I think people are starting to see Nascar in a bit of a different light,” he added. “But when you look at like the Gen Z or the 18 to 24, 18 to 34 kind of age cohort, you see that sort of positivity and consideration really elevated around that.”
When all was said and done, and the Nascar seven eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series events concluded, Nascar became the first major professional sports league in the U.S. to return to real-world competition. There would be midweek races, one day shows as opposed to the normal three days, and some tracks that had to be bypassed, but in the end, they would also become the first, and only, major sport to complete a full season in 2020. When the series crowned its final champion at Phoenix Raceway on November 8, they had run 94 national series races, completing the entire number of races originally on the 2020 schedule.
The challenges for the sport going into next year remain, however. The Covid-19 pandemic is still very much uncontrolled and there will be at least part of the 2021 season that will have limited fans and one day shows. One of the challenges will be to continue the momentum carried over from this season. Jung says the sport is ready on all fronts, including keeping the Gen Z crowd, and that 18-34 demo, growing.
“I would just say that we have to work even harder now to kind of, keep that sort of positive momentum,” Jung said. “…It may sound a little bit cliche, but the new race teams, going to new tracks, young emerging, young stars, like Bubba and Chase (Elliott) that are really finally they’re in the center stage, not only with Nascar but in news and popular culture and the sports sort of landscape.”
One those new, young, drivers is Erik Jones. The 24-year-old has 147 starts in the Cup series with two victories. He moves from Joe Gibbs Racing to Richard Petty Motorsports for 2021.
“I think it’s been pretty respectable and admirable, the job that they’ve done this last year in making that connection and making that growth,” Jones said. Adding that he had seen the Morning Consult report. “It’s exciting for me. I think people in my generation and my age, definitely maybe in the last few years, haven’t paid much attention to Nascar. But, obviously looking at that, it’s definitely growing and that’s a great thing for us.”
One of the criticisms Nascar has faced in the past when it came to attracting younger fans was the risk they faced of leaving the older fans behind. According to Jung however, the sport has learned its lessons well and with more ways to connect with all fans than ever before, those older fans will be far from forgotten.
“Alienating, is a word that I think has been used in the past,” Jung said. “(But)I don’t see it used or talked about that much. I think that because, media and content can be so deliberate and so targeted. I still think that you can do it in a way that you give avid fans that are maybe a bit older, give them what they want from the sport. We’ve talked to thousands of fans each and every week during the season to get that feedback. And then I think that how Nascar portrays itself with younger fans is going to be very different. It’s going to be on a different platform. It may not be, you know, the full of a live race at a racetrack.
“It may be a sports betting. It may be e-sports, it may be interaction with an influencer. I think there’s so many more, I kind of say levers that we have to work with that frankly weren’t around at the start of the early 2000s. Of course, it was obvious, that Nascar wants their fan base to get younger, but I think that now we have a lot more, channels and proof points and levers and ways that you can engage and experience NASCAR. It just doesn’t have to be, well, ‘I go to the track to see the race’, or ‘I watch it on television’. That’s just the starting place.”
Jones said he’s also ready to do whatever it takes to help continue the momentum, admitting that he is already working on growing his own social media presence.
“I think everybody being kind of held up indoors maybe opened their eyes up to a new sport, watching new things, and for a while, NASCAR was really the only thing on TV,” Jones said. “So, I think a lot of people tuned in that maybe had never watched a race before and realized that there’s so much more to it than us just racing and being on the track – there’s so much strategy to it and lot of the things that are pretty unique in our sport that make it pretty exciting. I haven’t talked to NASCAR about what we can do to keep it going, but I would definitely be interested in that – in what I can do in my field to keep connected with the younger fans, keep them interested and keep bringing them in.”