CNBC sports business reporter Darren Rovell recently spoke with Sports Media Watch. The primary topic of conversation: the state of NASCAR, the subject of Rovell’s recent CNBC documentary. Also: what sport has the brighter future, hockey or soccer? And who has made the biggest impact on sports business, Nike or Gatorade?
SMW: You recently did a CNBC documentary highlighting the business aspect of NASCAR. In the course of doing the documentary, did you draw any new conclusions about the state of NASCAR?
Rovell: Here’s what we know about NASCAR. They grew at a ridiculous pace — maybe unrivaled in sports history from say, 1996 to 2006. And at some point it had to slow down. The 100,000 person crowds every week from February through November. The ratings. The huge sponsor dollars. And now seemed to be the perfect time for it to come to a halt. Obviously Chrysler and GM going in and out of bankruptcy and the support teams have received from them is a factor. A greater scrutiny on budgets have made companies split the season on the hood of cars to get better bang for their buck and some people who came from outside traditional NASCAR country after Dale Earnhardt Sr. died have gone away. But I went to races and the truth is, the business overall is down 15-20 percent. Not as bad as you’d think. Can it get worse? Sure. I actually think one of the greatest concerns is the TV ratings down double digits now after coming off the decline of last year. The economy shouldn’t impact TV ratings, so what has changed about the sport that isn’t getting people to watch. Some people say the drivers/characters are too corporate. Some say it’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. never winning. Others say it could be all the different race times that truly make it appointment television.
SMW: What has been the general reaction to your NASCAR documentary, both from inside NASCAR and from NASCAR fans?
Rovell: I told the folks at NASCAR that I wasn’t going to do this documentary unless they would discuss the real issues with me. Brian France was a realist with me. He knows his challenges. And while, as a commissioner of sorts, he has to champion his sport, he — to his credit — addressed concerns. Some NASCAR fans on blogs wanted us to go more in depth — with the troubles with Richard Petty, team mergers and going to the lower circuits, but we are CNBC. The goal of our documentary was to take the viewer, who might have never watched a race, through NASCAR’s appeal and challenges and I think we did that.
SMW: How do you think NASCAR will be able to weather the economic downturn, relative to other sports?
Rovell: NASCAR is exposed more than most because it is asking for 100,000 fans to show up in one spot every weekend. It is also relying more on the corporate dollar than any other sport as well as the ailing automotive business. That being said, there’s a positive in that it does bring all the stars together around the country to one place at one time. That makes individual sports like golf, tennis and NASCAR stand out and makes it more unlikely that one particular market or markets could drag down attendance averages significantly. Of course what makes NASCAR different from golf and tennis is that the drivers have to show up. I think the lower levels of NASCAR –Nationwide and Truck series — could obviously be in for more trouble than Sprint Cup.
SMW: You’ve written a book about Gatorade and done a documentary about Nike. You once suggested that “Gatorade, more than Nike, is the father of modern sports marketing.” Which one of these companies do you think has had the bigger impact on sports business?
Rovell: I’d say Nike now since Gatorade has steered off course recently. Nike’s message and smarts has been consistent over the past three decades. As most of the old guard has left Gatorade in the last decade, the marketing has changed and I argue has strayed off target. Consumers of stalwart brands should never know that there’s a changing of the guard behind the scenes. Nike has been seemless with their business units. Gatorade has not. No one is ever comforted when they see a restaurant that says “Under New Management.” That just leads you to ask, what was wrong before? Were there rats in the kitchen?
SMW: Soccer is coming off of the USA’s successful run in the Confederations Cup, and is less than a year away from the World Cup. Meanwhile, the NHL just had its most-viewed game in 36 years. What sport do you think has the brighter future in the U.S.: hockey or soccer?
Rovell: I think we know that hockey in this country is not going to grow by any significant margin, but neither will soccer. And hockey has a nice lead. Was that a nice way to put it?
SMW: You have a resume that includes running the New York Marathon, finishing 5th in a watermelon seed spitting contest, and playing for the Washington Generals. Name an event that you’ve always wanted to participate in, but have not had the chance.
Rovell: I can also say I was in a car during a burnout and hit a wall. I also was in the blimp over the US Open. I’d actually like to try to return Andy Roddick’s serve or sing the national anthem at a major sporting event.
SMW: As someone who has worked for both ESPN and CNBC, what group do you think is more interested in sports business issues? The business-oriented viewers who watch CNBC or the sports fans who tune into ESPN?
Rovell: I think there’s an audience in both places. Sports business is obviously a niche, but a very important one. I have, on a given day, 15 legitimate stories I can chose to cover. Some go on CNBC, some go on my CNBC blog and some go on Twitter. I enjoyed my home at the Worldwide Leader in Sports and am thoroughly enjoying life at the Worldwide Leader in Business. Both places were well developed in the television category when I arrived, but both were infants on the Internet. It has been especially gratifying to be part of what happened at ESPN.com and now at CNBC.com, where we are now the fastest growing business site out there.