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In-Season Tournament Trend Driven By Secular Change

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Editor’s Note: We need just a bit more time preparing for the next phase of JohnWallStreet. In the meantime, we’re planning to run new columns Tuesday and Thursday of this week and next.

In-Season Tournament Trend Driven By Secular Change

NASCAR recently announced plans to introduce an in-season bracket-style challenge to the TNT Sports portion of its ’25 Cup Series schedule. The three proceeding races, which will air exclusively on Amazon Prime Video, will determine seeding for the round of 32.

NASCAR is the latest North American sports property to add an in-season tournament to its event schedule over the last 18 months. MLS and La Liga played the first Leagues Cup last summer, and the NBA held its first In-Season Tournament just a few months later. 

But nearly every league is tinkering with its schedule. The NFL added Black Friday and Christmas Day games, and MLB has been hosting showcase events at non-traditional locations in recent summers (think: Field of Dreams, Rickwood)

“I don’t think you’ve seen a sports property stand still over the last four or five years,” Brian Herbst (SVP media and productions, NASCAR) said. 

That’s because as the pay TV universe continues to decline 5-6% YoY sports properties increasingly feel the need to deliver new storylines and become more relevant to general markets fans, particularly during parts of the season that lack relative coverage and/or interest.

“Every single property is having to do a little bit more to remain in that must have category and stand out [in a cluttered media environment],” Herbst said. In-season tournaments are an “example of the [scheduling], promotional, and marketing tools at [our] disposal [in the fight against secular change].”

Those buying rights seem to value them too.

“In a world where you’re seeing more media partners, not less, it allows [one or more] to own a piece of the season that has branding and identity to it,” Herbst said.


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In-season competitions are not a new concept (see: European soccer). But the success the NBA enjoyed with its inaugural In-Season Tournament caught the attention of properties across the U.S sports landscape.

“We saw the results [and] it raised eyebrows,” Herbst said. There were “increases in fan sentiment and viewership, some of the tangible KPIs that all of us leagues look at.”

NBA viewership rose 26% YoY across like-for-like October and November games.

NASCAR doesn’t expect as large a leap. However, it is hopeful that its event will spur ‘some sort of pop’.

“Any uptick, when you’re looking at the state of the media universe today, is something we could all be happy with,” Herbst said.

While the idea has been in the industry zeitgeist for some time, the timing of NASCAR’s rights negotiations played a role in the sport deciding to add an in-season tournament next year. ’25 is the first year of its new TV agreements.

“The media rights process can be a catalyst or forcing function to bring some of these ideas to the table,” Herbst said.

As were the broadcasters it ended up aligning with.

“It happened to be that the NBA and TNT [had] partnered on an in-season tournament and that we were in discussions with TNT about a partnership [too],” Herbst said.

Recent success running in new markets and with scheduling changes have NASCAR officials confident that fans will embrace the concept (see: Chicago street course). The premise also got a successful test-run last season.

“Denny Hamlin, one of our more popular drivers, and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s media company Dirty Mo Media [did something similar in ‘23],” Herbst said. “And with Dale Jr.'s promotional platform and Denny’s podcast, one of the more popular in the industry, there was enough of a megaphone that they [drove] some real engagement.”

The NASCAR Bracket Challenge received 200,000 entries.

Of course, this time around the tournament will have NASCAR, Amazon Prime, and TNT Sports’ promotional weight and elements behind it. The event will also be integrated into live race broadcasts. 

The event won’t impact NASCAR’s points standings. At least not this year.

It is, in essence, a made for TV product. The hope the intuitive format attracts the interest of bettors.

“With alternate broadcasts [becoming] more relevant, with us [having] a digital platform that [can show] some of these head-to-head matchups, with sports betting becoming more ubiquitous, you can see some of these [driver] matchups also being sports betting props,” Herbst said.

And that the tournament’s $1 million-dollar grand prize spurs some additional storylines that appeal to more general market fans.

“Finding ways to elevate the personalities, the drivers, the stars in our sport, that's another reason why we're excited about the in-season tournament [and them] going to head-to-head against each other,” Herbst said. It creates “an opportunity for [new] rivalries.”

NASCAR plans to churn out content showcasing these stories for its O&O digital channels and third-party partners from a new $50mm production facility in Concord, NC.

Television viewership will be the primary measure of the tournament’s success. 

But NASCAR will also be monitoring any increases that occur in “social [engagement], storylines, fan sentiment, buzz, [or] relevancy during a period of time where [it tends to] lack some of that,” Herbst said.

The sport tracks fan sentiment with a mix of social listening tools and a proprietary research panel, the Fan Council. This group of hardcore NASCAR traditionalists completes weekly surveys on both the sport’s racing product and its business/marketing initiatives. Custom survey work gauging the casual fans’ response helps to round out the picture.

If NASCAR recognizes the need to enhance its regular season slate, it’s logical to wonder why the sport doesn’t cut down on the number of races it holds and increase the stakes of those remaining. Particularly, when one considers that Cup Series viewership takes a hit over the last 10 weeks of the year when it runs up against the NFL on Sunday afternoons.

But NASCAR isn’t a volume sports property. It holds just ~90 events in total between the three series.

And “right now, we [still] have takers for every single Cup Series, Xfinity Series, Truck Series [race],” Herbst said. 

If/when that changes, perhaps it becomes time for a discussion. But even then the sport has other considerations that must be accounted for.

“The teams want [the race] inventory to sell to sponsors, Herbst said.

Remember, a good Cup Series team can still generate ~50% of its revenues from sponsorships.

In the meantime, NASCAR will focus on innovating within the construct of its existing 38-race slate, on telling compelling stories, creating new stars, and remaining relevant in a shifting media landscape.

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