Here's a not-so-fun fact if you work for the NFL or one of its broadcast partners: NFL ratings are down an average of 14% this season, and on some nights by over 20%.

Certainly football isn't the only sport that faces challenges. Cord-cutting, instantly-available highlights on social media, increased viewing options and changing viewing habits... all those factors and more make "business as usual" an untenable strategy not just for sports but for the entertainment industry in general.

Of course you know all that -- but what you may not know is that NASCAR has quietly transformed itself into a sport, at least from an operations and consumption point of view, that would be nearly unrecognizable to the previous generation of owners, drivers, and fans.

One of the people responsible is Brian France, the third-generation chairman and CEO of NASCAR, the most popular form of motorsports in the U.S.

And while you might think you have nothing in common with Brian, think again: he took over the family business from his father (who took over from his father, the legendary Bill France, Sr.), needs to balance the needs of current customers while making smart changes to his product, must constantly work to build better relationships with partners, and must constantly revamp digital and social offerings and strategies to communicate with customers the way they want to engage.

Sound familiar?

In the last few years NASCAR has made a number of long-term moves designed to create a foundation of stability that tracks, teams, and broadcast partners can leverage. In 2014, NASCAR signed a 10-year television deal reportedly worth $8.2 billion, making NASCAR a cornerstone property for both NBCSN and FS1. Content is also delivered to 185 countries worldwide, and over half of incumbent international outlets have increased their coverage of the series. Over 25% of the Fortune 500 invests in NASCAR as sponsors. And while ratings have dipped slightly, NASCAR has been the 1st or 2nd most-watched sporting event on 16 weekends in 2016, and due to major investments in NASCAR's own platform overall "consumption" (Brian's word) is up with 53 million unique visitors to NASCAR.com and NASCAR Digital Media recording 890 million page views and 296 million video views. Overall, digital will eclipse the one billion page view milestone for the third year in a row.

So with the final race of the season coming up this weekend at Homestead -- and the championship on the line for Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Joey Logano, and Kyle Busch -- this seemed like the perfect time to talk to Brian.

This year's Chase (NASCAR's playoff system) has, in my opinion, been the best yet. This format created permutations that sparked a ton of interest and conversation, both between and during the races.

That's precisely what we wanted. We want the racing to be exciting and it's a bonus to create all kinds of storylines.

Our fans really enjoy that and it's a way to cross over to the casual sports fans who understand and can relate to those storylines because those storylines are similar to the other sports they enjoy.

You've had a lot of wins this year. What are you most proud of?

I can't pick just one thing. Our digital efforts have really come a long way. We continue to work to make our racing safer -- which always comes first -- and more exciting.

And we did get a Charter agreement in place with the team owners. (A charter is somewhat akin to a franchise in other sports.) The Charter agreements gives teams more stability and predictability and helps them develop greater enterprise value.

That's a historic thing for us and for auto racing. We're always looking for ways to improve the business of our stakeholders and create value for them.

Speaking of creating value, that seems to be one of your primary business tenets.

As I was growing up and learning this business, I don't think there's a job I didn't do. I started at the bottom and worked my way up. No matter what the job, I always looked for ways we could create value.

That should be the case for everyone.

For example, my nephew, Ben Kennedy, is a driver in the Truck Series. I told him, 'You better figure out where is your value going to come in the business.' I want him to really think long and hard about coming into the business where he can add value. That's harder and harder to do when businesses are more mature.

Getting an opportunity is one thing, but success is based on always trying to create value.

I've talked to companies that rave about your Fuel for Business program, where you help NASCAR sponsors work with each other in a B2B way. That's something most people don't realize you do.

Fuel for Business is another way we can create major value for our partners. It's been extremely effective. Sponsorships are a great way for our partners to reach their customers, but it's also as important for us to help them make connections, create new business opportunities, buy and sell each other's products... and further increase their ROI.

Basically our B2B program is a structured way that our partners can grow their businesses and their relationships. It's a value add that we're proud to have created.

Some other sports have similar programs in place, but none is as formalized and, I believe, effective as ours.

NASCAR is a family business. What advice would you give other entrepreneurs who run a family business?

I just spoke at a family business conference in Phoenix. My biggest piece of advice is to treat your family members the same way you would treat your spouse or your partner: Be a little more delicate, a little more careful with how you say things, because there's an emotional component to that relationship.

To make a family business work, you have to treat that person like it's the most important relationship you have.

Growth in digital and social has exploded. To keep up with it you have to constantly look ahead. What do you see ahead?

One, building our audience and communicating with them in ways we could never have done, in particular millennial fans. We have a shot at engaging our fans 24 hours a day. We're building digital and social assets that are valuable to our fans.

Then there's the digital media piece where we have the opportunity to partner with outlets like Yahoo! Sports and our broadcast partners and everyone in between. Our goal is to never stop trying to have a better presence in those areas so that we can better communicate with our fans.

Cord cutting is a hot topic: Football ratings are down and ESPN, for example, is on pace to lose 3 million subscribers this year alone. That doesn't seem to affect you even though you're also giving fans a number of other ways to watch races.

The entire sports industry is facing similar challenges. Audiences are still watching, but some are sliding over and consuming in different places.

I do the same thing. I may not watch a full game like I used to, but I'll do video downloads for basketball. I just downloaded one last night so I could watch that game.

All leagues are managing the same issue. Some are not losing the audience but the way that audience views the sport is definitely changing.

That's why we do a consumption report. No sport can only focus on television ratings. It's other things: digital ratings, video downloads... there are a ton of ways for people to consume, and smart companies realize that consumption is important in all aspects.

That's certainly a challenge, and it's one we work hard to meet.

Change is always an issue when you're evolving a business: long-time fans don't always appreciate "new." How do you balance the need to satisfy long-term constituents with the need to attract new fans?

We try to keep it simple. Our goal is always to give our fans the best NASCAR they've ever had.

That's the approach.

Of course the star power of the sport is always a factor. There are different cycles of drivers and teams that appeal to the fan base, and that changes over the years. New stars begin to emerge, the older generation holds them off... that's the nature of any sport.

But still: we want our fans to get the best NASCAR they've ever had. The racing has to be safe, and then higher and closer. That's what our fans want. We're not always perfect at delivering it, but that is always our goal.

What are your primary goals going forward?

We'll always focus on making our racing safer and more competitive than ever before. We'll never stop working on that.

We're also working to take advantage of the digital universe that's coming. Another opportunity is creating a green space, something we've been actively doing with NASCAR Green. Not only is it important to millennials, but it is the right thing to do and it has created an additional revenue stream.

And of course we will work closely with our partners: teams, tracks, sponsors, broadcast partners... building even better relationships is really important to us.

We're a healthy sport but we have challenges -- so we'll work hard to meet those challenges while looking for opportunities to make our sport even healthier.

Published on: Nov 15, 2016
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