By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - NASCAR launches a new season with the Daytona 500 on Sunday, pondering ways to make the Great American Race great again amid a gloomy backdrop of an aging fan base and declining attendance and television ratings.
NASCARS's Super Bowl comes not at the end of the season but at the start and Sunday's stockcar showcase in Florida will propel the series into a campaign that will have a new title sponsor, new drivers, new rules and plenty of new challenges.
Once the darling of the U.S. sport scene, NASCAR a decade ago rivaled only the National Football League (NFL) for fans and sponsor attention and dollars.
It is a much different and hostile landscape today as tracks around the circuit rip out seats to avoid depressing images of swaths of empty stands, a disturbing trend reflected in television ratings which have also been in steady decline.
NASCAR’s television viewership from a decade ago is down 45 percent, according to an analysis of Nielsen ratings by SportsBusiness Daily, a trade publication quoted in an article in the Wall Street Journal.
Certainly NASCAR is not the only sport battling to maintain a hold on viewers.
"What NASCAR is facing is not unique," David Carter, executive director of the University of Southern California Sports Business Institute, told Reuters.
"Most of the sports are struggling; college football is having a tough time getting students to attend, the NFL trying to figure things out and baseball changing its rules to address pace of play.
"They have several major issues, generating broader support for the sport is certainly one.
"Diversity of the racing teams is important but not nearly as important as consistent competition.
"Maybe the NASCAR message ought to be we welcome everybody but man this is a tough place to be."
Competition on the track may be tough but the real action is taking place away from the speedways where the race for sponsorship dollars is no less cut-throat.
Following a long search Monster Beverage Corp was finally secured as the series new title sponsor last December after telecommunications company Sprint ended its 13-year partnership.
NASCAR does not reveal sponsorship details but according to industry and media reports the energy drink maker got in at a deep discount settling on a two-year deal worth about $20 million per season, less than half the close to $50 million Sprint had been paying.
But NASCAR will be counting on Monster to bring more than money to the table as the series seeks to penetrate the millennial market and broaden an aging fan base whose main demographic is blue-collar, middle-aged white men.
"Clearly Monster is delivering an edgier race appearance and overall vibe and you are losing some of the sport's biggest personalities at the same time," explained Carter.
"Trying to transition to make your sport more youth friendly, more millennial friendly and to do so with compelling emerging drivers is going to be very important."
Building diversity in NASCAR's fan base would be greatly helped by adding some ethnic faces to the starting grid, something the series has been unable to do despite having a driver diversity program.
Rookie Daniel Suarez this year will wave the Mexican flag and is expected to challenge for podium spots, taking over the coveted Joe Gibbs Racing ride left vacant by Carl Edwards.
NASCAR is desperate for the emergence of some new stars following recent retirements of some of sport's biggest names such as Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.
There is some good news to jump start the season, however, with the circuit's most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. back in the car after sitting out the last half the 2016 campaign with a severe concussion.
Earnhardt will start on the front row for Sunday's race alongside team mate Chase Elliott, the son of another NASCAR legend Bill Elliott.
(Editing by Andrew Both)