By: Drew Hierwarter
There’s been a lot of speculation in various outlets of racing media over the last few years about the declining TV ratings and dropping spectator attendance at NASCAR’s Nextel Cup events. Everybody has their favorite theory and those theories run the gamut from the races being too long, to hotels and motels gouging patrons, the price of gas, too many commercial breaks, and the loss of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. Some have even suggested that ratings and attendance rise and fall with the performance fluctuations of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. “Ratings are down because Jr. didn’t make the Chase”; is an oft heard quote. I say balderdash.
If NASCAR’s TV ratings are solely dependant on the performance of just one driver, albeit arguably their most popular driver, than they have bigger problems than the size of their audience. Another suggestion is that all of the changes that Mike Helton and Brian France have instituted in the last few years have turned off the traditional hard core fans. And while it may be true that things like the top 35 in owner’s points being locked into the races, the “Chase for the Championship”, and the rearranging of some of the more traditional race dates have indeed angered old line fans, I believe they have stuck around. In spite of all the hype and hoopla, in spite of all the blatant “marketing” of their product, in spite of all of that, there is still a race to watch on Sunday, and the hard core still want to watch it. They may no longer be willing to drive overnight for the privilege of paying an inflated ticket price to sit in an undersized seat surrounded by drunken fools who couldn’t care less who’s leading the race, while they eat a $5.00 hot dog that was cooked hours before and wash it down with a $3.00 bottle of water. But they are still there.
Now that the TV cable networks flood the weekend schedule with all NASCAR all the time, those old line fans are there, watching. They can watch practice and qualifying, just as if they were at the track but without the expense and discomfort. They don’t have to pay exorbitant motel rates, they don’t have to shave, heck they don’t even have to put on their pants! Even better, through the magic of TV they can walk the garage area and hear from their favorite drivers just before and just after they make their run for the pole. Something they were never able to do in person. They do have to endure a seemingly endless parade of commercial breaks but what better time to go visit the “concession stand”, or ummm, the other facilities right there in their own homes. No, I don’t think it’s the old line fans who are turning away from NASCAR. So who is it then? It’s the very people that NASCAR has been trying to attract, that’s who.
Toward the end of the last decade of the Twentieth Century NASCAR’s fortunes were soaring. TV ratings were climbing every year, more race teams were coming into the sport, and they were bringing bigger and better sponsorships with them. The speedways couldn’t build seats fast enough to keep up with the demand for tickets. Almost overnight people who only a year before had never heard of Ryan Newman were standing around water coolers all over America discussing his chances in the upcoming race. New fans were appearing all over the place. Guys who up until then had only watched traditional stick and ball sports had suddenly “discovered” NASCAR. Now, on Monday mornings the conversations that went on about Barry Bonds also included Mark Martin. People in places like
This was a fickle bunch and just as quickly as they had embraced NASCAR, they let it go and moved on to the next “big thing”. Just like the weekly TV sitcom that debuts to huge ratings and becomes the most popular show in America only to drop completely off the radar after only three or four years, NASCAR racing has run it’s course with these people and they are no longer interested. To use a popular cliché, they’ve been there, done that, and got the T-shirt. And now they have gone on to something else. Oh, a few may have caught the bug and become true race fans and stuck around, but the numbers suggest that most have not. And that’s what NASCAR has yet to realize. The folks sitting behind the desks in Daytona don’t seem to realize what has happened. They are still looking for ways to make the sport even more appealing to the mainstream when the mainstream has clearly gone off without waiting for them. NASCAR is still pre-occupied with wooing corporate America and trying to claim that the falling numbers are merely an “adjustment” and as soon as Dale Earnhardt, Jr. starts winning again, the numbers will come back up. Or if they run more races on Saturday nights, under the lights, the numbers will come back up. Or, if they run the races later in the day so that they are on TV during better time slots the numbers will come back. (Never mind the fans who have a 300 mile drive to get back to work Monday morning and don’t get out of the race track until after midnight.) Or how about . . ., well you get the idea.
No dear readers, what NASCAR needs to do, is realize that the huge jump in TV ratings and fan attendance that they experienced up until the last two or three years was temporary. For many of those new fans this whole racing thing was just a fad. And we all know how rapidly one fad can be replaced by the next one. NASCAR needs to realize that the numbers they are starting to see are more likely a reality check. NASCAR should listen to the fans they have today and deliver the product they want. Because I’ll tell you this, the cost of gas won’t matter, the cost of the motel room won’t matter, and the number of commercials on the broadcast won’t matter. None of that will matter, if the end product is worth buying. The famous line from the movie “Field of Dreams” was when the voice said; “If you build it, they will come.” Maybe NASCAR should be listening to that voice.