Once upon a time, NASCAR reigned supreme among major sports in the United States. It had big stars who were easy to market. It enchanted fans south of the Mason-Dixon line and due west. The crowds were enormous. The tailgating prolific. The sport, so to speak, was cruising along at high speed in the left lane.
But that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. And it only seems to confirm the suspicion that auto racing has really been nothing more than a clique sport all these years. Like hockey. Like soccer. Like women’s basketball.
Where it is hot, it is hot. Where it wasn’t, like in the Northwest and where the buffaloes roam, no one could care less.
The sport’s current dilemma came to the surface again on Monday when NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France said he was taking an indefinite leave of absence. This came with the news that he had been arrested in the Hamptons on charges of driving while intoxicated and criminal possession of oxycodone.
”I apologize to our fans, our industry and my family for the impact of my actions last night,” said France in a statement.
NASCAR’s CEO and chairman for the last 15 years will be replaced on an interim basis by his uncle Jim France. The France family is NASCAR royalty. His late grandfather Bill France founded the company in 1948 and essentially crafted its rules. Rumors are rampant that the France family wants to sell. Right now, they are denying it.
But like all things in our modernizing world, NASCAR is now experiencing a major tumult, a toxic mix of failing TV ratings, poor attendance, departing superstars and, as a result, the disinterest of corporate sponsors.
Look, every sport needs its icons to build upon and over the last few years NASCAR has lost a ton of them. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Danica Patrick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Carl Edwards have permanently unbuckled their seat belts. And so far, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch haven’t been able to generate as much love and affection.
Forbes Magazine recently took a fascinating look at what’s troubling the sport and pointed to a decade-long decline of its popularity with his core fans.
Its report detailed a vast plunge in viewership. For instance, the race at Talladega in April, won by Joey Lagano, generated a 2.85 national rating on Fox (4.7 million viewers). The 2017 race attracted nearly six million viewers. In 2016, viewership was at 6.7 million.
Forbes said the first six NASCAR races this season, including the Daytona 500, were down in viewership by almost 12 million in the last two years. Forbes said only 48,000 fans showed up at Bristol, a place that seats 162,000.
Much like the NFL, which has continually tinkered with its rules the last few seasons, NASCAR has also been trying to reinvent itself and that seems to have angered its old-school base.
One of the biggest changes has been the introduction of what’s called stage racing. What this has done is split every race in little pieces with points awarded for incremental success. The hope was that the audience would feel inclined to watch the entire race as opposed to the final 10 laps.
Think of the old adage that people who hate the NBA have always subscribed to: You only have to watch the final two minutes. Same thing.
“When I’m in the booth I feel like I’m a fan, so I kind of look at it that way,” Gordon told the Charlotte Observer. “I really was encouraged last year by the stages and the excitement – how it broke up the racing and the excitement, the competitiveness it added.”
Maybe Gordon, one of the sport’s greatest competitors loves it, but that doesn’t seem to be translating into greater ratings with younger viewers, the lifeblood of any televised venture, certainly in terms of attracting sponsors.
Last year, the Sports Business Journal reported that the average age of NASCAR’s viewership was 58. Only golf and tennis attracted a more geriatric crowd. That’s referred to as a poor demographic in the advertising business.
“You don’t see the love affair with the car in young kids the way you used to,” Rick Hendrick, a NASCAR Hall of Famer, told the Observer. “They’ve got so many things that can occupy them: Football, basketball, baseball, they’re in video games and social media and all these things.”
NASCAR has a few years to figure it out before its bread and butter goes stale. In 2024, its television contract with NBC and Fox expires. And if you thought the NHL has struggled to find broadcast partners, this negotiation could be just as rough.