Thomas Bowles · Wednesday February 6, 2013
For those living on a non-Frontstretch planet this NASCAR offseason, of which there are many should stop and read Amy Henderson’s column on how social media is changing the sport before going any further. It’s a fantastic piece of work, one that spurred the following response from me…
Your column on social media made total sense in the wake of a Media Tour that struggled to gain traction. I mean, when the biggest story entering February is still Kasey Kahne’s haircut, either we’re all doing a very bad job of reporting, TMZ has taken over SportsCenter, or there were no earth-shattering pieces of news to run with. NASCAR and social media appears to be a double-edged sword these days, where you have all the information you can want and more at your fingertips, but that means it’s harder to make one announcement stand out. I’m thinking of that old Disney line from The Incredibles where the superhero kid says to his mother, “If everyone’s special… isn’t that another way of saying no one is?”
Twitter, which this sport has embraced like no other, is also this ever-changing wildebeest no one seems to have tamed yet. You can ask people whom I think are the best social media moguls in this sport, from USA Today’s Jeff Gluck to driver Kevin Harvick, and there’s no clear, defined answer on how to gain followers – at least one we’re all willing to believe. One of the most frustrating things for me, when I was working for SI’s online side, is when I would post breaking news that would push a story forward and lose 4-5 followers over the next 24 hours. Then, a day later I post a picture of my cat chasing a shadow and all of a sudden I’m trending in Qatar. Let’s say it all together, kids: “What… The… (OK, I’ll leave the last word out.)
I think one of the other things people aren’t realizing with Twitter is that it reemphasizes just how small this sport is when compared to, say, Major League Baseball or the NFL. I’m not just talking the ratings, folks; I’m talking sheer numbers of people involved. At this point, we’ve got about 35 full-time drivers whom fans follow in the Cup Series, maybe 100 overall (and that’s being generous) across the sport’s top three divisions. Compare that to MLB, where the majority of a team’s 25 players have a Twitter account. Add in the public relations representatives, play-by-play announcer, janitor and mascot to total hundreds, even thousands of people to follow if you’re an MLB fan. So, I think what happens, over the course of a long season, is such a small sample size of people to follow allows for NASCAR news to get older, quicker. When there’s ten Orange Cones telling jokes, for example (you Twitterites know what I’m talking about), it’s easier to keep material fresh. You can only be entertained so many times by the mystery debris joke on Week 37.
That theory, to me, also expands into the concept of NASCAR news in general. We just went through one of the most stable Silly Seasons in years; my 87-year-old grandma (God bless her) rearranged her basement more than people changed teams the past 12 months. And when these announcements do happen, since they’re so planned by sponsors and everyone involved, it can sometimes take weeks for it to become “official” in the wake of a reporter’s tip blowing cover. Take Matt Kenseth to Joe Gibbs Racing, for example. Wasn’t it about three months, from the beginning of the first JGR “source report” to the actual press conference where he’s being introduced by the team? In between, we have about 3,000 Tweets of everything from inside information to making fun of Kenseth in a Home Depot uniform until it happens. It’s almost like a contradiction of terms within the NASCAR world: Tweet as much as possible but act slower than a telegram when an announcement gets leaked. You know what, Mr. Corporate guy in a suit? I know that messes up your calendar to fly to Charlotte two months early. But when the cat’s out of the bag, it doesn’t stick around that long for people to still care.
How does the sport fix these problems? One thing I’ve said many times—until I’m blue in the face—and will keep saying is more team owners. When the casual fan believes there’s only six ownership groups to follow each year with a realistic chance of winning the championship, it dilutes the opportunities for new blood and new, exciting driver/team/sponsor combinations to follow. I also think the sport needs to take a long, hard look at what people are really excited about. For example, there’s been a lot of work in TV production the last few seasons and stories generated that focus on individual members of the over-the-wall crew. Unfortunately, as much as that’s been well done, I don’t see NASCAR’s fan base gravitating to it. But what I do see is this weird love for spotters, inside and out both on Twitter and during the broadcast. Many of them are former drivers themselves, a great way for fans to keep in touch with, say a minor league guy they liked who never made it to the big time. Can NASCAR find a way to make them more involved, say a “Spotter’s Stand” broadcast report during a caution to get their viewpoint on the race?
The bottom line is Twitter isn’t going anywhere; for better or worse, this sport needs to find a way to make it work for them. I know they’re not a big fan of finding those unique opportunities – as in, banning in-car Tweeting from Keselowski after his late-season outburst added him hundreds of thousands of followers – but they’re going to have to adapt. After all, when your reigning champ can’t reach 400,000 followers while the NBA’s LeBron James has 7.1 million you’re in danger of reaching “niche sport” status.
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