NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Dialing It In: Why So Many Chicken Littles in NASCAR?

Earlier this year at the Pocono Raceway, Ryan Newman chastised me by saying, “If you’re not going to write anything good about the sport, we don’t want you here.”

While I brushed this off as an off-hand comment on a bad day, as time has sunk in and I look around at what others are saying and writing on various sites, radio spots and television shows, it seems if what Newman said was true, there would be a lot of empty media centers each week in NASCAR.

Throughout the majority of the year, many in the media – myself included – have decried NASCAR for a multitude of things. From the debacle that was the pothole that halted the Daytona 500, its reaction to Carl Edwards flipping Brad Keselowski, secret fines, lackluster attendance, plummeting television ratings, you pick the topic and it seems someone in the NASCAR media has bemoaned the sport and criticized its future and direction.

Yet, as the season comes to a close, thinking back on 2010 it has been one of the most competitive and exciting years to be a fan of NASCAR.

After four years of dominance, Jimmie Johnson has been knocked back to reality and has faced adversity and serious challenges. Kevin Harvick has led a resurgence at Richard Childress Racing and is in a position to give Childress his first Cup title since Dale Earnhardt’s seventh and final championship in 1995. Denny Hamlin overcame early season knee surgery to win the most races of the year and lead the points with two races to go. Jamie McMurray has had the comeback of a lifetime, winning the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and the October Charlotte race. In April we saw one of the most competitive races in NASCAR history at Talladega with 88 lead changes among 29 different drivers.

This past weekend’s race alone saw a number of storylines cause NASCAR to become a hot topic on non-traditional NASCAR shows and websites. A fight between two of the sport’s biggest names on the track, Kyle Busch flipping off an official, Chad Knaus making a pit-crew change in the middle of the race and Hamlin winning and taking the points lead with only two races to go.

Following this weekend’s race, ESPN’s Marty Smith posted a tweet that included, “NASCAR is back!” To which Charlotte Observer writer Jim Utter responded, “Sorry to be Mr. Skeptical, but don’t think a fight between two winless drivers this season means NASCAR is BACK!!!!!”

Regardless of the racing on the track or the compelling storylines being created, it seems a number of issues continue to bring some in the media down and searching for answers. Atop many of their lists are what they see as dismal attendance and continuous drops in television ratings.

While many search for complex reasons for these problems, placing blame on everything from Brian France to ESPN to the cars, few offer tangible solutions. Instead, criticism, doom and gloom seem to be the most popular form of summing it all up.

Yet, when you step back for a moment and truly look at the state of the sport, I would argue there is light at the end of the tunnel. That light may be far off, but, to use the words of AJ Allmendinger, at least there is not a train coming back towards us.

So, let’s break down some of the major concerns about the sport and address them logically and look at possible solutions to the problems.

Poor Attendance

Most analysts believe there must be a problem with NASCAR due to the almost constant presence of empty seats on Sundays. Week-in and week-out, regardless of the track, fans are not showing up for what has been some of the best racing in years.

Earlier this year, Bristol Motor Speedway snapped a 55-race sellout streak that stretched as far back as 1982. Despite the amazing show put on in April and the promise of being a ‘wild-card’ race, the October Talladega event saw attendance drop from an estimated 123,500 people in April to an estimated 110,000 for the Chase race.

Many blame NASCAR for this trend, saying the racing is not compelling enough. Others argue the tracks should do more to keep fans entertained prior to the race. Yet, while searching for these complex reasons and passing blame, they are simply looking past the true reason people are not showing up – the economy.

While some may see it as an easy excuse or a cop-out, for the people spending their hard earned money to attend a race, it is definitely not a cop-out. Times are tough across this nation and no one is feeling the pinch more than the blue-collar middle-class fan that makes up the majority of the NASCAR base.

For the most part, tracks have done their part to cut ticket prices – Atlanta Motor Speedway offered student discounts and Charlotte Motor Speedway offered multiple ticket packages at very affordable rates, just to name two examples. However, buying a ticket to the race is not the only expense one incurs when going to a race. There is the gas to get there if you plan on driving, the flight if flying, the egregious hotel rates and food costs as well.

At a time when the national unemployment rate has averaged 9.65%, forking out the kind of cash required to attend one race is nearly unattainable for the longtime blue-collar middle-class fan. Thanks to minimum stays, hotel prices are making the difficult almost impossible. For next weekend’s season-finale in Homestead, the cheapest hotel will cost race fans over anywhere from $100-$400 a night, most with minimum four-night stays. For many, this cost alone is the majority of a paycheck, if not more. If fans do not have the access to jobs or the means to save, how can we expect them to blindly throw their money at schemes like this?

There are other options for race fans, however. Most tracks offer camping at low costs, if not free.

Call me naïve, but I believe once Americans have more money in their pockets and less bills past due, fans will return to the seats in droves. Which brings me to the next point, if fans are not able to watch in person, why are they not tuning into the television broadcast every week?

Poor Ratings

Judging by what was just discussed, it seems television ratings for NASCAR would be through the roof this year. Fans unable to attend the races should be tuning in to watch, following the sport as they always have, right? Well, that has been far from the case.

According to Jayski.com, only five races thus far in 2010 have seen ratings increases over last year (not including postponed events). The April Talladega race, Darlington, the Coca-Cola 600, the July Daytona event and the August Bristol race all showed increases – albeit small ones – over 2009 and/or 2008. For the most part, Chase ratings have been down in double-digit percentages and despite the broadcaster – FOX, TNT or ESPN – fans are not tuning in.

For the past few months, the crew at ESPN has shouldered the majority of the criticism. Blamed for taking too many commercial breaks, scripting the announcers in the booth and plugging other sports as lead-ins to the race, ESPN has some work to do to win back viewers, but the blame cannot fall completely on them.

After listening to the fan council, NASCAR opted for standard start times in 2010, allowing those at home to have a consistent time to tune in each week depending on where the race was, but this has not helped either.

These consistent start times have now pit NASCAR against the 1 p.m. start times for many NFL games and the 3 p.m. starts typically go up against the 4 p.m. football games. Many feel this leads the viewers to abandon the early stages of a race for their favorite NFL game on Sundays.

There is no doubt the conflict with the NFL has drawn fans from the broadcasts, but so has the move to cable, in particular ESPN. Each Chase race thus far, has received a lower rating than last year, but each Chase race in 2009 was shown on ABC. October’s night race in Charlotte saw the best rating of this year’s Chase – a 3.2 – but was shown on ABC, not ESPN.

Some argue the change from ABC to ESPN has had little to do with the decline in numbers, but there is no way this can be ignored. Going back to the problems with the economy, many families are looking for ways to save money and cut costs. For some, this means cutting their cable service and not receiving ESPN.

As I mentioned before, though, there is light at the end of the tunnel. As the season is coming to a close, we have seen four incredible races in a row. The competition is tighter than ever, the championship battle is more compelling than it has been in years and the ‘Have at it, boys’ attitude is starting to bring more outside attention to NASCAR.

Yet, the biggest thing that could help NASCAR moving forward to regain viewers could come in the form of one of its biggest competitors; the NFL.

Right now, the NFL Players Association is gearing up for intense negotiations with the owners to renew their collective bargaining agreement. Many feel these talks will stall and the possibility of a lockout for the 2011 season is very real. It is such a possibility that the NFLPA’s Web site has a timer on their homepage counting down to the lockout, not the beginning of the Super Bowl or the 2011 season.

If the NFL were to go through a lockout next season, NASCAR would be waiting in the wings, just a few clicks over on the remote control. No football on Sundays would leave many Americans longing for another sport to keep their interest and NASCAR should be there for them to turn to.

There is no doubt times are tough in NASCAR, just ask the folks at Richard Petty Motorsports. However, it seems there is light up ahead and a potential for good things to come. NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France explained earlier this year the racing on the track has been better than ever and will ultimately be the selling point for the sport. I would agree the product has been better than ever, but that does not mean work isn’t to be done.

NASCAR needs to work with tracks to lower the ultimate cost to attend events and work with hotels to end four-night minimum stays. They should broadcast as many races on basic cable as possible and the networks need to let their commentators be themselves and move away from the scripted topics – NASCAR fans know their sport and do not need to be talked down to.

Ultimately, NASCAR and those that cover the sport – myself included – need to be patient with the fans and how the sport is moving forward. Despite all the technology, high-dollar sponsorships and fresh faces, little has changed about the sport. It is still about loud, fast cars racing each other for hours in a test of ability, endurance and power. Fans drive the sport and the sport drives the fans’ love.

While I might not agree with Mr. Newman’s comments back in Pocono, I do understand his point – to a degree. It is not the job of the media to praise every decision by NASCAR or approve of all that is going on, but it is also not the job of the media to call for the sport’s demise. There is a fine line between the two, but a line for sure.

It may be raining, but the sky is definitely not falling.

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