Why do fans become fans? That’s an important question and one that’s important to ask. Why do people follow NASCAR (or any form of motorsports) and why do they stick around for the long haul?
NASCAR (and if you check out this week’s Open Wheel Wednesday and Nitro Shots, you’ll see they’re not alone in this) spends a huge amount of time and effort trying to lure fans of other sports into the fold. To this end, the sanctioning body has worked overtime in trying to make NASCAR more like the sports whose fans it so desperately wants. There’s even a playoff system – just like the other sports, right?
Except that’s not really how it works.
Sports fans are, by and large, born and raised that way. People tend to gravitate toward the same sports (and often teams) that other generations in their families chose to follow before them. Fans are brought into the fold in childhood, bonding with family and friends through the games and sports they enjoy together.
It’s not about shiny advertisements or promotions or peanuts and popcorn. It’s about so much more. It’s about fathers and sons and grandfathers and granddaughters and aunts and brothers. It’s about bonding and sharing. It’s about who we are.
I grew up a baseball fan, like my father and my grandfather. I understood the infield fly rule before I understood boys. I could score a game in middle school (and often did for our school team). Before my bedroom walls were taken over by the trappings of a teenager, my Carl Yastrzemski poster had the place of honor over my bed. For that matter, I could spell Yastrzemski. I lived for trips to Fenway Park.
I might have come to know the sport in other ways. I might have turned on a game and fallen in love with the way it was played. Some people do. But it’s more likely that my interest would have been passing, my knowledge of the sport rudimentary, the love affair fleeting, at best. But because it was something I shared with my father, I came to love and understand the game in a deeper way. There were other sports, too, growing up; Wide World of Sports was a household staple, with both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
I think this is closer to how the majority of sports fans come to love their game than NASCAR understands. And because NASCAR doesn’t understand, it continues to go about things the wrong way.
Instead of finding ways to keep the longtime fans coming and bringing the next generation (and yes, building that generation takes time), NASCAR seems to prefer focusing its (relatively fruitless) efforts on luring fans of other sports to the track. And while it might work in the short term, as it did in the late 1990s and early 2000s, long term, too many of those fans, casual at best, will move on. They might bring their family to a race once a year, but they won’t teach them about the sport’s rich history, probably because they don’t know much of it themselves. So, while attracting them makes sense now, it isn’t necessarily going to build a stable fan base 10 or 20 years from now.
Worse, NASCAR’s new breed of racing and playoffs made many of the longtime, second- or third-generation fans feel as though this just wasn’t their sport anymore. They saw no reason to keep coming and bringing the family, because they felt alienated and unwanted. Now, with the trendiness having long since lost its luster, NASCAR needs those fans… except they’re nowhere to be found.
Sports fans rarely become sports fans by accident. And sports aren’t just about the game to them. It’s a family tradition, a rite of passage. They share the games they love with generations before and after theirs and make them part of the fabric of their lives and worlds.
What that means for NASCAR is that casual fans will come and go. They’ll be attracted by the shiny package for a while, and a few of them will become diehard fans.
But what NASCAR must take care to do is to keep those diehard fans. They don’t need gimmicks and illusions to do that; they need a better product with a legitimate and understandable outcome.Fans need to be reminded of why they came in the first place, and why they need to keep coming, keep understanding, keep bringing the next generation of fans. That is what will assure NASCAR’s future.