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4 Burning Questions: Why Are People Saying NASCAR Is Dying?

Is NASCAR dying?

One of the big talking points this week when it comes to NASCAR has been the “terrible” attendance that Bristol Motor Speedway saw last week for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race.

Bristol, a track that has a listed seating capacity of 162,000, had at best 40,000 fans at best in attendance. Track owner Speedway Motorsports Inc. decided to not open the turns up for fans, saving money by not having to staff those areas.

So, here’s the reality of the situation. Back “in the day”, promoters lived and died by their live gate. Maybe they could recoup some of their expenses by also printing up programs or selling concessions, and later on in the 80’s and 90’s network television would be a boon to larger tracks, but the gate was the backbone of the sport.

Now, everything has changed. Let’s say 40,000 people paid $200 to get into the race on Sunday. That’s about $8,000,000 from the live gate. And the actual number from Sunday is actually less than that, because there’s no way the average ticket price was $200. Also, let’s remember that these fans are also spending over $300 for a decent hotel and are facing a track that has had inconsistent quality on a race weekend where the weather has sucked for years.

NASCAR’s TV contract calls for an average of $820 million every year, 65% of which ($533 million) goes to the tracks. If we divide that by 36, we can guesstimate that SMI walked away with $14,805,555 before the ticket booths even opened on Sunday morning. That’s almost double what the gate would be. That’s insane. That’s why NASCAR and the track owners are not in full-scale panic mode right now. And that’s in the neighborhood of what each track is getting each week. Sure, concessions are down, but those are still just icing on the cake.

You also need to take into account that these tracks are publicly owned, and Wall Street gets excited at the idea of guaranteed money. WWE’s share price skyrocketed last year once it announced a huge new TV contract with FOX, in spite of falling live attendance compared to what it was ten years ago.

So, overall, this controversy of NASCAR dying because they couldn’t fill half of a 162,000 seat stadium is a bit overblown. And it’s hard to get 80,000 people to come to one location, especially when it’s just another event on the calendar. Compare that to my Baltimore Orioles, who have had all sorts of attendance woes the past couple of years in one of the best ballparks in the country. I’ll say NASCAR is dying if the sports TV rights bubble were to burst, which it isn’t showing any signs of doing.

But what about ratings?

Speaking of television, the other facet of this whole “NASCAR is dying” mentality has been TV ratings. And let’s not sugarcoat things here: TV ratings for NASCAR have fallen dramatically in the past ten years. Las Vegas in 2009 drew a 5.5 share, and with 11 million people watching. In 2019, the spring race at Las Vegas drew a 3.05 share and with 5.1 million people watching.

That’s not a good sign at all. However, ratings have remained flat from last year for most of the Cup races this year, so it seems most of the bleeding has stopped. Let’s also not pretend that other programs have fallen in TV ratings. Before the start of March Madness, NASCAR this year was still routinely the top rated sports program just about every weekend.

And forget about sports, TV as a whole has dramatically fallen, especially for cable. Think, when was the last time you turned on TNT to watch something besides the NBA? How about the USA Network? Two of the biggest cable channels still around, and yet there’s nothing there besides the NBA and WWE.

Speaking of WWE, let’s take another look there. Pro wrestling has long had a reputation for bringing big ratings, especially in the 80’s and late 90’s. But, unlike NASCAR, wrestling has terrible ad rates due to advertisers historically looking down on those dumb “fake wrestling fans” and thinking they’re too broke to be worthwhile to advertise to.

That didn’t stop WWE from getting a huge new TV contract last year in spite of terrible rating drops over the past few years. Why were they able to do so? Because it’s a live program being sold as a sport and one of the last few things on television that can draw two million people a week on cable. And NASCAR just did 2.8 million on Sunday on a worse station with no ad buy worries!

I understand why the narrative of NASCAR dying is there. Yes, live attendance and TV ratings have fallen. But looking at the outlook of sports and the television business, it’s simply following the trends of what it has been given.

What will come out of the final short track race for four months?

This weekend will be the last of the three spring short track races for the Cup Series, and it’s unclear as far as what kind of race we’re going to end up seeing this weekend. Martinsville was a bit of a snoozer while Bristol was the best race of the year so far.

One thing should be clear, however. Team Penske dominated both short tracks, leading 795 of 1,000 short track laps in Cup this season. Joe Gibbs Racing has long had a stranglehold on Richmond, having won five of the last seven Cup races at the Virginia oval, but Penske is definitely fit to challenge the coach’s crow… er, headset.

Another weird stat entering this weekend is that a Kyle has won the past three races at Richmond- Larson in 2017 and Busch in both races in 2018. With how big of an advantage being a “wheelman” is at Richmond (Christopher Bell swept the NASCAR XFINITY Series races there last year), it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Kyle streak continues.

Outside of Penske and Gibbs, one driver to keep an eye on will be Kevin Harvick. Harvick finished second at Richmond last year and had the fastest car at Bristol last week. Harvick is also going to be looking at getting vengeance on his comparatively slow start to the season, and Richmond could be a good starting place.

What will happen this week, on Days of Our Qualifying?

This week, NASCAR announced that each of the three qualifying rounds for Cup will be reduced to just five minutes at Richmond.

This change is in response to Bristol last weekend, where nobody went in the first five minutes of a ten-minute round. Now, to be fair, NASCAR has said that this is only for Richmond, and that it is not indicative of what NASCAR will do long-term to fix the drafting problem.

That being said, NASCAR once again made an unnecessary announcement. There’s no reason to really police it this week, outside of saving television from five minutes of waiting with no action. It’s doubtful that drafting at Richmond will allow drivers to get more tangible speed than they would without it.

And in spite of NASCAR constantly explaining that these changes aren’t going to necessarily stick, a lot of fans have read past this and just see it as yet another band-aid to a bullet wound. And now, we’re going to give 37 teams five minutes to complete a lap around a three-quarters of a mile short track. What could possibly go wrong?

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About Michael Finley

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Michael has watched NASCAR for 15 years and began covering the sport five years ago. He is a graduate of Salisbury University and a proud member of the National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA).

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40 comments

  1. Avatar

    To the author who said “NASCAR’s TV contract calls for an average of $820 million every year”.

    So when the new TV contract comes due do you really think with the serious decline in both attendance and viewership that the new contract will be anywhere close to what they have now?

    There isn’t a chance in hell and that’s went it’s really going to “SINK IN”! The France’s are trying to sell NASCAR now so what’s that tell you? They obviously see losses coming in the near future because if it stayed profitable why sell a cash cow?

    BTW I wouldn’t say NASCAR is dead but it is in the ICU on life-support! And what’s going to happen when they force these eletric cars on everyone and don’t think for a minute that it can’t happen! Who’d have ever thought that in america it’d be against the law to bring a peanut-butter cookie or a reese’s cup to school and all because someone “might” get sick! What a snowflake country this is turning onto and this is a VET saying that!!!!!!

    • Avatar

      Some kids could die if they come into contact with peanuts you idiot. SO, if you want to have that on your conscience after you enjoy your peanut butter cup, then by all means enjoy it…. You uninformed VET. My son has a peanut allergy. It is not as severe, but look up stories of kids who have a severe allergy to something. More often than not, you are going to find stories of kids who have died.

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      If you unironically use the term “snowflake” in your argument, you have lost.

      And yes I do think they’ll get another huge increase if trends in cable continue over the next three years, but you’d know that if you actually read the rest of the article instead of insulting people with peanut allergies in the comments.

  2. Avatar

    I live about 15 minutes from Rockingham. This area used to be NASCAR fanatics. As soon as the track started not selling out they left as quick as they could to give Texas a second date. Now they can’t fill up Texas. And I’m from Ft. Worth and I can tell you that is not NASCAR country, drag racing rules.

    No one here in SE North Carolina cares about NASCAR anymore. Nobody talks about it, the t-shirts and bumber stickers are nowhere to be seen. Their mystique used to be their southern roots and they left that in search of more money. Kind of like when Metallica sold out and went mainstream. They left their thrash metal fans who made them successful behind. Now they don’t tour in the USA anymore because there’s no money to be made.

    Nobody cares about a 20 year old driver from New Jersey with a $200 haircut and waxed eyebrows. How many Cup guys are even from the Carolinas now? One or two?

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      It’s not as bad as it used to be, where Dale Jr. was the last Carolinian forever it seemed like. Just off the top of my head there’s the Dillon brothers, Daniel Hemric, Ryan Blaney, and William Byron. Further south there’s Chase Elliott, Bubba Wallace, Aric Almirola, and David Ragan, so it’s not like how it was ten years ago where nobody was from the south.

  3. Avatar

    I used to watch nascar all the time. I saw many races at Bristol in August. I grew watching the late model sportsman cars at Smokey Mountain Raceway outside Maryville Tn. Best little track outside of Bristol! I absolutely hate nascar now. Hate it! Don’t watch it much ain’t gonna watch it much. All the cars are the same. No one can brag about their car being a better design or better short track car or better 2.5 mile car or any of that stuff. It is boring to the nth degree. Until they get rid of the cookie cutter cars I will continue to not watch it. I would rather see a bunch of guys go out and buy something off the show room floor and race it. I think nascar is DEAD. Boring as all get out and just plain stupid. Taking out the long runs and going to the stages took out the suspence in the pits and made a lot of the strategy go out the window. You can stick your head in the sand if you want to, not me. From a nascar fan back in the day (I’m in my late 50’s), nascar is dead and I don’t care if it dies.

  4. Avatar

    Nascar givesc a lot to everyone except the loyal fans ! They shoul offer prises and money to promote the crowds ! Winners could receive money , race tickrets to upcoming races and even concerts at the tracks night before the races ! Lucky seat owners . Promotion igs now their game ! Try lower prices too ! 😊😂☺😀

  5. Avatar

    You will find this hard to believe, but I think NASCAR, ISC and SMI are being fairly proactive in trying to stop the bleeding and start the healing. The 2020 schedule changes are intriguing. Both ISC and SMI have reduced over-bloated seating capacities at most of their tracks, but have also upgraded facilities. Even with NASCAR’s nick-picking officiating, competition in the races has been mostly good.

    I clearly remember over 20 years ago when Tony George gave it his best shot at killing off IndyCar, but it somehow it survived and today is in a comfortable, though smaller niche in the motorsports landscape. With that in mind, we are only less than a year removed from Brian France’s reign of terror over NASCAR. During BZF’s rule many mistakes were made which will take some time and some sacrifices by NASCAR and its stakeholders to fix.

    Give it time.

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      NO, I’ve given it all the time I’m willing to and it’s just gotten progressively worse and now this Stages BS that takes all of the “when do we stop for tires or gas” strategy out of it = I’M DONE!!!

      And apparently over 85% of other fans are too seeing how Bristol held 250,000+ and you couldn’t find a seat in the house when I was a season ticket holder and the last Bristol race the attendance was 38,000, that equals over an 85% drop from the years I went! RIP NASCAR, but I did have a lot of great times at those races. And you can’t blame anyone but yourselves with all the points changes, knee-jerk rule changes, cookie-cutter cars and most of that was done for one reason and one reason only, to try and get JR a Championship, well enjoy it!

      BTW there’s an old saying that if they’d have listen to they wouldn’t be in this position: when you’ve got the shovel in your hand and you see you’re in a hole STOP DIGGING!!!!!!!!!!!!

  6. Avatar

    Is anybody else wondering what SMI thinks about the attendance problems? They have be relying on other sources of income.

  7. Avatar

    It is simple: too many rules and to many changes. Cars are all alike because of the rules. Get back to being innovative
    NASCAR , do you remember what that stands for?
    Doesn’t mean build them all alike put a different emblem on the vehicle
    And say let’s go racing. Simplicity in NASCAR departed many years ago. Get basic or get ready for the big shut down and here comes dirt racing to take over. It is easy to make all those dumb rules from behind the desk and intimidate everybody so they can’t say anything.

    • Avatar

      That’s also one of my pet peeves with NASCAR…the cars all look the same…and basically are the same. Every car goes through inspection done by laser’s that make sure each car is the same. Does the NASCAR version of the Mustang look like a “Stock” Mustang? Camaro, Camry….take the vinyl wraps off and try to tell the difference!!!
      Back in the day…you knew that Petty was driving a Dodge, Pearson…a Ford…others drove Chevy’s…AMC’s…. Olds….you knew who drove what car. Right now… it’s just a glorified IROC car…all the same car, exactly the same specs…zero innovation. Throw in the “Playoffs”…boring races…and you have the formula for a dying sport.
      I live in Austin Texas…and we just had our first INDY series race…we’re having a huge Motorcycle race this weekend and we have an F1 Race later on in the year that is attended by people from all over the world! Yes… it’s a road course ( COTA… Circuit of the America’s ) …but it’s a 4+ Mile road course…and the racing is excellent from start to finish. These guys put on a great showing because although the cars are similar….they haven’t regulated the fun out of their race cars.

  8. Avatar

    NASCAR is not dying, but you have to admit it is going through one heckuva downsizing.

    Fast forward to, say, 2027….you will probably see about a 25-26 race calender with most venues seating about 40,000….with an exception or two.

    It won’t be dead, but a snapshot of NASCAR in 2005 compared to a snapshot of NASCAR in 2027 will be a stunning comparison.

  9. Avatar

    Feel free to ignore the truth about what is happening, but NASCAR is in a serious decline. Bristol, for example, used to have multi-year waiting lists for seats at the track. Now they only draw about 25% of that to their Spring race. At Texas, there were huge holes in the grandstands that never used to be there.

    If I were a NASCAR executive right now, I would be justified to be a little concerned. With ratings and attendance down, what will happen when they go to renegotiate the TV contract? They might not get that huge amount again and have to depend more and more on the ticket sales at each event to make money. Based on recent attendance, they would all be hurting.

    Quit comparing NASCAR to the MLB or other professional sports. As someone else has mentioned, they have numerous home games each year to sell tickets for. Bristol, for example, only has two races per year to sell tickets for and they can spend the entire year promoting those races. For them to only sell about a quarter of the seats out is a huge indictment of the issues in NASCAR. They can blame all of the local motels and such as much as they want, the real blame lies with NASCAR and all of their changes.

    • Avatar

      Exactly right. Hotel price gouging at Bristol was still going on when they were selling out races. The difference is the product on the track was much more entertaining and worth the money. There are many problems with the current Nascar right now, but my opinion the biggest one is the on track product we watch every week. Very rarely is a race exciting. This is where they need to start fixing things to bring the fans back. Of course they have to admit this is even a problem first.

    • Avatar

      Once again, look at the TV business. One of my biggest comparisons in the article was with WWE, an entertainment company. Their traditional means of revenue have fallen dramatically in the past decade, as have their TV ratings. But they still got a massive increase in their TV contract last year because cable is dying.

      The quality of Bristol in recent years, in particular the inconsistencies of it, definitely has played a factor. But that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t still be facing the same problems that everybody else has been facing when it comes to getting people out to arenas/shows.

      Like I wrote in an earlier reply, if the NASCAR TV contract was due next year, they would see a big increase in rights fees, especially now that ESPN is trying to get as much content as possible for ESPN+.

  10. Avatar

    Because the comparison shouldn’t be to other sports. The point is, just about every race used to be sold out or darn close to it. The Bristol spring race used to sell out, i know I went for 12 straight years. Now it’s pathetic, the attendance was a joke. And those darn fools won’t lower ticket prices, they still go up every year which is why I stopped going. Yes they cannot control the local hotel price but they can certainly control what they charge for a seat. Bottom line is, people are saying na$car is dying because places that used to draw 160,000 people now draw 30,000. And just about every track has removed thousands of seats to make them look more full, which hasn’t worked. It’s a joke.

  11. Avatar

    will be interesting to see what the stands look like at dega in a few weeks. heck also richmond this weekend, they’d been filling the seats for years except the past few. but as with spring races, weather could be a factor this weekend. some crazy weather across the country right now.

    dega is usually decent turnout cause you had earnhardt in cup. yes i know jr didn’t run last year, but i believe he was over there doing some promotion. only earnhardt that will be on track in a race car this spring at ‘dega will be jeffrey in xfinity.

  12. Avatar

    As mentioned elsewhere earlier in the week, the comparisons to other sports are ridiculous.
    MLB teams have 81 home dates. Not every date is on a weekend. Early season games are a challenge certainly, until the weather is warmer and school is out. The Orioles suck. That’s why they have attendance issues. Ironically, some excused the sparse attendance at Texas because the Rangers were playing at home.
    College and NFL teams have between 6 and 8 home games per season. NBA and NHL teams have 40 home dates.
    A NASCAR track has only one or two dates to fill seats. From just about everything I’ve seen this week, Public Enemy #1 is the hotel operator in Northeast Tennessee. Nowhere is Teflon NASCAR is dare criticized. Not one mention in columns (other than in the comments) of how 15 years of changes that very few fans asked for have caused this. In any other business, losing 60-75% of your customer base would be a professional death sentence. Who has ever questioned NASCAR about how the correlation between these changes and the precipitous drops in attendance and ratings? Instead, it’s just excused. Hotel room prices, a recession from over a decade ago, Dale Jr. retired, just start the list.

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      Nailed it rg72.
      I can’t think of one other sport that changed so much so fast. Although there are so many other factors that added to the downfall someone could write a book tying them altogether.

      • Avatar

        It started that day in 2003 when they announced that the Southern 500 was being moved to California. A complete Brian France decision because at the time he was linked to groups trying to bring the NFL back to LA. At the same time a big middle finger to NASCAR history and its Southern fan base and the snowball started rolling.

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          Actually, it started the day Nascar thought it would be good to have a guy win 5 championships in a row, and they set out to make it happen. That’s when the bleeding of fans really took off.

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          Well, if you want to get specific, it actually started the day Brian France was put in charge. It just took a few seasons before the faithful could see and confirm that they were no longer interested in the “new and improved” NASCAR.

  13. Avatar

    Donin that is.… 🙂

  14. Avatar

    Great post Mike. No matter what the deniers say. Lotta truth. But truth is a bad thing these day.

    All is well….to some. LOL.

  15. Avatar

    I would think that NA$CAR isn’t worried because they have more revenue streams that just the tracks. It seems they make up for the loss on the apples with what they make on the oranges and bananas etc. So the stockholders are happy and that is what they care about. We’ll see what happens when the TV contract has to be renewed and the title sponsor is announced, if they can find a sucker for that, because I can`t see the new numbers being even close to the old ones.

    • Avatar

      Honestly, with how much WWE and UFC made on their last contract deals and the state of television, they’d get an increase if they went to the bargaining table tomorrow. Especially with ratings largely staying even to start the year off.

      Also there will be no title sponsor. SBD reported this week that NASCAR was offered a one year extension of their existing contract from Monster, which they denied as they move to a multi-tier system with no direct title sponsor.

      • Avatar

        So Monster wanted another year. Any idea what the offer was? I bet it was nowhere close to what was asked. Just like I think the next TV deals isn’t nearly what they paid now.

    • Avatar

      Great post…lot of truth…no matter what the deniers say.

  16. Avatar

    “So, overall, this controversy of NASCAR dying because they couldn’t fill half of a 162,000 seat stadium is a bit overblown.” Really?!?! Seriously?!?! Are you on NASCAR’s payroll or something? For a track that had a reported 55 consecutive sellouts, albeit even if those sellouts did include when the seating capacity was significantly less, I would say Sunday’s attendance IS reason for concern. I am not a NASCAR hater by any stretch but if people don’t start admitting there’s a problem how can things get resolved? I appreciate the efforts of revising the schedule next year but some individuals who cover this sport aren’t doing it any favors by offering ridiculous opinions such as those contained within this article.

    • Avatar

      Name me a sport in America that has drawn 81,000 people to a normal, non-postseason event besides the Dallas Cowboys and the absolute top college football programs in the past year. The reality is that tracks overbuilt their grandstands in the late 90’s so that when the boom period ended, we’ve been left with a lot of empty grandstands.

      There were 30,000 people who showed up for the IndyCar Classic at COTA a few weeks ago. There were more people at Bristol then at COTA. Does this mean IndyCar is in danger? Is IndyCar about to die? Or does nobody on that side cares because they know you can’t draw 80,000 people every week or even once a month anymore unless, again, you’re the Cowboys or the top college football programs.

      There are problems with the sport but there are problems with sports in general today. MLB has a major attendance problem, but nobody is running around saying that baseball is dead.

      • Avatar

        MLB 2008…75 million…..last year 69 million…not a major attendance problem…TRY AGAIN WITH FACTS !

      • Avatar

        I don’t think Indycar is a good analogy because NASCAR and Indycar are headed different directions. Indycar is still trying to “rebuild” and recover from the CART/IRL split in the 90’s – I think (don’t have the numbers) their attendance/ratings are slowly increasing. It should be, their product is much better than it has been and is getting better. Unlike NASCAR which has been (sadly) going the other way.

        I have not researched it, but what were attendance/ratings in NASCAR prior to the “boom” of the mid 90’s / early 2000’s? Are we back to that level yet? If not, how much further does NASCAR have to drop to get back to “square one”? I guess, basically, I’m curious if alienating loyal long time fans in their haste to attract “new” fans has paid off, been a wash, or a net negative in the long run?

        • Avatar

          From someone that was a season ticket holder at Bristol from 1991 until 2006 I can tell you that when I started going to Bristol in 91 it held 70,000+ and you couldn’t find a seat in the house and last weeks race attendance was 38,000 so YEA it’s dropped way below what it was in the early 1990’s. And at it’s peak it held 160,000+ and it was sold out every year I was there.

      • Avatar

        Is it fair to compare NASCAR that has one race per week to a sport that has 16 games a week but then you ONLY count attendance for one of those games = APPLES TO WATERMELONS! If you’re going to compare NASCAR to the NFL you need to count all NFL attendance at all 16 games, NOT JUST ONE! But if it makes you feel any better the NFL is in the early stages of what NASCAR went through over the last 10yrs. Their attendance is really declining and until this year so had TV viewership numbers, this was the first year they’ve went up since 2009.

        BTW NASCAR’s next TV contract won’t be anywhere close to what the last one was with all those declines in attendance and viewership and that’s went it’ll really “SINK IN”! NASCAR may not be dead but its in the ICU on life-support.

        But it WILL DIE as soon as they force these electric cars in us all and don’t think for a minute that it’ll never happen!

  17. Avatar

    I would say 40k is a huge exaggeration at best.

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      First thing nascar has to do is tell it like it is. The truth – N-A-S-C-A-R is (Not A Stock Car Auto Race). Really nascar? A STOCK CAR? Find announcers that are allowed to be reporters not fearful cheer leaders for the product. Let race car teams build race cars. RULES- safety first, minimum weight, maximum cubic inches. You want to build a 1000hp 400CU motor, more power to you. If it’s not your race car it’s not your engine in it. Encourage single car race teams. These cash cow mega teams are killing the sport. and lastly, get rid of those needless cautions. You want to divide the race into three or four parts, fine, just don’t throw a caution flag. Give them their 10-1 points and keep racing. Competition Cauction? Ridiculous! As a race car driver after 30 laps you don’t know how your car is handling you shouldn’t be in the seat. and yes “back in the day” some days different guys won races by 10 laps. They won by 10 laps because they built bad a$$ race cars. WAKE UP NASCAR, you’re asleep at the wheel.