It happens all of the time to bakeries and restaurants – they start off small and the baked goods or food taste out of this world. As they grow in popularity they are forced to make changes to meet the demand and somewhere down the road a decision is made to change the business model or hire new management. Sadly their focus gets shifted away from the product and that once out of this world tasting cake is no longer a must have. I’m sure you’ve seen this happen with businesses in your area.
This has also happened to NASCAR.
I tend look at the world of NASCAR beyond the race each Sunday – because in reality the race is simply a piece of cake. In the past it tasted great and everyone wanted a piece. Today, because we are such fans of cake, even a bad piece of cake beats no cake at all. But for me, I want to know how the darn cake is made…the ingredients are important to me especially if some corporate stiff has come in and changed grandma’s recipe.
As members of the media it is our job to look at the ingredients, the baker or the kitchen used to make the cake – to verify the baker is qualified and to ensure slime isn’t in the kitchen. I remember a time when the NASCAR media not only reported on the good things, but worked hard to keep NASCAR honest and protected the integrity of the sport. NASCAR, in their current version, is a controlled sport with little oversight – and when someone comes across a bad tasting piece of cake, NASCAR or their media simply provides us with a tall glass of milk and forces us to drink it, ultimately washing the bad taste away.
The only problem with that is…I’m lactose intolerant.
We sometimes forget NASCAR is a business with millions of dollars at stake. They do a very good job staying under the radar – away from nosy sports journalists (from outside of NASCAR) who are interested in deeper stories. It is also a sport very political and calculated. Sadly, I believe several management decisions on competition and political actions have completely overhauled the sport’s landscape. These miscalculations have caused fan abandonment and the sport is still suffering the consequences.
The proof is in the cake batter (or pudding) – just look at the television ratings and the number of fans in the stands. Many NASCAR insiders want you and me to continue to drink the milk…and want us to ignore the ratings. They insist the sport is doing just fine because fans are watching over multiple platforms. I truly want to believe them, but this is the same group of insiders who told us Juan Pablo Montoya would bring to NASCAR a large international fan base, Travis Pastrana would bring the action sports crowd, Ricky Carmichael would bring his fan base and Danica Patrick would attract IndyCar fans, youth and female fans. If all of this were true NASCAR would be extremely popular and not having challenges attracting new fans…or fan retention issues.
If you have been interested in NASCAR’s decline in popularity then I am sure you have seen the theories on why it is happening. Over the past several weeks I have thrown my hat into the ring with how I believe NASCAR and their paid media have chased traditional fans away. I stand by my opinions and I have been emboldened over the past few weeks from several media members outside of the sport. From FS1’s Jason Whitlock speaking about the degrading of sports society to ESPN’s Linda Cohn, detailing her thoughts on why ESPN is facing ratings challenges, it’s obvious the sports community is dealing with issues and NASCAR is one of the hardest hit. And until a popular NASCAR personality within the sport shines the light on the problems, NASCAR will continue to get smaller.
We recently saw big changes at ESPN. They announced the laying off 100 people including NASCAR favorites Alan Bestwick and Dr. Jerry Punch. According to a recent column published by the Sporting News, possible factors for ESPN’s move to reduce employees were expensive rights fees, subscriber losses and recent programming changes.
Linda Cohn, a popular ESPN ‘SportsCenter’ anchor believes the reasoning is much deeper than rights fees and programming changes. In the same column Cohn said, “I felt that the old-school viewers were put in a corner. And not appreciated with all these other changes. They [ESPN] forgot their core. You should never forget your core. And be grateful for your core group.”
Cohn also said, “But if anyone wants to ignore that fact, they’re blind.”
The same can be said about NASCAR. For anyone wanting to ignore that the core viewership in NASCAR are gone, they too are blind.
Who are the core viewers in NASCAR?
Based on many past reports NASCAR fans have been older, Republican (conservative) and male. No – not all fans fall into these demographics. But reports have shown NASCAR fans were over 50% conservative and recently we’ve seen reports stating NASCAR has lost 45% of their viewers. If this is the case, which I believe it is – the answer to NASCAR’s problems are solved. Like with ESPN, NASCAR has lost their core conservative old-school viewers.
I do not like speaking for others, but in general, I believe conservatives despise political correctness…and if you have been following NASCAR over the past 10 to 14 years, since Brian France has taken the reins of NASCAR, fans have been given a buffet of political correctness. The NASCAR media will not tell you this and the reason why is simple…they are the sellers of political correctness.
In sports, what would drive conservative viewers absolutely crazy?
The answer is…liberal America’s belief in participation trophies – basically getting a trophy for simply competing. Well, welcome to Brian France’s liberal NASCAR:
- The adoption of the Chase and the introduction of the current playoff system has been a pain point for core viewers. NASCAR is the only professional sport where winners can lose the championship to someone who never won during the season or playoffs.
- The top 35 rule was a guarantee for the top 35 teams in the standings to race every weekend. This NASCAR policy killed an important value to NASCAR’s core audience…that you should earn what you get and under free market principles everyone is able to compete. The top 35 rule changed the game by locking teams and drivers out of the sport and destroyed racing development as driver turnover was greatly decreased. Robin Pemberton, former NASCAR vice president of competition didn’t like the change. He said, “People want to see it go back to where speed gets you in. Performance and speed is what people want to see it takes to get you in a race.” Pemberton eventually left the sport – or was he pushed out?
- The lucky dog rule or a free pass is where a race leader can work their rear end off and lap a top competitor, but then NASCAR can throw out a caution, which allows someone to “win” a lap back. Talk about a free give-a-way from the government.
- The dreaded competition caution, which halts top performers to give non-performers a better chance to win. It’s a caution thrown when NASCAR wants to tighten the field. This has upset core fans and it has upset drivers – like Dale Earnhardt Jr., who calls them dishrag cautions. “It’s so crazy, man. You work you’re a** off, work you’re a** and those dumb yellows come out and it pisses you off. It makes busting you’re a** out there not worth, not any fun,” said Dale Jr.
- Some believe removing the Confederate Flag from NASCAR events was simply a political correctness play by the NASCAR brass – to attract what seemed like a larger audience opportunity. Not sure it worked.
- Al Gore had global warming and NASCAR had collectables. Thousands of NASCAR fans were caught up in the NASCAR memorabilia and souvenir market and ending up losing big dollars. How much is that $129 Dale Earnhardt Jr., die cast today? If you are lucky – 20 bucks. According to NASCAR media veteran John Close, “NASCAR memorabilia collectors have taken a direct financial hit. Thanks to an overproduced, massive glut of inventory, overinflated prices and now a soft economy, the NASCAR collectible market is a bust,” as Close documented in a 2010 column.
- Many hardcore US manufacturer fans did not like the welcoming of Toyota into the sport – especially team owner, Jack Roush. Back in 2007 Roush said, “They will try to outspend everyone and place the rest of us in a catch-up scenario. They will upset the established equilibrium.” And Roush may have been correct since his team has struggled to win races. He also lost Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards to Toyota – or as Roush described, lost them to the “dark side.”
- NASCAR Dads were greatly offended that Brian France voted for Barack Obama in 2008. France said, “I supported Obama. I went to his rallies. I parted with my hard-earned money. There was a movement going on, and I was really thrilled with the idea of the first African-American president.” France’s vote happened after an Obama supporter and a leading Democrat (chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson) attacked NASCAR fans by telling Democrats to get “immunized” before attending a race at Talladega. According to CNN, the politician advised to “get immunized against hepatitis A, hepatitis B, tetanus, diphtheria, and influenza before heading to the NASCAR event.” France did not defend his core viewers.
- NASCAR’s desire to embrace Hollywood celebrities and the non-family friendly culture. Do I really need to explain?
- While some policies and format aspects introduced to the fans were widely accepted and appreciated, other recent announcements have not moved the needle like the termination of driver merchandise haulers, team Charters, the 2017 playoff format, fan and driver counsels and giving the top 10 finishers points at the end of each stage.
Other critical circumstances and policies not related to political correctness did play a factor in the downward spiral in popularity – including the Car of Tomorrow. It was loved by NASCAR but hated by drivers and fans. Remember the wing? NASCAR bragged about the driver’s seats moving toward the center of the car, how much wider and longer the car was and how safe it would be. None of it mattered because the fans rejected the car – it looked nothing like a regular car on the street. Also drivers criticized the car and were ultimately fined.
Today’s NASCAR is addicted to chasing what is popular in society. Popular isn’t what the core viewership wanted – they wanted a simple race. They respected hard work and wanted to be respected. NASCAR forgot about respecting their core fans. They would rather force the fans to like what NASCAR insiders like and have their media feed a narrative that everything is great even though your eyes and the facts tell you differently.
The core group of NASCAR fans are gone. They have spoken with their pocket books and remote controls. As stated above, I do not believe it’s 100% because of the product on the race track – NASCAR has thrown just about everything at the racing product and the ratings are still suffering. Rivalries, a bad guy and hard racing are some of the ingredients to get the sport back on the map with the previous core fans.
It’s time for NASCAR to pivot – and I believe they know it. Brian France standing beside Donald Trump may not have been popular within the NASCAR media circles, but I believe France realized the power of the action. It was a marketing move and an attempt to win back fans. We’re also hearing NASCAR may close down the big souvenir tent at the track and bring back the souvenir haulers, which was popular with the core fans.
Going back to an old recipe sometimes works for businesses trying to recapture success. And NASCAR may be able to bake that cake again, but to do so Brian France will need to put on his father’s apron and whip up a miracle. If he won’t then NASCAR should bring in a new baker.
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