The White Zone: The light at tunnel’s end is growing dimmer

The 70th season of NASCAR is drawing to a close. After 38 weeks and 35 races, Ford Championship Weekend is upon us. Four drivers in each national touring series will race tonight, Saturday and Sunday to win the championship.

The venue, Homestead-Miami Speedway, lays just outside arguably the biggest party city in the world. The atmosphere will be one of jubilation, excitement and positive energy. Under the surface of the party, however, is a myriad of problems that make my optimism for the future dwindle.

The 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season will be the 13th consecutive season with an overall decline in television ratings and viewership. This past weekend’s race at Phoenix was the 27th this season to post a decline in ratings and/or viewership, and the 26th to hit an all-time or decade-low (Sports Media Watch), out of 31 races (this excludes the five races affected by weather). Phoenix was only the seventh race that didn’t post a double-digit decline.

For context: At the height of NASCAR’s peak ratings and viewership (2005), the race posted a 5.0 rating and 7.43 million viewers. A decade ago, this race posted a 3.6 and 5.66 million viewers. Just four years ago, it posted a 3.1 and 5.09 million viewers.

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But to truly see how far NASCAR has fallen, look at the numbers for this year’s Daytona 500.

A decade ago, NASCAR’s crown jewel posted a 10.2 and 17.752 million viewers. Five years ago, it was 9.9 and 16.651 million. This year, it was 5.3 and 9.297 million (Sports Media Watch).

To be fair, it went opposite of the Winter Olympics this year, of which 19 of its events made the Top-50 most watched sporting events of 2018 (Sports Media Watch). In 2006, however, the Daytona 500 posted its highest rating and viewership ever, despite going opposite of the Olympics. The races in 2010 and 2014 were down from the year prior, but those were affected by delays for track repairs and weather.

While attendance numbers are hard to ascertain, as NASCAR stopped publishing them after 2012, almost every track this season had noticeably vast sections of empty seats.

What’s been NASCAR’s response to this? They’ve either chalked it up to “changing tastes,” i.e. streaming, or to flat out deny that ratings are tanking. In regards to “changing tastes,” the Daytona 500 averaged 51 thousand streamers. While that’s up from 31 thousand the year prior, that doesn’t account for a 2.6 million viewer drop from 2017 to 2018.

In fairness, the “changing tastes” and denial approach was done by former CEO of NASCAR Brian France. Furthermore, NASCAR isn’t the only sport suffering from attendance and viewership woes. But whereas the NFL is making noticeable strides to fix this, NASCAR has done little, if anything. It also doesn’t help when neither the president or interim CEO have spoken to the media since France was removed from his post.

That changes Sunday, when NASCAR President Steve Phelps will address the media at Homestead. So we’ll see if he’s got big plans on that front.

The ever-declining ratings have led to more companies tightening the wallets.

Now NASCAR says there are more companies in the sport than ever, and that’s technically correct. But so few are season-long partners like Lowe’s (who’s leaving at season’s end).

So many are doing select races, to the point that a sponsor’s departure can lead to the closing of a team, such as Furniture Row Racing. While nothing new, it should raise alarms across the garage when the defending Cup Series championship team can’t find backing to continue.

But what really concerns me for the future of NASCAR isn’t all the above (although it doesn’t help). It’s the on-track product.

Now it’s not been a bad year for racing in NASCAR. The quality has been serviceable, with the second half of the season being a few notches higher. In short, it’s been hit and miss. When it misses, however, it really misses.

A few weeks ago, Texas Motor Speedway was the site of hands down the worst race of the season. The biggest criticisms people make about mile and a half races in NASCAR were on display at Texas. The leader is uncatchable in clean air and passing the leader is a Herculean task. You can talk all day about how the racing behind the lead is great, but there are two problems with that: 1. It’s not compelling in the slightest when the best battle on track is for 35th. And 2. If you can’t catch the leader, then the battle is already lost.

I’d call it a Formula 1 race at that point, but most F1 races are more compelling than your average mile and a half event in NASCAR.

Again, that’s not to say the races this year were mediocre. There were more hits than misses, like last week at Phoenix.

Come next season, however, there will be a radically new aerodynamic package for the Cup Series. In a nutshell, expect pack racing at almost every race. It’s probably unfair of me to cast pessimism on a package we’ve yet to race, but I’m growing less and less optimistic with the more news I hear about it.

I get NASCAR’s reason for doing this. The product can get really unwatchable at the downforce-centric tracks, and they’re trying to bring costs down significantly to make NASCAR a financially-viable option for future teams and manufacturers.

The problem is that we’ve done a complete 180 from just three years ago when we went the route of lower downforce. If the high-downforce direction fails, this sport is legitimately in trouble.

Of course, I could be wrong, and I hope that I am. If I am, I’ll personally tell NASCAR President Steve Phelps that I was an idiot for ever doubting the package.

I don’t want NASCAR to go the way of the dodo. At the end of the day, even at its worst, NASCAR is arguably the most entertaining genre of auto racing there is. I know I don’t always show it, but I take great pride in covering this awesome sport, and I hope NASCAR will allow me to cover their sport again (read this for context on that). But as someone who looks at life through the lens of cynical pessimism, I look at the negative more than the positive.

But I’m not here to make this about me. I simply want to ask the people at NASCAR this. Where’s the light at the end of the tunnel? And is that light growing dimmer?

TV ratings/viewership continues to free-fall, with no end in sight, sponsorship in NASCAR grows more and more uncertain with each passing day and next year’s package, from what I’ve seen in tests, is a high-risk venture.

I hope that my pessimism for next season, and beyond, is rendered unwarranted. Only time will tell.

That’s my view, for what it’s worth.

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My name is Tucker White. I'm currently majoring in journalism at the University of Tennessee. I started getting into NASCAR around 1998 and started following the sport full-time in 2001. I live and breathe everything related to NASCAR. I also have a burning passion for all things auto racing. I've been following Formula 1 since 2011 and am slowing getting into IndyCar. I do my best to keep up with the World Endurance Championship. But at the end of the day, NASCAR is my primary beat. Being both a native of Knoxville, Tennessee and a student at UT, I'm naturally a die-hard Tennessee Volunteers fan. Especially when it comes to Tennessee Volunteers football. While I'll never stop being one, it can be the most heart-wrenching thing ever. Since 2005, this team has delivered more than its fair share of heartbreaking moments and inhuman frustration. I've stuck with the Vols from the best of times - 1998 National Champions - to the worst of times - 2005 to present - because I know that it'll make it all so worth it when the mighty Vols finally return to the top of the college football landscape. In the last few years, I started to really get into baseball. This past season, I decided to pledge my sporting allegiance to the Atlanta Braves. It didn't turn out too well as they finished 67-95 and finished fourth in the NL East. I do see great potential with the young roster and they might be a force to be reckoned with in the coming years.

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