The first two races of the season have seen NASCAR’s ratings increase 13 percent over last year’s numbers. Sure we are only talking about the first two races, and for those who tuned into the race this past weekend in Las Vegas, it was clear to see the stands were once again full for the third straight weekend. NASCAR could very well be getting a second wind from its decline which began around 2007 and as recent as 2010, the fans seemed to lose interest and attendance quickly declined in a sport when names such as Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, and Matt Kenseth quickly became household names.
Interest in the sport along with some rule changes were targeted as the reason for the decline in viewership, along with the addition of a dwindling economy which boosted the cost to attend a race for the average fan. The latest word on the street from the nay sayers is that NASCAR is continuing down a road of destruction, and it won’t be long before the sport quickly disappears into its own self-made black hole.
Of course, none of this news is coming from the big man himself; instead, most of it gets started around these highly sophisticated tailgate parties, where the fans congregate to see who can conjure up the best destructive scenarios. For those fans who really feel the need to challenge themselves, try visiting one of the hundreds of NASCAR social sites which can be found on the Internet.
There you will find every rule or regulation that NASCAR has ever implemented, along with the current state of the sport broken down to the root while being argued with the basis being, “Because I said so, and I have been a fan for x amount of years.” Now given the fact throughout the years, NASCAR just like any other sport is and always will be debated amongst its fans, try naming one person, or a group of people who could do a better job at managing one of motorsports’ biggest organizations?
The reason being is because once again, the integrity of those who are running the sport has come under intense enemy fire from the fans, with most of the ammo targeting a false sense that the sport is in dire need of another rebuilding process. One area which is being falsely attacked is the decline in viewership, along with the current rule changes that some feel are not helping to boost the ratings. Viewership along with the fan base within the sport believe it or not, is up from where it was before NASCAR went full-time to national television in 2001.
NASCAR is still the third most popular professional sport in the United States, behind the National Football League and Major League Baseball. What other sport comes close to averaging 70 to 80 thousand fans per event, and that’s without the other three or four million who are watching at home? Last year’s night race at Bristol attracted 5,322,537 viewers, and this increase was from the Sprint Cup race alone.
An average of 5,841,952 viewers tuned in on Saturday, which is still above the 4.5 million average who were watching back in the 90’s when attendance jumped from 3.3 million to 6.5 million between that 10-year time span (1990-99). It’s no big secret the sport has seen a steady decrease in the last few seasons, but not all is lost in the game of love and war when looking at the numbers from a broader perspective.
When NASCAR went to national television in 2001, the attendance at each track grew, which forced a lot of the smaller tracks to add more seating to accommodate the rapid growth of the sport. As an example, Bristol alone added an additional 90,000 seats between 1996 and 2002 which brought their total up to 160,000 from the 71,000 they were at before the increase. Dover also added an additional 20,000 seats between the same time periods, along with Richmond, which joined in with 10,000 of their own.
So as the sport continued to grow and become more popular, so did the fans who flocked to the various race tracks to get their fill of the fastest growing sport in the Nation. The sudden growth left even the biggest critics scratching their heads in amazement, as America fell in love with the color, the speed, and the fast-paced excitement that at one time could only be viewed from one of the cable networks who covered the series. NASCAR reached its peak amid the 2004-06 seasons, even though the fans began to complain about some of the rule changes, with the biggest one being the institution of the Chase format. Between the 2007 and 2009 seasons, it became obvious the numbers began to taper off, and all you had to do was look at the empty stands which at one time were hard to come by.
Many of the fans began expressing their displeasure with the way the sport was being run, with much of the speculation focused on the Chase format along with the introduction of Car of Tomorrow in 2008. No longer was NASCAR outpacing all other professional sports, and it was because the majority of the younger fans between the ages of 18-34, began looking elsewhere to get their adrenaline fix. In the meantime, the core of older fans continued to stick next to a sport that most grew up with, and NASCAR began to once again take action in hopes of keeping them from wandering off.
“Our core fan is older, said NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston back in 2010. Poston also added, “That’s a fact. Our strategy and focus the last couple of years has been to target our core fan base. If we’re making strides with that fan base, it shows that our strategy is working.” NASCAR took it a step further by getting a fans perspective as far as what changes needed to be made to keep the sport exciting, and to bring the fans back when they created a 12,000 member online fan council. The fan council was responsible for a series of rule changes which included the double-file restarts, multiple attempts at overtime finishes, and a return to the traditional spoiler.
NASCAR also added the Citizen Journalists Media Corps in 2009, which consists of 28 additional websites which are dedicated to providing information about NASCAR to a growing readership. Ever since the invention of the Internet, more fans have become dependent on the various websites that provide up to the minute news and information about the sport. The newspaper is quickly becoming obsolete around the world of sports, and NASCAR felt that a lot of the independent websites are becoming more professional with their content.
NASCAR has been taking the necessary steps to keep the fans involved in the sport, even though the economy has taken its toll on the sport as a whole. Just like any other craze or trend, NASCAR reached its peak, and now it’s beginning to level off after going through a normal drop-off period. When you look at the viewership numbers from 10 to 15 years ago, NASCAR is still above their average, even though the teams and the tracks look as if they too are scaling-down. Don’t think for a second that most of the fans who no longer attend a race are not sitting at home watching on television.
The organization now has nine regional touring series, and three national series including the Nationwide Series, Camping World Truck Series, and its premier series, the Sprint Cup races. The season is still young and too early to predict if the attendance numbers will continue to rise, especially with gas prices soaring through the roof and an unpredictable economy. But one thing to remember is, NASCAR is not going to slowly disappear into the abyss known as another mismanaged business venture as many think it might. Instead, the sport will be here longer than either you or I, and when you sit back and think about the competition it faces every single day as a family-owned organization.