A couple of weeks ago, I had a nice Sunday morning visit with a friend who came into town with her two little ones – a two-year-old and a soon (this week!) to be one-r. They were having a daddy-less weekend because my friends husband was off in Loudon, NH with his buds at a NASCAR race.
During the Olympics, I’ll watch sports I’ve never heard of – and become an insta-judge, second guessing the scores, and an insta-ref, second guessing calls. But there are a few sports I just can’t get into.
And watching a bunch of cars racing around in circles – is it even a sport? – is one of them. (There is another: professional golf. While golf is more or less clearly a sport, and I will acknowledge that it does seem to require mental toughness, eye-hand coordination, and other sporty attributes, those who play it appear to be singularly boring and color-less bunch.)
Although I’m not interested in NASCAR, I completely acknowledge the live-and-let-live rule of chacun à son goût. In most instances that is: ‘yes’ to chacun when it comes to Game of Thrones. ‘No’ to chacun when, say, it comes to electing a president. Some election cycles, there really ought to be a law…
Anyway, my understanding was that NASCAR is really big. I mean big enough that, while NASCAR uses the all caps acronym, in press stories, NASCAR has morphed into a proper noun: Nascar. I thought that the number of fans it has surpasses all major American sports, with the exception of the mighty NFL.
Turns out, while I wasn’t paying attention, NASCAR peaked.
A Bloomberg writer attended a recent race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. When he took his eye off the race and looked into the stands, he saw that:
They were strikingly, shockingly empty. Eventually I observed some crowds clustered in the parts of the stands with shade, but according to the Indianaplis Business Journal, only about 35,000 people were there, in a facility with seating for 235,000. Five years ago, the crowd for the same race was four times bigger.
This is not just an Indianapolis problem, it turns out. Nascar stopped reporting race attendance a few years ago, but the publicly traded companies that own most of its tracks do report admission revenue, and it's way down from a decade ago. (Source: Bloomberg)
First off, even if I do have some geriatric change of heart and become a NASCAR/Nascar fan, remind me never, ever, ever to attend an event in a stadium that seats nearly a quarter of million people.
It’s not just live events that are showing declines in interest. People aren’t watching NASCAR/Nascar on TV either. Viewership, it turns out, peaked in 2005, and is now down by about half.
Racing is not alone, of course. There’s so much else for the young-uns to do – like play massively multiplayer online games, or take selfies – that other spectator sports are losing spectators, including football.
Justin Fox, who wrote the Bloomberg article I saw, posited a number of reasons (those are his reasons in bold) why NASCAR/Nascar is off:
1. It's maybe not the best-run organization in the world. NASCAR/Nascar is family-run, and its structure is “complicated” and “secretive.” The lack of transparency makes it harder for the owners who put cars on the track, and the drivers who drive them, to figure out what’s going on. All they know is that it’s getting harder for them to find sponsors (you know, the folks whose logos are emblazoned on cars, helmets, and the space-suits that race car drivers wear) and pay their bills. Maybe this is all part of the general decline of the sport. Or maybe it’s because of NASCAR/Nascar’s piss-poor management. Having worked for a number of outfits with piss-poor management, I will observe that even the piss-poorest run business can somehow manage to hang on well beyond its close-by date. Yet the real world does have a way of catching up with them eventually. Send in the turnaround guys!
2. It's the economy's fault. NASCAR/Nascar itself pins the tail of its woes on the economy donkey. And the ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ argument ties in with the point that the white working class audience that supports the sport has been ailing, and, thus, can’t afford to travel to races in places like Indianapolis.
But that doesn't explain why TV ratings have plummeted, too, unless you believe that all the former Nascar watchers are now addicted to cable-news political coverage instead.
No, that would be me addicted to cable-news political coverage…
3. Nascar got boring. I might have said that NASCAR/Nascar was boring to begin with. But Fox argues that the drivers of yesteryear, and their cars, were just plain more interesting, and the sport:
…full of quirky regional character, with good-old-boy , bootleggers' sons speeding around rural Southern tracks at 175 miles per hour in souped-up versions of the cars in everybody's driveways.
The sounds like The Dukes of Hazard to me, but what do I know. Anyway, today’s cars are all engineered to look the same, and today’s drivers are bland.
A charismatic, colorful champion or two could probably fix some of this problem, but in general the corporatization and deregionalization of the sport over the past quarter-century seems to have inevitably robbed it of some of its appeal.
So, we wuz robbed? Not me, since there was no appeal to begin with. But I do get that blandly corporate athletes – and pro sports are full of them – are just plain not as much fun as the goofballs of yore.
4. Fewer people love cars. Fox asks a pertinent question, and that’s whether:
…the great love affair with cars that consumed the U.S. and other affluent countries in the post-World War II decades has given way to a different sort of relationship in which most people simply rely on their (increasingly reliable) vehicles without thinking about them, and only a tiny minority do the sort of tinkering and driving for pleasure that was once common.
Ah, the pleasure of driving for pleasure. I grew up with a pleasure-driving father. Most Sundays, and occasionally on a weeknight, he took the family out for a spin, poking around Worcester County and stopping somewhere for an ice cream cone if the weather were fine. He was a pleasure driver, and we were pleasure riders.
Do people go out for rides anymore? Probably not. No time, too much else to do, too expensive (gas guzzling), too environment-battering (gas guzzling).
Of all the reasons for NASCAR/Nascar to be failing, this is the saddest.
Imagine how bad things are going to be when cars are all autonomous, and no one bothers to learn how to drive?