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Hood: Numbers Add Up To Trouble

Jeff Hood | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 23 2010

Jamie McMurray and Jimmie Johnson helped NASCAR's TV numbers last week. But, what will happen this week? (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jeff Hood | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

NASCAR received a bit of good news earlier this week when it was revealed that the television audience for ABC’s coverage of Saturday night’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway was off just six percent compared to viewership of the same event a year ago.

But this comes on the heels of the first four races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup televised on ESPN which saw a 27 percent hit on the ratings scale.

The sport on the rise during the 1990s, NASCAR appears to be headed down the Indy Car Series road to obscurity nowadays.

Gimmicky free passes and wave-arounds aside, I do agree with the contention that the racing has been rather entertaining this season.

So if that’s actually true, why is NASCAR nation turning its back on the sport?

Is it because the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., couldn’t finish in the top 10 if his life depended on it?

Have fans truly tired of watching four-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson win everything in sight?

Is the core fan base longing to see a bulldozer driver down to his last penny becoming the sport’s next superstar?

During the annual preseason media tour in Concord, N.C. in January, I asked longtime car owner Roger Penske if the sport was starting to lose its popularity because it didn’t have the legendary-type characters of yesteryear such as Dale Earnhardt, Cale Yarborough, Tim Richmond, Darrell Waltrip, David Pearson, Rusty Wallace and Richard Petty.

But Penske took issue with me and said there’s never been a larger group of colorful characters in the sport.

I had to stop and let his comment sink in for a moment, but I do recall thinking at the time that it did have some merit.

In 25 years, I really think we’ll look back and marvel at the accomplishments achieved during this era by Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Trevor Bayne and Chase Elliott.

So where’s the rub with the fans?

I asked Greg Biffle two weeks ago about the sagging TV ratings. He said part of the problem is that NASCAR fans have a wide-range of options to monitor the sport in today’s high-tech age. And TV ratings don’t factor in those tuning into NASCAR with other electronic gadgets.

Hamlin had what I feel is a more practical answer when I asked him the same question on this week’s NASCAR teleconference.

“Well, I think it’s a little bit tough, because you have everything, just about everything going right now as far as sports,” he said. ”In my mind, with TV there’s only so many sports eyes out there, sports fans.

“When you have so many different things to choose from, you have the baseball and their playoffs right now, the NBA season is about to start, NFL’s right in the stride of the start of their season, then you have the championship run of NASCAR. You’ve got hockey also part of that as well.

“This is just a part of our season where we really see a saturation of a lot of sports. I think there are only so many eyes out there to watch our races.”

“And kind of a little bit goes back to attendance as well. The reason we need people in the stands week in and week out is because it increases the interest of the people when they’re sitting at home. They just went to the race last week, they want to know what goes on the following week, so I think they kind of go hand in hand.”

Hamlin went on to say that attendance has taken a tumble because of the recession.

“Everyone I’ve talked to, it all relates back to not having that disposable income that they had before,” he said.

The decline in attendance is somewhat understanding during a difficult economic climate.

But since nearly every household in this country is wired with cable or satellite, the dismal TV ratings is troubling.

An argument can be made that NASCAR abandoned its longtime fan base during the last decade as it attempted to reach out to a younger demographic.

However, today’s young generation seems to have little interest in stock car racing.

During a visit to Six Flags over Georgia just outside of Atlanta last weekend, I failed to see one person wearing NASCAR-related merchandise. I was shocked.

In years past, I’d frequently see 20-somethings roaming the popular amusement park appearing to be modeling lines of clothing issued by Earnhardt, Gordon, Busch or Stewart.

But not this year. Any sports-related clothing visible during my visit was reserved for baseball, football and basketball heroes.

As for the television ratings, the next two weekends may tell the tale on where NASCAR is headed.

Fans often complain of the “cookie-cutter” mile-and-a-half tracks, which make up a large portion of the Chase events.

So will the beating and banging that will be on display at the tiny Martinsville Speedway be of interest to sports fans on Sunday?

More importantly, will fans tune in on Halloween to watch the AMP Energy Juice 500 at Talladega Superspeedway for what should be the Chase’s most entertaining race from start-to-finish?

There’s little doubt that NASCAR and television executives will be eagerly awaiting those results come Monday Nov. 1.

– Jeff Hood can be reached at jhood@racintoday.com

Jeff Hood | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 23 2010
3 Comments

3 Comments »

  • Steve says:

    Nascar has run races this time of the year for a long time and viewership has not been as bad as it has been in recent years, so I don’t buy Denny’s assessment. The product just isn’t good to watch anymore. Too many cookie cutter tracks providing boring racing and Nascar catering to the ADD crowd (causing the diehards to give up on the sport) are the 2 biggest issues in my opinion.

    If you are a business that makes cookies, and your cookies taste bad, people are going to look for a different cookie to eat. Pretty simple analogy but its what’s going on with nascar right now.

  • Cindy says:

    Every time I read more of Denny Hamlin’s comments I get more impressed with him….as well as the values his Mom instilled in him growing up.

  • Greg Deansfield says:

    I can tell you what’s creating the TV viewing numbers problem … commercials, commercials, commercials. The non-stop bombardment of repetitive (and usually moronic) ads are making viewers crazy, and angry. It’s obvious to everyone that the advertisers could care less about the timing of their “commercial breaks”, and even though there probably never is a really good time to cut away, you would think that they might at least try to demonstrate some basic race awareness for their viewers (customers) sake. The TV sponsers are not going to be able to keep running over the race action with their bad timing decisions and continue to push the emotional buttons of NASCAR viewers without the viewers at some point pushing back…namely the remote control off button.