Flat Spot On: Live Sports Programming No Longer in Driver’s Seat

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, September 13 2018

Empty grandstands are becoming bigger and bigger problems – in racing and in all American sports. (RacinToday file photo by Martha Fairris)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

The Playoffs are the talk of the NASCAR town. They will be worth watching – although not because of the constant shilling by TV announcers.

But enough about the short run to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup trophy. What about those long-term problems TV announcers never talk about such as ratings and those fans disguised as empty seats?

After more than 40 years covering the sport, I’m as concerned as anybody about the decline in NASCAR TV ratings and attendance. What also bothers me is the perception that this is all happening because of what the people in charge of NASCAR and the promoters are doing and not doing. I always thought there was just as much a social context for what was happening and the decisive context has finally come into focus: live sports don’t have the appeal they once did.

The National Football League is regarded as having taken over from baseball as the National Pastime. Well, guess what? Teams are playing excellent games in front of half-empty stadiums. The TV ratings by any measure – big games or season-long averages – are in a slippery slide.

And what about the original National Pastime? Major League baseball has dropped to its lowest average attendance in 15 years. This could be the first year for average attendance below 30,000 since 2003. Last year, the World Series was a veritable tableau of outstanding moments. But the ratings for Game 7 (featuring major market teams Houston and Los Angeles) fell by 30 percent compared to Game 7 in 2016. That is a stunning reversal.

The conclusion is self-evident. The age of live sports ain’t what it used to be. Despite a booming economy, the previously unquestioned ability of live sporting events to make cable channels lucrative and to put fannies in stadium seats is a thing of the past.

Short term, those involved in the promotion of professional sports and their electronic media partners may not believe in this trend. They may continue to believe that falling ratings and problematic ticket sales are a temporary circumstance with specific causes and the crisis in major professional sports will blow over or can be fixed.

When it comes to racing in general (others beside NASCAR are also suffering), there’s no shortage of big picture theories about what’s gone wrong. The time for racing has passed now that we’re on the verge of electric cars and autonomous vehicles. There’s no more romance with automobiles among millennials.

The more specific complaints about the actual races in NASCAR comprise a litany. The playoff system and stage racing are hokey – even though a return to uninterrupted 500-mile races would be a ghastly bore. There are too many rules and not enough innovation (a complaint that has replaced the longstanding carping about the rules not being clear and NASCAR being arbitrary.) Engineers, not self-taught regular guys, have to work in too tight of a box and there’s not enough innovation. The fans no longer identify with the talking head, high-paid drivers, most of whom got to the top of the sport through NASCAR Dads.

In short, it ain’t like it used to be, including the emphasis on safety.

One can also make arguments about baseball being out of step with the times. Young people no longer spend their summers playing Little League. Fans have to pay for autographs from the swells earning millions. Baseball with its horsehide balls, base paths and green fields is a fantasy from rural, agrarian America whose pace doesn’t fit modern times. Specifically, the games take too long and outcomes are lopsided, making the whole process too languid.

Are football’s recent troubles with protests over the National Anthem a tipping point that was just waiting to happen? Is it, too, out of step with the times? Emerging out of an industrial America, football is a game played with large groups of strong men working together like on an assembly line or forging steel. One could argue the game is out of step with the computer-driven service economy, polarized politics and an age of individual entitlement, which now manifests itself in taking a knee during the Anthem.

On the one hand, yes, these three major leagues of professional sports are not like they used to be and that can be a major turn-off for fans in the older generation. But I am persuaded that the major American professional sports endure because they carry values forward from past times (that phrase again) and have a certain romantic appeal about them for that reason. It’s been at least a century, for example, since America was a rural society. But the downturn in baseball after years of steady growth is a much more recent phenomenon – and it coincides with what’s happening in other sports.

Beside the fact they ain’t like they used to be, from my perspective the only real link between the recent downturns in fortunes for football, baseball and stock car racing is the noticeable decline in interest by fans in live professional sports, either through watching them on TV, on a computer, or taking the time to go see an event. They may still be fans and keep up with the sport, even if they are lapsed from the classic model of “fanatics”. But they aren’t showing up as frequently in live ratings or in seats.

Apparently, there is a contextual lifestyle problem resulting from so much access to information via computers and devices. The attraction of following the action live, in person or otherwise, for extended periods is past its prime. If the future continues to fall under this shadow, it poses tough questions about the decline in revenue streams for organizers, team owners, those hosting contests in stadia and their electronic media partners.

Why has this change been more exacerbated and why did it arrive sooner and more abruptly in NASCAR than the NFL and the Major Leagues?

Beyond the Great Recession having an outsized effect, racing fans in general tend to be more like checkered flags – black and white in their world view. If it’s not like it used to be, they’re more likely to turn it off. Plus, the resentment toward City Hall, i.e. “the people in charge”, has been evident in the attitudes of drivers, team owners and fans alike since the dawn of racing.

These days, there’s a lot of this resentment towards those in charge (“Drain the Swamp”). This same attitude seems to manifest itself in a disdain for the current version of NASCAR, which is more dependent than other major league sports on the white working-class demographic. (But the supposedly more highbrow FIA has its populist revolt, too. There’s a constant disdainful barrage of criticism directed at the World Championship about changes in equipment and the emphasis on safety.)

In NASCAR, the good news is that Fox Sports and NBC Sports bet big time on the sanctioning body’s various series with their current 10-year contracts. They bet on NASCAR to help them build their new cable sports channels. Those TV execs didn’t see the change in attitudes toward live sports any better than the rest of us – and they can’t blame NASCAR for it. Part of the decline in ratings, in fact, is due to putting more events on lesser established cable channels. But unless there’s a doomsday element to these long-term contracts with the networks, NASCAR has five years to figure out how to go forward in a different kind of sports age, starting in 2024.

This is a long way around toward saying the decision by one championship team owner in NASCAR to quit – a guy who’s always been brilliant but slightly eccentric – is not the end of the world. I wouldn’t rank it with the departure of Junior Johnson & Associates and certainly not with the year Petty Enterprises shut down. In a nutshell, the money available from sponsors reflects the TV ratings and does not cover costs. Barney Visser’s team won the trophy he was looking for last year shortly after his heart surgery. Not unlike a generation of driving stars, he’s chosen to retire as a team owner while his personal health and his financial health are still intact.

The demise of Furniture Row Racing remains a strong signal about the work sports executives everywhere have in front of them if the funds from TV contracts and ticket sales continue to wane along with advertising and sponsor values. The scope of the trend across three major league sports – where competition by most standards is outstanding among extraordinary athletes – indicates it’s not likely to change.

Sports, oddly enough, are beginning to return to their status as pastimes, something fans do when they’re not busy doing something else.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, September 13 2018
One Comment

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  • salb says:

    Another contribution to the decline in racing attendance and ratings is that the younger generation no longer has the romance with cars that many of us grew up with. Many people no longer even have a driver’s license. With the computerized cars, you no longer have guys wrenching on their cars in the driveway…you need a computer engineer to do that now. The connection to cars was always a strong one with Nascar especially. Once you lose that, what’s left?