For part 2 of this story, click here.
To read about how these problems can be fixed, click here.
NASCAR was once one of America‘s most popular sports. In the late ’90s and the early 2000s, NASCAR saw an unprecedented growth in popularity and TV ratings. NASCAR’s meteoric rise was fed by the rise of Jeff Gordon, whom many consider to be NASCAR’s first superstar, and the death of legend Dale Earnhardt Sr. However, in recent years that growth has slowed. Bland drivers, storylines, and racing have sent NASCAR’s TV ratings into a tailspin. They have also been responsible for steadily declining attendance at NASCAR races. NASCAR is in danger of fading into irrelevance if it does not do something to revitalize its growth and make it once again America’s fastest growing sport.
Over the past few years, multiple problems have beset NASCAR racing. Here are some of the biggest ones.
1. The rise of Jimmie Johnson
Jimmie Johnson has accomplished a feat no one ever thought possible. From 2006-2010, Johnson won five straight Sprint Cup Championships. His domination of the sport has actually been one of the main reasons for its decline. These five titles chases were some of the most boring in modern NASCAR history. Aside from 2007, in which Johnson was met with a stiff challenge from Jeff Gordon, and in 2010, when Johnson came from behind to beat Denny Hamlin for the title, all of Johnson’s title chases have been fairly boring. the outcome of the season was never in doubt. Like Dale Earnhardt’s domination of the sport in the early ’90s, and Jeff Gordon’s spate of championships from 1995-2001, Johnson’s winning streak should have been a boon for NASCAR–a fresh face on top of the sport. However, people have instead turned away form the sport because of Jimmie. Jimmie just isn’t that likable. He’s a wonderful person and a class act on the track, but he is not very charismatic or interesting. Jimmie is seen by many fans as having a corporate-molded persona. To them, Johnson is just one more slick average character in a sea of similar faces. Having such a bland person as the face of NASCAR is not what the sport needs. But with Jimmie, that’s what has happened.
2. Poor racing
The quality of NASCAR racing has declined in recent years. Fans and drivers alike have complained about new tracks and new cars that make it difficult to pass. Many argue that the quality of racing has declined–fans are now subjected to long periods of green flag racing where the drivers ride around the track in single files. Others complain about the tracks. Most of the tracks recently added to the NASCAR circuit have been 1.5 mile ovals. Critics have charged that these cookie cutter tracks are too similar and that all result in lethargic racing. Whatever the reason, the excitement in NASCAR has slowed, and that has been reflected by the drop-off in TV ratings.
But a lack of passing is not the only reason that fans have been turned away. Fuel mileage races, in which victory comes down to who can last the longest on a tank of gas rather than who drives the fastest, have become more and more common. In 2011, for example, virtually every single race on a 1.5 mile track came down to who could finish the race without running out of gas. Fuel mileage racing takes away the action associated with a race and adds a sense of boredom to what is normally the most exciting part of a race–the finish.
3. Bad broadcasting
Sometimes, when covering a sport, a good announcer can keep you on the the edge of your seat, completely engaged in what you’re watching, even if the event isn’t exactly a thriller. This has not been the case with NASCAR. NASCAR broadcasters, especially those on TNT, are known for providing decidedly dull coverage of races.
Let’s compare. In August 2012, I was watching a Formula 1 race, the Belgian Grand Prix. The race was won by Jenson Button, who led every lap and finished 13 seconds ahead of 2nd place Sebastian Vettel. The outcome was never in doubt. And yet, that Grand Prix was one of the most exciting races I’ve ever watched on TV. The camera crew was excellent, showing close ups of intense action and racing happening all around the track. The announcers were exciting, providing fast-paced calls and interesting color commentary.
Now let’s compare a NASCAR race on TNT–namely, last summer’s race at the Infineon Raceway, one of only two non-oval tracks on the NASCAR circuit. This broadcast epitomized the TV troubles NASCAR has been having. The announcers were uninteresting, spending more time discussing their new in-car cameras than they did actually talking about the racing. There were long pauses as they frequently contradicted each other as to what was going on during the race. At the same time they missed some great battles for position on the racetrack. The broadcast was bad. TNT turned a great race into a snoozer.
NASCAR has problems, and these problems are hurting its popularity. TV ratings are down. Ticket sales are down. Merchandise sales are down. NASCAR is down. But its not out. The sport can fix and recover from these problems. But it will have to make some major changes in order to survive. How can NASCAR come surging back? Stay tuned to find out.
To read Part 3, click here.