Baseball is a dying sport. Even if it’s not.
NASCAR is a fading sport. Maybe it’s the one dying.
On Saturday night, Game 1 of the ALCS went head-to-head with a key race in NASCAR’s ill-fated version of playoffs. There was no college football on broadcast, though Johnny Football and Texas A&M attracted a good sized audience to ESPN. NBC and CBS ran re-runs.
It was MLB vs. NASCAR. And NASCAR lost. Badly. By 40 % in the key demo of 18 to 49 year olds. By more than 1.2 million viewers. The notion that baseball’s audience is old and shrinking may be accurate to a point.
But it’s still way more popular than NASCAR. How did this happen?
If it feels like NASCAR has taken a precipitous drop from the nation’s collective sport consciousness, you’d be right. Things have become so dire that ESPN and TNT were willing to forego the final year of their TV contract with the sport to let Fox and NBC – both desperate for programming on their fledging cable networks, Fox Sports 1 and NBCSN – televise it in 2014. NASCAR balked at whatever the terms of the deal were.
The sport is looking over the abyss and it’s only going to get worse next year, with 2 of the 3 broadcasters – Fox still airs the first half of the season – anxious to walk away.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In its 10th year, NASCAR’s <insert sponsor title> Chase for the Cup has provided the exact sort of bump the PGA has received from the FedEx Cup. That is to say – none.
The Chase for the Cup was a horrible overreaction to Matt Kenseth cruising to the 2003 series championship. “There was no drama,” people said. “Kenseth was a boring winner,” people cried. “Things need to change,” the NASCAR offices heard.
And thus was born the Chase for the Cup. It was supposed to ratchet up interest in the sport despite the annual autumn onslaught of college football, pro football and the MLB playoffs. It was supposed to provide incentive to win races. It was supposed to eliminate the cries of “boring” that permeated through the NASCAR community in 2003.
The Chase for the Cup isn’t the reason why NASCAR is a fading sport. It is merely a symptom of the problem.
For a solid 10 years, NASCAR has slowly whittled away at the pillars of what made the sport the cultural phenomenon it became in the early 2000s, after Fox and NBC first jumped on board and elevated the story from niche cable programming to a weekly broadcast standard.
The tracks that served as the foundation for the sport? Gone, replaced by cookie cutter 1.5 mile tracks that all look, feel and race the same.
The personalities that drove the moonshinin’ vibe? Gone, reduced to mere spats by an overreaching sanctioning body eager to squash any potential beefs.
The “boys will be boys” mantra and the “if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’” garage standards completely erased.
The technology of the cars – including the tremendously terrible Car of Tomorrow – has left NASCAR looking more and more like an IndyCar race. And if you’ve watched any IndyCar lately, though ratings would indicate that would only be me, you’d see that IndyCar is looking a lot more like NASCAR and its drivers, like Will Power, acting more like the NASCAR drivers of yesteryear.
In essence, NASCAR has lost its soul. Instead of trying to find it, it’s trying to fool the public. There have been talks around shortening races – as if an extra 100 miles of racing is the problem, not the 300 unexciting miles before that. There was even a suggestion on Twitter that NASCAR officials are open to Monday night racing, further divorcing itself from its roots.
Through all of this, it is rather shocking that NASCAR officials refuse to address any of the issues that are at the core of the sport and at the core of why the casual fan – like the guy typing this blog post – has left the sport in droves.
At the top of the list is the quality of the racing. There is no more bumping and rubbing. There are no more doorhandle to doorhandle duels. The cars are too good, the drivers are too good and the crews are too good, which is all too bad. Cars driving in circle is not what I was drawn to NASCAR for.
The commercialization has always been there in the sport, but it has been taken to such dizzying heights that the line between reality and satire are blurred. I tried to watch the Pepsi 400 on TNT over the summer. I couldn’t. It felt like there was a commercial every 8 laps. I don’t care if the race is still on in a little box in the corner – I don’t need to be inundated with ads.
As part of the commercialization is the drone of commercialized drivers that are trained to spit out six sponsors before answering a question about what it’s like to win the Daytona 500. Imagine if LeBron James thanked Nike first after winning the NBA title?
Then there is the length of the NASCAR season, stretching from February to November – even Bud Selig thinks that schedule is a bit intense.
Most importantly, the Chase of the Cup has actually exceeded what the FedEx Cup has done for the PGA Tour – and that’s not a good thing. While the FedEx Cup exists, the notion of winning a golf tournament still far outweighs accumulating points. Tiger Woods is not judged by “series titles,” but how many tournaments he wins and how many majors. When the FedEx Cup tournaments roll around, there is a heightened sense of excitement because all the best players are playing in the same tournament.
NASCAR has that every week. So all the Chase for the Cup does is switch the focus – from the first race on – from who wins to where people finish. How many Daytona 500s has Jimmie Johnson won? How many Cup titles? I can answer the latter, but not the former.
And that, my friends, is the heart of the matter. Man, did I bury the lead again? The fact is, NASCAR is no longer about who wins the races.
When you watch Tiger Woods play golf, it doesn’t matter if he finishes third or seventh or last – it matters if he won or lost. That’s the drama. That’s the hook. That’s the excitement.
In NASCAR, it does matter – far too much – if Jimmie Johnson finished 7th or 8th. That’s not exciting. That’s not why people watch sports.
Until NASCAR puts the proper focus on winning races, and not gobbling up points, it will continue its steep, steady decline from relevance.
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