Sunday, July 17, 2016

NASCAR's Attendance Wanes as Baton Is Passed to New Generation

Watching a NASCAR Sprint Cup race on TV paints a very grim picture.  The stands, even in the most hardcore raceways, are typically at least half-empty.  Races at Bristol (a track that once boasted 55-consecutive sell-outs) now struggle to fill half of the 160,000 capacity stadium.  Today's race at Loudon, NH was another prime example where it appeared that two out of every three seats was empty.  Faced with the negative publicity of declining attendance, NASCAR stopped publishing attendance records in 2012, so we'll never know the official totals.

Analysts have been searching for answers since the decline started in the 2008 recession, and when it comes to TV viewership and in-person track attendance, there's a lot of credence to what they are claiming.

  • Many of the familiar big-name drivers are no longer racing.  Certainly the semi-retirement of Wild Bill Elliott - a 16-time winner of the Most Popular Driver award - hurt viewership, as did last year's retirement of Jeff Gordon, another fan favorite.   Still, with the popularity of some of this year's rookies and the extremely high popularity of fan-favorite Danica Patrick, the changing of the racing guard is a minor part of the overall story.
  • Cost is often cited as the primary reason attendance is down, although the price of tickets isn't the actual problem.  The cost of travel to the oftentimes very remote track locations, and lodging in and around the tracks have skyrocketed.  Even the most die-hard fans have had enough and have significantly cut back on the number of races they attend.  That's not conjecture, it's based on fan surveys that reveal a consistent downward trend.
  • TV coverage has increasingly become three-hours of commercials interspersed with a few laps of racing.  In today's coverage on NBC, as a prime example, 3 of the cautions occurred while on a commercial.  The picture-in-picture NBC uses during commercials late in the race mitigates it some, however without audio you've really no idea why the caution came out or what drama is occurring on the track to cause it.  Commercial TV is rapidly becoming the bane of all sports, not just NASCAR, and the media that once vaulted professional sports to coveted positions will ultimately cause their downfall.
  • The average NASCAR fan is aging, and the Millennials are not embracing the sport in a traditional fashion.  By "traditional," we mean they are not interested in attending in person, nor are they interested in watching the sport on TV.  More on that later, however, as it doesn't tell the full story.
  • Ever-changing rules and equipment packages are driving away many of the hard-core fans.  Most - if not all - of the changes are coming via consultation with the drivers, but it would behoove NASCAR to remember that it's the fans, not the drivers, that pay for the sport.  If the fans don't like the changes, how thrilled the drivers may be with them is irrelevant.  A great example of that is the fiasco that was this year's All-Star race.  The format was designed primarily by Brad Keselowski, but required a degree in advanced statistical analysis to understand what was going to happen next.  The fans hated it, and the never bashful Tony Stewart vented his frustration with the format on national TV.
  • The at-track experience was changed to the detriment of the fans.  A single merchandise tent has replaced entire midways of souvenir haulers, and much of the pre-race entertainment such as the popular Sprint Experience and Fox's NASCAR Raceday TV stage have likewise been eliminated.
Clearly, NASCAR has some soul-searching to do, and with the contract with Sprint expiring this year, that soul-searching had best occur quickly.  NASCAR is hoping to make a sponsorship announcement this fall, although they've started circulating the thought that there might be multiple sponsors for 2017, not just one.  Attendance and TV ratings cannot be helping the negotiations any.

This brings us back to the Millennials.  Certainly, they are the future of any sport, not just NASCAR, which means a different form of engagement as well as different measurements for success are required.  As an example, Fox Sports 1 reported a 2.27 rating for adults over 50, beating even "Game of Thrones" for that demographic.  On the flip side, however, they only experienced a 0.71 rating for adults 18 to 49, which turns out to be a fourth place tie with "Keeping up with the Kardashians." 

That doesn't mean, however, that Millennials are not following the sport.  Thus far this year, they've had over 92 million fan engagements on sites like Twitter and Facebook.  They've also had over 2 billion social impressions, a measure of how many times specific content has been viewed.  NASCAR is also expanding the amount of streaming content live during a race, including options to dynamically switch to various in-car cameras throughout the race.  Options to stream content on mobile devices are now available and becoming widely accepted.

NASCAR is also trying to increase fan participation.  At a couple of events, for instance, they held a red carpet introduction for the drivers with fans - including a lot of kids - packed along the runway.  Drivers shook hands with the fans and tossed out souvenirs (typically hats or t-shirts) as they walked the carpet.  It's a great idea, and does wonders for promoting the sport with the younger generation.

The question remains, will it be enough?  Those empty seats are depressing for even the most ardent fan, and at the end of the day, sponsors want to know how much exposure they are getting for their rather expensive advertising dollars.  As the sport transitions from live attendance and TV viewership to a dynamic streaming experience, they also need to figure out how to do so in a manner that satisfies the sponsors.  Let's face it, without fans or sponsors, there is no sport.  NASCAR's day of reckoning may well be approaching.

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