Sports are changing, none faster than NASCAR, in race for new fans

  • Cars drive past a nearly empty stand during the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in July 2015. AP file

  • Kyle Larson raises his arms after exiting his car after winning a NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race, Sunday, June 18, 2017, in Brooklyn, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio) Carlos Osorio—AP

  • Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been voted NASCAR’s most popular driver every year going back to 2003. What does his retirement mean for the sport? AP

  • Brad Keselowski watches cars during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup auto race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H., Friday, July 12, 2013. Keselowski won the pole. (AP Photo/Cheryl Senter) Cheryl Senter—AP

  • Tony Stewart looks on during driver introductions for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Phoenix International Raceway, Sunday, Nov. 13, 2016, in Avondale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso) Ralph Freso—AP

  • Sprint Cup Series driver Jeff Gordon (88) greets fans during driver introductions for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Martinsville Speedway in Martinsville, Va., Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Helber) Steve Helber—AP

  • Carl Edwards speaks to the media during a news conference at Joe Gibbs Racing in Huntersville, N.C., Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017. Edwards announced he was stepping away from racing. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton) Chuck Burton—AP

Monitor staff
Published: 6/25/2017 10:48:59 PM

In one corner of the NFL offseason, a discussion has taken place on the celebration antics of players in the end zone and beyond. Yellow flags leapt from the fists of officials across the league in the 2016-17 season. Now, the league says officials will lighten up on these calls. Personality is good and it’s necessary for keeping fans entertained in the modern age of 10-second clips and soundbites. But the NFL doesn’t have to worry about ratings.

Baseball feels the urgency to secure its group of fans while attracting new ones. We’re talking about pitch clocks, ties, limiting mound visits, replays, changing the way extra innings are played. In a game where time is meant to be suspended for nine innings (or more), the league is consumed in finding a way to shave mere minutes away and hold onto the attention of viewers.

As for racing, it has never commanded the attention of Americans coast to coast like football or baseball. But pro auto racing, too, is concerned with viewership and capturing the interest of new fans.

While baseball contemplates changing the game to get more eyeballs, NASCAR already has by implementing stage racing and creating a playoff format that is always at risk of being tweaked again.

The constant changes have turned off some fans.

“It doesn’t have the same good feeling it used to have,” one longtime fan from Missouri told USA Today last year. “We’ve just lost interest in NASCAR. NASCAR has lost interest in us.”

Auto racing peaked in popularity in the latter half of the 2000s. In 2005, TV ratings were rapidly climbing and Fortunenamed NASCAR “America’s Fastest Growing Sport.” Sponsors flocked to make their brands visible on the cars, on the walls and as the presenting sponsor of the races. The seats were filled. Fans at the track and at home were happy. All was well.

And then the nation entered a recession. Families did not have the extra cash to spend on a weekend trip to the speedway or a night out at the ballpark. Ratings began to dip, as did live attendance.

Nearly 10 years have passed since the financial crisis began – plenty of time for fans to completely change the way sports are watched and news is consumed. Sports, simply, are playing catchup.

Soon enough, a cable subscription won’t be your only key to live sports. Last year, the NFL experimented with live streaming games on Twitter. This fall, you can watch Thursday Night Football with an Amazon Prime subscription.

The massive business operation behind pro sports is focused on enhancing the experience for fans attending a live game – new facilities, better food, a bigger jumbotron, live entertainment, internet access to check in on your fantasy team. It’s happening in our backyard, right up Route 106 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where earlier this month the North East Motor Sports Museum opened its doors. At the opening, NHMS General Manager and Vice President David McGrath said “it’s these kinds of facilities” that will be the future of the speedway. He added that a casino could be in store for the property if state law ever allowed it.

New Hampshire isn’t the only track that’s seen a decline in attendance, as evidenced by several empty rows in the stands when NASCAR last came through Loudon in September. It is happening across NASCAR and the venues it visits. What does the auto racing body need to attract new fans and retain the ones who keep tuning in? It comes down to the drivers.

NASCAR has hit a snag in that area with two of the sport’s most popular drivers, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, retiring over the last two seasons. Carl Edwards, another fan favorite, stunned the racing community when he announced in January that he would not race this year. Edwards, though, has hinted that he may return and has avoided the word “retirement” at every turn.

When Dale Earnhardt Jr. retires at the end of this year, it will be the third straight season NASCAR has lost at least one superstar. There has been a lot of talk about the “young guns” of racing this year, namely Erik Jones, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Daniel Suarez and Kyle Larson. Suarez, 25, is the oldest of the group, and Larson is having the best season with two wins, six poles and seven top-five finishes this year. He was atop the Cup standings heading into Sunday’s race at Sonoma, where he was the pole winner on Saturday.

New England racer turned ESPN analyst Ricky Craven told the Monitor earlier this month that the onus shouldn’t be on these young drivers to keep sport interesting.

“I think we do need drivers to retain those fans, but I think the burden lies squarely on the shoulders of (Kevin) Harvick and (Matt) Kenseth, drivers that have a few years left, Brad Keselowski, they’re legitimate,” Craven said. “These are guys that can battle for championships. What we need from the young guys are new fans. Fans that wouldn’t ordinarily pay to come here. That’s what we need.”

New channels, same racing

Last weekend at Sonoma marks the final race of the season to be aired by Fox. NBC picks up the schedule from here with races alternating between the main network channel and NBC Sports Network. The Coke Zero 400 at Daytona on Saturday will air on NBC beginning at 7:30 p.m.

(Nick Stoico can be reached at 369-3339, or on Twitter @NickStoico.)

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