NASCAR searching for fans in shift from Chase to playoffs – Orlando Sentinel
NASCAR drivers and officials have replaced the preseason Word of the Day. The traditional echo chamber involved the word “exciting.” It is now “moments.”
That’s what everybody is looking for as the 2017 season begins in a few weeks at Daytona. The changes are significant, from a new title sponsor for the Cup Series (Monster Energy) to a new-fangled playoff format that has been met with mixed reviews.
It’s a bit complicated, but the gist of it involves breaking down each race into three stages, with the hopes of enhancing competitive “moments” throughout the 36-race season.
But there’s another significant word in the mix, even if it involves the fine print in the rollout announcement last weekend in Charlotte:
Eyeballs. In the stands. In front of the TV screen.
NASCAR is struggling with a shrinking audience. It’s anecdotal but very obvious at the tracks (because NASCAR does not release attendance figures). It’s plainly clear in the TV numbers, from beginning to end.
Ratings for the Daytona 500 in 2016 almost reached a record-low despite the closest finish in race history. The 6.6 rating and 11.4 million viewers on FOX were down 14 percent in ratings and 15 in viewership from the previous year.
Ratings for the championship finale in Homestead broadcast on NBC saw a 25 percent dip over a year ago despite a dramatic race won by Jimmie Johnson on the final lap.
Most major sports are struggling with the same optics as more fans are content with their high-definition front-row seat on their cozy couch. But NASCAR is caught in unique crosshairs, trying to find a balance between hard-core fans not happy with the changes and a younger audience that is hip to embrace new things.
No matter how it plays out, NASCAR got to where it is today because there was a squeeze from its TV partners — FOX and NBC Sports – to shake things up from the old (or was it the new?) Chase format.
“It’s fair to say that it was driven by the industry,” said Jeff Burton, a retired NASCAR driver and now an analyst with NBC Sports. “It’s vital for television for the stands to be full. There’s a misconception that TV doesn’t care about the stands being full. That’s completely opposite.
“The real truth is that TV wants the stands to be full because that means there is a passion about the sport. The tracks want TV ratings to be awesome because it means that there’s a passion for the sport. They both want and need each other to be successful.”
No one really knows how it could play out. That’s obvious given the extremes on both sides — from “fantastic” to “please kill me now.” But it will be a game-changer one way or the other.
“I think change is hard,” said Cup driver Jamie McMurray. “I had a phone conversation with a friend who is involved with NASCAR and he was on the same page: ‘How can you be upset about it if you haven’t tried it yet?’ ”
We’ll give it a whirl in a few weeks, and see if it passes the smell test, or better yet, the eyeballs one.
Earnhardt and immigration
“America is created by immigrants.”
Trump’s executive order suspending immigration from seven majority Muslim countries is not playing well to a broader audience with different values, despite likely support from a NASCAR fan base that traditionally skews conservative.
Earnhardt’s comments came in response to a recent tweet directed at him by @GelarBudidarma, who identified himself as Muslim.
“my fam immigrated from Germany in 1700s escaping religious persecution. America is created by immigrants,” Earnhardt tweeted.
“thank you for speaking up, I know a lot of folks in the country look up to you,” @GelarBudidarma (who is from Bandung, Indonesia) tweeted back.
It is not the salvo to end salvos, but Earnhardt’s voice definitely matters. He has been voted NASCAR’s most popular driver 14 years in a row, even despite missing half of last season with concussion-related symptoms.
He also has 1.9 million Twitter followers.
Earnhardt’s views are his own and aren’t reflective of the entire NASCAR Nation. Brian France, NASCAR’s top executive, endorsed Trump during the presidential campaign, drawing criticism in a sport that has made diversity a priority.
France, NASCAR’s chairman and CEO, said at the time: “He wins with his family. Any of his children, you’d be proud of have them as part of your family. That’s how I judge a winner, how somebody manages their family and raises their family.”
Other NASCAR stars, including retired driver Mark Martin, also endorsed Trump.
Earnhardt’s New Year’s Eve wedding to Amy Reimann got a lot of pub, understandably so, but kudos to Kurt Busch for rockin’ it when he tied the knot.
Anybody else have Steve Tyler from Aerosmith play at your wedding?
“It was epic,” Busch said last week during the NASCAR Media Tour. “I’m still on that cloud enjoying that with my wife, Ashley. We wanted it as a surprise for everybody, so we had a curtain in front of the stage area and when the curtain dropped, everybody like, ‘Wow, that’s a awesome tribute band. They look great. No, no, he’s starting to sound like Steven Tyler.’
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