What to Do About the Slump?

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NASCAR Officials Work Furiously to Combat Declining Numbers

Declining attendance at NASCAR tracks have mirrored the drop in U.S. television ratings since 2007.

On July 25th, at the biggest sports arena on earth, NASCAR’s biggest challenge reflected off metal seats and distorted the perception of one of its signature races.

The Brickyard 400’s race report estimated attendance at 140,000, which was widely considered generous by many of those present. That total, while considerable, was 40,000 less than the year before and 130,000 less than 2007.

The decline of NASCAR’s annual visit to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which boasts 257,000 seats, immediately became a ubiquitous symbol of stock car racing’s malaise.

Indy wasn’t alone. NASCAR’s own attendance estimates fell from the previous year in 15 of the first 20 races and rose in only three. (The first Pocono and second Daytona races listed identical estimates.) Average attendance declined by 10,000, from 112,000 in the first 20 races of 2009 to 102,000 in the current season. Attendance has declined 15 percent since 2007.

The second front in NASCAR’s struggles is television viewership. In the U.S., Sprint Cup ratings were lower than 2008 in each of the first 19 races and lower than 2009 in 15 of them. Fox, which televised the first 13 races, received overall ratings that were off 6 percent, while TNT, over the next six, declined by nearly 12 percent (as measured
by ratings points).

The decline isn’t strictly reflected in numbers. The perception is that NASCAR’s response has failed to halt a pattern that The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was slightly more than half full for the last Brickyard 400.began at least five years ago. After decades of steady growth by almost every measure, first the graphs flattened and then they curved downward.

Where once they had a master plan, now NASCAR’s top officials are redrawing the sport on the fly.

Ticket prices have been slashed at many tracks. Tracks whose management once seemed arbitrary and unfeeling are now announcing cooperative programs with nearby hotels to roll back price gouging. News releases read like department-store advertisements.

Another noticeable change is in the racing itself. Within the past year, NASCAR has shifted its attention from tracks and cars to “rules of engagement.” Three fundamental changes have been made in the rules. A fourth major change is informal.

“It’s not for us,” said four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon. “It’s for the people in the grandstands and the people at home.”

Proponents say the changes have enlivened the racing, particularly near the end of events. Opponents say it’s all tricked up. So far, a measureable uptick in attendance and ratings has yet to take place.

During the 2009 season, a so-called “double-file restarts” rule was implemented. In the past, the restarts, until the final 10 laps, were technically double-file, but the contenders were in one line, with lapped cars in the other. The new rule placed the field in running order at the end of each yellow-flag period, the same as at the beginning of the race. Since the change made it virtually impossible for those lapped cars to race their way back on to the lead lap, a controversial “wave-around rule” was added. Provided all the leaders pitted under caution, the rule gave tail-enders a chance to regain a lost lap by staying on the track and passing up a stop.

Assuming the intent of the rule to be increased action, it’s worked. It has also produced more crashes.

“I didn’t expect anything any different when it was implemented,” said Gordon. “Fifty percent of the guys out there are going to like it; 50 percent of them are going to hate it.

“It changes how we have to race one another. We have to pick and choose how aggressive we’re going to be, whether you’re on the inside or outside. … It’s exciting, man. It’s putting on a heck of a show.”

One unforeseen consequence has been the sameness of races. Each race seems to follow a similar pattern. After an opening flourish, everything seems to settle into relative calm until the end approaches. Then it’s one caution flag after another, which is related to the second principal change: the overtime finish.

Jeff Gordon believes that rule changes are inevitable and drivers will have to adjust.One attempt at a so-called “green-white-checkered finish” has been in place since 2004. If a crash happened during the two mandated overtime laps (past the scheduled distance), the race was over. The new rule, announced just days before the Daytona 500, provided for a potential three tries. During the first half of the Cup regular season, only one race (April 25 at Talladega, won by Kevin Harvick) required three tries to complete the race, though another (March 7 at Atlanta, won by Kurt Busch) stretched 16 laps past the scheduled distance.

“In years past, the leader would have taken the yellow, won the race and it would have been done,” said Busch. “Then it would have gone to a ‘greenwhitecheckered.’ Now we’ve gone to multiple ‘greenwhitecheckereds.’ You have to adjust to, no matter what the circumstances are, win these races, no matter…old tires, new tires, you name it.”

NASCAR made a notable change in its generic car, originally known as the COT, or “Car of Tomorrow.” One of the design’s unique aspects had been a wing on the rear deck lid, commonly used in other forms of motorsports but never used previously in NASCAR. Beginning at Martinsville, on March 29, the simpler spoiler was brought back as the device of choice.

“I think NASCAR changed it because the fans didn’t like the look or the appearance, more than the driver,” said driver Greg Biffle. “I really felt they did double-file restarts because the fans love that action on the restart.”

Regarding the wing, Biffle opined, “They (NASCAR) got a lot of criticism, like ‘It doesn’t look like a stock car. We want a spoiler back on it.’ NASCAR consulted us on what our opinion was, and we thought we were OK with the spoiler and thought the car might be better with the spoiler, so they pursued that and obviously determined to put it back on the car, but I think it was driven from the fans and the popularity. That’s what people want to see.”

The most important change, though, was intangible. NASCAR officials decided to back off in policing behaviour on the track. After a misnamed “town meeting” – town meetings, after all, are open to the public – NASCAR officials announced that drivers could best police themselves. Secure in the safety of the new car, competition vice president Robin Pemberton and president Mike Helton encouraged drivers to race harder – the most commonly used quote was the phrase “have at it, boys” – and not worry about penalties for rough driving.

According to Helton’s milder description, NASCAR decided to “lighten up on the competitors to allow their character to unfold more than the way we had forced it to do based on keeping a scorecard.”

Oh, it unfolded, all right.

Drivers Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski escalated a personal war that began a year earlier. First Edwards received a three-race “probation” (it’s difficult to ascertain The rash of green-white-checkered finishes, there's even more pressure to get the strategy right during final pit stops.exactly what that status means), then, after he intentionally wrecked Keselowski in a retaliatory move in a Nationwide Series race, both drivers were placed on probation until season’s end. Teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon have feuded. A crash involving Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano spilled over into a post-race confrontation that involved Logano’s livid father, Tom. After round two of this year’s Edwards-Keselowski contretemps, Bob Keselowski, the driver’s father accused Edwards of “trying to kill my son.” Even Jeff Burton, the most unflappable of Sprint Cup drivers went ballistic over the tactics of Kyle Busch.

NASCAR president Brian France called it “a contact sport.”

“We’ve got the best racing in the world,” he added, “and what are the things we can do to make it better? What are the things we can do to open it up a little bit?”

NASCAR has opened up more than a little, but if the goal is to turn around the downturn in attendance and ratings, no noteworthy progress has been discernible. Quite the reverse, in fact.

On June 26, 2008, France told a national meeting of Association Press Sports Editors (APSE), “Our fan base is growing not only nationally but internationally. We have drivers who are now legitimate superstars, recognizable to both race fans and sports fans in general. We feel like our popularity distinguishes us from many other sports.”

A little more than two years later, on July 2, 2010, France talked about the slump in terms of “a lot of reasons, a lot of issues.”

“Still,” he added, “there are 14, 15 million people a weekend tuning us in. We’re a sport that looks way down the road. In a pocket of the economy or other challenges, that’s our job to get through those.”

NASCAR officials contend that the slump is mostly related to the economy, citing the results of studies with fan councils and focus groups. Yet, at the same time, they are apparently on the verge of announcing new changes in the 2011 Sprint Cup schedule and the Chase format that annually determines the champion.

Behind the scenes, even as France and others contend that all is well, an air of desperation seems obvious, given the dizzying array of recent changes. In truth, the sport’s recession is understated when viewed only through a 15-percent decline in attendance or a 12-percent fall in viewership. Costs for teams are spiraling even as officials pay lip service to reducing them. Revenues are sagging. Though imprecise – numbers are difficult to track down amid all the “estimates” – it’s probably fair to note that lower attendance coupled with lower ticket prices have led to a revenue decline in the neighbourhood of 30 percent over the last three years.

The recent pattern for reacting to tough times involves almost constant change. France and those around him – most notably Helton and Pemberton – are committed to change and dispute any suggestion that perhaps too much has changed already. A fan base that is in at least mild decline suggests that some are growing alienated and disillusioned.

A fan from Ormond Beach, Fla., George Murphy, wrote after the Brickyard 400, “The bloom is definitely off the rose. … One thing is sure, however. No matter the outcome of the race, there will be as many headlines about the empty seats as the racing. I have been a racing fan for 30 years and have never seen as many empty grandstand seats at a Cup race.”

Speculation is rampant that the slumping U.S. economy will prompt big changes for the 2011 schedule and the Chase format. Another, David Qualkenbush of Huntingburg, Ind., added, “The length of the races may also be a factor in some cases. When the race leader has ‘checked out,’ it’s often nothing more than a ‘follow the leader,’ long afternoon for fans and viewers. In the lengthy Cup races, often times the fans and the TV audience can nap until the last 50 laps or so. The prospect of ‘the big one’ (crash) in those final laps sometimes just isn’t enough to keep the TV audience tuned in. Or, better yet, they record the event and fast-forward to the end.”

“Another thing is the overall economy. Many have tightened their belts to just get by, leaving little money for entertainment like NASCAR. Meanwhile, the lodging around any race venue continues to go up in price. Many businesses view a NASCAR venue as a cash cow and are more than ready to milk the last drop out of the fans.”

“NASCAR is a great sport, but there are some things other than letting the drivers crash each other to make it more interesting for the paying fans,” he concluded.

Perhaps NASCAR would be wise to heed that oft-used political slogan: “Stay the course.” Or the common response by ship captains facing rough seas: “Ride it out.”

The number of empty seats at this year’s Brickyard 400 was striking. According to NASCAR, the Speedway was slightly more than half full.

Given the prevalence of green-white-checkered finishes, making the right calls in the pits late in races is crucial to a team’s success.

Gordon believes all of the changes are being driven by the fans. Bottom line: drivers have to adjust.

Although NASCAR believes its slump is mostly due to the struggling U.S. economy, speculation is rampant that big changes to the schedule and the Chase format are in store for 2011.

“Proponents say the changes have enlivened the racing, particularly near the end of events. Opponents say it’s all tricked up. so far, a measureable uptick in attendance and ratings has yet to take place.”

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