ANDY CAGLE: Loyalty Isn't NASCAR's Strong Suit
As NASCAR gets ready to crown its 2006 Nextel Cup Champion -- and with Jimmie Johnson the poster boy for what NASCAR has become, it has to make the organization happy -- there are some storm clouds a-brewing.
This is definitely the type of stuff that you won't see plastered all over NASCAR.com over the coming weeks -- or ever -- but the sport, after 15 years of meteoric growth, has sputtered in 2006. It's not been quite like a Morgan Sheppard sputter, but more like a Ken Schrader sputter.
I'm not going to pretend that I have done all of the research into the subject, but there was a great article in USA Today this week chronicling the dwindling TV ratings and the lagging attendance figures. In the article Brian France admits that there is a bit of a "lull" in the sport's growth.
The TV deal that NASCAR signed with ESPN, Fox and TNT that starts next year was well below what analysts had predicted for the sport. The article cites a number of economic indicators (rising interest rates and gas prices and a sagging housing market) as being problematic for NASCAR's fan base and precludes them from shelling out the bucks to make a trip to a NASCAR race.
That's all a bit above my head -- I'm just an ol' country boy -- but I predicted this "lull" several years ago and I don't think it has a whole lot to do with economics, even though NASCAR loves to cite the "economics" of every decision they make, including the markets that they are trying to move into.
It has a lot to do with loyalty, or lack there of. NASCAR, over the past decade, has shown absolutely no loyalty to its traditional fan base and, as a result, its traditional fan base has shown no loyalty to NASCAR. NASCAR is not able to replace those fans with a new breed of fans that are as rabid for the sport as the ones that they pushed away.
And, yes, I'm going to get on my Wilkesboro/Rockingham/Darling-ton soapbox again.
The bottom line is that in the markets that NASCAR has targeted -- Los Angeles in particular -- the shine is off the apple. The novelty of cars going around making lefts has dissipated.
And what NASCAR is left with is some terrible racing.
By taking races from Wilkesboro and Rockingham and Darlington, NASCAR hurt itself twice -- once by alienating its traditional fan base and then again by killing its product.
I said when California got its second date that I give the track five years and it won't be able to sell out a NASCAR event because the people in the market will have moved on to the next "hot" thing.
I was wrong. It took only two years.
The casual fan -- that is one who hasn't followed the sport since they were really stock cars -- isn't going to watch boring racing. The diehard dyed-in-the-wool race fan will.
The problem for NASCAR is that the diehard fan was pushed out the door when they started racing in Chicago and LA and Kansas City and began looking at building tracks in Seattle and New York City and stopped racing in places like Darlington (on Labor Day) and Rockingham and North Wilkesboro.
I can't tell you how many people that I talk say, "I used to love NASCAR -- never missed a race -- but when they took the races from Rockingham and replaced them with those 'cookie-cutter' tracks, I quit watching NASCAR," or words to that effect. The comment is immediately followed by a phrase that always resembles this one: "The racing sucks."
NASCAR got caught up in an issue of demographics. It wanted to go where the money was without considering if the people with the money would spend it on NASCAR.
In the traditional fan base areas (the Southeast) the people with the money will spend it on NASCAR. So will the people who don't have a lot of money.
In the new areas, apparently, the people with the money haven't been willing to part with their dollars to buy the tickets, the T-shirts, the hats and the jackets.
The USA Today article questioned whether or not the "lull" would continue.
While I'm not predicting NHL-style doom-and-gloom for NASCAR, I'm going to say that it is going to continue.
The casual fan has moved on to Texas Hold 'Em or UFC or God knows what else and the traditional fan has been too slighted to rejoin the fold -- especially with the now subpar on-track product.
And I now have all off-season to talk about it.
Andy Cagle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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