NASCAR is in trouble.
The sport’s attendance and TV viewership numbers have been in a free fall for almost a decade. The lengthy list of reasons includes the Great Recession, the rise of cord-cutting, the comforts of home-viewing, confusing rule changes and the supposed political correctness of the drivers.
And even though Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 is a critical race in NASCAR’s playoffs, the crowd at Texas Motor Speedway won’t approach the 191,000 who turned out for the spring race 10 years ago.
Before the 2013 season, NASCAR announced that it would no longer provide attendance statistics. At the time, 21 of the 23 tracks were publicly owned by officials who didn’t want to release those numbers because they didn’t want to provide “earnings guidance.”
NASCAR has turned to its drivers, fans (the most brand-loyal in sports), and listened to criticism from the media to address the downward trend. They’re even willing to listen to one another.
Sam Flood, an executive at NBC, recalled conversations with NASCAR officials a year ago about how to get fans to stick with an entire race.
“The idea of stage racing came from these meetings,” he said. “To have all those groups come together I thought was a great signal of how the league works.”
Before the season, NASCAR introduced stages within the races for all three NASCAR series. The goal of the complex format was to reward drivers who were more aggressive during the regular season by presenting an opportunity to accrue points that would carry into the playoffs. That aggression would, in turn, provide more excitement for the fans.
“In the garage area, I think people think the format is better than it used to be ... the stage racing is better and has rewarded the better teams throughout the year,” said Kyle Larson, a NASCAR driver for Chip Ganassi Racing.
Some fans still need a bit more convincing.
“I don’t really care for the new format because when my driver blew out an engine last week he’s out of the playoffs, done,” said Steve Burns, a fan who customized his limousine for the weekend’s festivities at Texas Motor Speedway. “Some of the rules are just hard to keep up with.”
On television, the returns over the past 12 years have been disappointing. Entering the season, the sport had seen a 45 percent drop in viewers since 2005. In 2015, Fox and NBC took over the television rights from ESPN and TNT.
Fox’s ten-year, $3.8 billion contract gives it the rights to the first 14 regular season races of the season and three exhibition races. NBC’s 10-year, $4.4 billion deal gives it the rights to the final 20 races, including the 10 playoff races.
“This is one of those rare examples when both Fox and NBC have the same desire, which is for the other to succeed,” Flood said.
A significant challenge for the two new networks was to balance coverage to attract diehards, casual fans and potential new ones.
This year, NBC has tried innovative approaches. Former Olympian Ato Boldon was a contributor for several major races. Announcer Steve Letarte has called some races from the top of a pit box, similar to the network’s “Inside the Glass” coverage for the NHL.
For some, the strategies haven’t hit the mark.
“The NBC announcers talk too much,” said John McLaughlin, a long-time attendee of the races at Texas Motor Speedway. “It only takes so much. People have a basic intelligence, even the new fans can grasp what’s going on.”
Through 17 races this season, NBC’s race coverage is bringing in an average 3.3 million viewers, the same as a year ago.
At the tracks, executives have been open to suggestions. Attendance revenues at Texas Motor Speedway parent company Speedway Motorsports Inc. have fallen by more than half since 2008, from $188 million to $90.6 million in 2016.
Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage said the track has worked to make the races accessible and affordable. He cited improved traffic flow, free parking, increased fan amenities and lower ticket prices.
“We have to put on a great event,” Gossage said. “It’s why we do all the buildup with the pre-race activities and make it a major production, because we can’t affect what goes on between the green and the checkered flag.”
A fan council created in 2012 meets three times a year to make recommendations.
“Some things they talk about are outlandish and not realistic, because at the end of the day you still have to make business decisions that are sound,” Gossage said. “But we have taken their ideas and implemented them.”
NASCAR and the teams have grown their driver development programs the past several years. But, it’s too early to tell whether the rising stars such as Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson and Ryan Blaney will be as popular as Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
At TMS, fans made it clear they prefer brash drivers like Elliott, son of 1988 Cup champion Bill Elliott, over more laid-back drivers like Jimmie Johnson and Earnhardt.
“[Elliott] is a real person, he isn’t a phony. He’s got a really big heart and he’s committed to it,” said McLaughlin, the long-time fan. He then recalled the Martinsville race, when Elliott lost the lead after contact with Denny Hamlin.
“I wish he whooped Hamlin ... last weekend, but he’ll get there.”
Peter Dawson: 817-390-7657