The fans of America’s two most popular sports skew older and lean conservative. So if protests are to blame for the NFL’s ratings erosion, what’s Nascar’s excuse?
The American couch potato has an insatiable appetite for sound and fury, and Sundays in the fall are a feeding frenzy. On one side of the dial there’s the NFL – the sport that doesn’t so much pit man against man as much as ram them together, over and over. On the other there’s Nascar, which takes those very mesmerizing bits of pro football – the speed, the collisions – and puts it all on wheels. For decades this split bill attracted crowds in droves. But now those crowds appear to be thinning.
The latest figures show NFL’s TV ratings are down 5.7% from last season. While in the grand scheme that’s hardly catastrophic for a product that outdraws everything on television by significant margins, the league’s owners are nonetheless sounding the alarm.
The players’ national anthem protest – which, just to remind everyone, is not meant to rebuke the armed forces but, rather, bring greater awareness to racial injustice – has made for a convenient scapegoat. Even commissioner Roger Goodell, whose early diplomatic tone on the issue landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated interlocked with LeBron James and Steph Curry, leans on that excuse now. “People come to our stadiums to have fun ... not to be protested to,” he said earlier this month.
Never mind that the NFL’s ratings problems run deeper than players kneeling during the anthem, which barely eats more than a minute of a broadcast that lasts at minimum three hours. In some ways the league set itself up for failure by committing so completely over the past decade to the rivalry between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, the latter of whom retired two seasons ago after helping the Denver Broncos to victory in Super Bowl 50. Two star QBs who could step into that breach, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Houston’s Deshaun Watson, are out with season-ending injuries. Thursday Night Football has proven to be a disastrous experiment, one that produces far more player injuries than actual entertainment. Meanwhile stories continue to emerge about the adverse effects football has on players’ long-term health. All of it makes the NFL that much more difficult to sit with.
Still, things could be worse for the NFL. It could be Nascar. A decade ago the sport emerged as an unlikely challenger to pro football’s small-screen primacy, attracting nearly 20 million viewers to the 2006 Daytona 500. But Nascar has lost more than 45% of its audience since then, according to Nielsen. What’s more, equally dismal live spectator figures have compelled some tracks to remove seats from their grandstands. Denny Hamlin, a star Nascar driver, has made his peace with this. “People with smartphones, they’re rewatching races in the back of their car going up the highway,” he said back in April. “You don’t have to attend these races anymore. You get such a good experience through your cellphone, so the way we measure attendance and we measure TV ratings and all that’s always skewed because we live in a different world now.”
Like the NFL, Nascar can’t trace its decline back to a single source. Certainly the global financial crisis, which hit the automotive industry especially hard, didn’t help. Nor has Nascar’s compulsion to change its rules, especially the ones the define how its championships are won, on a whim. Worst of all, the sport can’t seem to stop hemorrhaging star drivers. Two years ago it saw the retirements of Jeff Gordon (a five-time series champion), Tony Stewart (a three-time champ) and Carl Edwards (an oft-snakebitten contender). This year Matt Kenseth (the 2003 series champion), Dale Earnhardt Jr (Nascar’s most popular driver) and Danica Patrick (its iconic female trailblazer) will call time. Many of the drivers racing in their stead are young and lightly experienced. The hope is that this will appeal to millennial viewers, a demographic Nascar struggles to attract. A recent entitlement pact with Monster Energy – which has brought, among other things, its caffeine-stuffed drinks and sexually charged brand ambassadors to the track – has done little to alter that fact so far.
In the main Nascar patrons skew older and lean conservative. They’re not unlike their NFL counterparts in that way. Really, both fanbases seem to be after the same spectacle, something that pays heed to the Good Lord Above while a bunch of overgrown boys in costume run around narrowly cheating death. They’re waiting for the pileup.
Off course, there are off the wall suggestions. Last year the University of Tennessee played a college football game against Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway that attracted a record 157,000 spectators. Why not make it a wild and crazy weekly event? Imagine lightly used sideline players changing tires during pit stops, offensive assistants spotting for drivers while the other team has the ball. Imagine Joe Gibbs, the Hall of Fame coach turned Nascar team owner, relaying football plays on one radio channel and racing strategy on another. Imagine a quarterback trying to snap the ball over the rumble of 40-odd corn-fed V8s. Full-Throttle Football, they could call it.
Or they could simply accept that traditional television has been in decline for a decade and adjust accordingly, by leaving its audiences wanting more instead of overwhelming their base urges. For the NFL that means ending the Thursday football experiment and making the RedZone Channel, its best and most youth-friendly delivery mechanism, more widely accessible. For Nascar that means cutting tens of hours of race broadcasts down to the best three hours. It means starving people, and then feed them. It means throw the fat online, and see how much they’ll pay for it. In fact, Nascar could just dump it all on Netflix – which, according to one study, is responsible for half the decline of TV viewership alone.
More to the point: both sports need to be patient with their young stars. They need to push them, too. The NFC-leading Philadelphia Eagles, helmed by an ascendant second-year quarterback named Carson Wentz, should’ve been flexed into at least one of the three primetime games that were awarded to the hopeless Miami Dolphins. (Memo to the league: America’s just not that into Jay Cutler.) Bubba Wallace, a black driver who will race full season in the Monster Energy Cup series a team fronted by the legendary Richard Petty, could well turn out to be Nascar’s Tiger Woods. Remember the NBA after Michael Jordan retired? Baseball after the steroid scandal? Hockey after NHL lockout. They seem to be doing just fine now, relatively speaking.
Patience is a virtue. So is a keen multi-platform strategy. The viewers are out there. They’re just not congregating by the traditional outlets. They’re just not quite registering as clearly when they’re gathering around someone else’s cell phone for the race. Or when they’re gawking at the game playing on the big screen in the department store, protest be damned. Yes, the NFL and Nascar are in a real bind. But it’s nothing they can’t get out of with a rarer, higher quality product and a healthy dose of forbearance. Americans always want more of what they can’t have, especially if they believe they should be able to get it without leaving their couch. And if that doesn’t work? Well, they could always join forces.
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