Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Nascar's Big Skid Is It the Economy? Bad Management? Too Boring? or Are Americans Just over It? Wonders Bloomberg's Justin Fox

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Nascar's Big Skid Is It the Economy? Bad Management? Too Boring? or Are Americans Just over It? Wonders Bloomberg's Justin Fox

Article excerpt

I am old enough to remember (that is, I'm older than 15) when Nascar was about to become the new national pastime, the sport of real America that was being eagerly embraced by corporate America because it offered so many places to plaster advertising slogans. I haven't heard a lot about the auto-racing enterprise lately, though, so while switching channels last Sunday, I paused for a while on NBC's coverage of the Monster Energy Nascar Cup Series Brantley Gilbert Big Machine Brickyard 400.

Most of what I saw consisted of jostling for the lead by Martin Truex Jr., currently No. 1 in the Nascar Cup Series standings, and Kyle Busch (No. 4), who ended up crashing into each other about two-thirds of the way through the race. But my attention kept wandering to the grandstands at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. They were strikingly, shockingly empty. Eventually I observed some crowds clustered in the parts of the stands with shade, but according to the Indianapolis Business Journal, only about 35,000 people were there, in a facility with seating for 235,000. Five years ago, the crowd for the same race was four times bigger.

This is not just an Indianapolis problem, it turns out. Nascar stopped reporting race attendance a few years ago, but the publicly traded companies that own most of its tracks do report admission revenue, and it's way down from a decade ago.

Nascar television audiences are shrinking, too. Last Sunday's Brickyard 400 actually got more TV viewers than last year's, but on the whole viewership was down 12 percent over last year as of early July, and it's down about half from its peak in 2005.

Lots of spectator sports are suffering these days from flagging interest and competition from other amusements. But Nascar seems to be having a much harder time of it than any other major U.S. sport, precisely when what might be called Nascar-friendly forces have been on the rise in culture and politics. What the heck is happening here? There's a burgeoning literature on this topic, and while I've yet to come across a totally convincing explanation, here are a few theories:

1. It's maybe not the best-run organization in the world. Although it stands for National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, Nascar is not so much an association as a family business, with the descendants of founder Bill France Sr. running the show. Grandson Brian France is chairman and CEO. His older sister Lesa France Kennedy is CEO of International Speedway, the biggest track operator. Their uncle Jim France is chairman of International Speedway and reportedly owner of at least half of Nascar. His late brother, Bill France Jr., who led Nascar to national prominence, split his 50 percent stake between Brian and Lesa, but Brian reportedly sold most or all of his share a decade ago. A simple if secretive chain of command has thus been replaced by a complicated but if anything a more secretive one. "Who's running Nascar?" legendary former racer and current car owner Richard Petty asked last year. "Where does the buck stop?" Owners such as Mr. Petty don't make nearly enough from Nascar to pay their bills, so they need to sign up car sponsors to get by. That has been getting harder to do as interest in Nascar wanes; the eventual winner of the Brickyard 400, Kasey Kahne, may lose his car soon due to lack of sponsorship. Early last year, Nascar did give the owners a more substantial stake in the system by granting them charters similar to team franchises in other pro sports, which may help. Still, it all seems pretty complicated. Then again, so is Major League Baseball.

2. It's the economy's fault. "The economic downturn in 2009 hurt Nascar probably more than any other sport because of the dependence on sponsorship, and because our race fans travel greater distances to our events," Nascar's chief marketing officer told Canada's Globe and Mail early this year. …

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