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NASCAR popularity hits the wall in mainstream media

You don’t have to own the greatest memory to remember when NASCAR was in full boom. Just last decade, the race world was raging. Its television deal was 40 percent fatter than its previous contract. Racetrack owners were adding seats to their grandstands. Sponsors couldn’t wait to have their logos affixed to a bumper or driver. Cities like Chicago and Vegas were hosting events. Toyota was joining the American automakers as a producer of cars. NASCAR had graduated from a regional concern, born of bootlegging, to an international phenomenon.

Los Angeles Times writer Jim Peltz hypothesized that NASCAR reached its apex in July 2006, when the Will Ferrell movie, “Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby”, hit screens nationwide. Sure, it took huge shots at the race culture, but it was a feature film about stock cars, and it was hugely popular. It seemed as if hockey had been replaced in the “big four” of American sporting culture by 200-mph billboards that couldn’t stop making left turns. As Peltz said, the term “NASCAR dad” crept into the political lexicon as a counter to “soccer mom” and as a coveted demographic for candidates to chase.

Ah, those were the days.

And there was no way they could last. They just couldn’t. NASCAR had always been something of a niche sport, and as the newfound allure of the shiny cars and good ol’ boys’ rivalries dimmed, the numbers started to drop, abetted by the recession and racing’s inherent limitations (monotony, too-long broadcasts, lack of marketable stars, etc.). Last week came the news that TV ratings for the first 13 races of the 2012 season were down four percent from last year. Only two of the races had increased viewership from their ’11 counterparts, while five had double-digit drops. The coveted 18-to-34 male demographic was down to a 1.4 rating, from 1.8 in ’11. And while major media outlets continued to cover the championship pursuit each week, there was little of the breathless attention that characterized the NASCAR climate in the middle of last decade.

It’s possible to blame the economy, the ennui created by bland Jimmie Johnson’s five straight Cup titles and a sense that pit-row confrontations involving drivers were somehow contrived for the drop in interest, but NASCAR just didn’t have the legs. Before the 2011 season, I wrote an article for Sporting News’ NASCAR preview magazine addressing the problems. No one within the racing organization made an effort to dodge the issue, instead choosing to talk about re-engaging the core fan and providing new technologies to help younger fans delve deeper into the statistical whys and wherefores of the competition. Race start times were changed to accommodate traditional NASCAR supporters, who used to head out for church Sunday mornings and head home for lunch and a 1 pm green flag.

Despite those well-intentioned and logical efforts, NASCAR continues to struggle. Attendance at those puffed-up speedways is down, and TV ratings continue to fall. Sponsors aren’t as enthusiastic with their marketing dollars as they were seven-to-10 years ago. And media outlets are back to treating NASCAR as a secondary sport.

Frankly, that’s not out of bounds. NASCAR always was a niche pursuit, and its swollen popularity was not organic; rather the result of a shrewd marketing approach by Bill France, Jr., who sensed that it was possible to create a worldwide brand. He was right – to an extent. Although NASCAR tied up an eight-year, $4.5 billion TV contract with Fox, Turner and ESPN that runs through 2014, it wasn’t able to sustain its growth. Why should it? Even though NASCAR runs events in Dover, Del., and Long Pond, Penn., the metropolitan areas within a couple hours’ drive of those sites are not racing hotbeds. Yes, there are race fans in the Philadelphia area, but you won’t find too many folks at Geno’s Steaks talking about the Chase for the Cup while the Eagles are playing ball. What was once a shiny new toy has lost its allure and returned to its previous status as an entertainment option with a somewhat narrow appeal.

This is not an obituary for NASCAR. Nor is it a call for media to ignore it. Rather, this is an acknowledgement that in a sporting landscape that is more competitive than ever, NASCAR has dropped back into the pack and is trailing football, baseball and basketball by a larger margin than it had been seven years ago. But it’s still in much better shape than it was two decades ago. And contrast NASCAR’s national status with its southern-fried personality in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Like golf, tennis, soccer and hockey, NASCAR has its place on the continuum, but it isn’t an all-the-time thing. There will be moments that attract national attention, like a particularly exciting season-ending Cup competition or a burgeoning rivalry between a pair of drivers. But asking media to devote added space and time to something that is losing traction isn’t right or reasonable. NASCAR will remain stronger than it was in the distant past, but it’s unlikely it will rise to mid-2000s levels again.

No matter what Will Ferrell does.

Michael Bradley is a writer, broadcaster and teacher headquartered in suburban Philadelphia. His written work has appeared in Sporting News, ESPN the Magazine, Athlon Sports, Hoop and Slam, among others. He is a host on 97.5 the Fanatic in Philadelphia and contributes analysis for Yahoo! Sports Radio and Sirius Mad Dog Radio. He appears on CSNPhilly.com, writes a weekly column on Philadelphia Magazine’s “Philly Post” and has authored 26 books. He teaches sports journalism at Saint Joseph’s, Villanova and Neumann Universities.

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