This is a rare Saturday for me as I am sitting at home on my couch rather than covering a race of some kind at a dirt or paved track. And I have come to a couple of conclusions as I watch various sporting events on television with my sons here at home with me.
Like many my age(51), I grew up a sports fan and watched everything I could on television in an era when there were not literally dozens of choices at any given moment to tune in to. And more, I anxiously awaited the times when I could go with my dad to Tennessee football and basketball games or NASCAR races when he was able to secure tickets in an era when that was not always an easy thing to do.
Those days of sporting events being guaranteed sellouts and heavily viewed “must-see” happenings on television have obviously passed and a new mindset regarding sports fandom has become the norm.
For years, when I still had the RacingWithRich.com website, I often harped on NASCAR’s dwindling attendance and sinking TV ratings as a sign that the administration in charge of the sanctioning body was guiding the sport in the wrong direction. And I would still say that former NASCAR boss Brian France made some misguided decisions during his tenure at the helm of the sport. But as I said at the beginning of this piece, this Saturday afternoon has taught me some lessons.
One of the events I watched was the Sport Clips Haircuts VFW 200 Xfinity Series race at Darlington Raceway. That race taught me that the importance of huge personalities in sports matters more than it ever has. Years ago, many fans just enjoyed the game for the sake of the game. However, in this SportsCenter time period that we now live in, younger fans are more enthralled by the stars who play the game rather than the game itself.
Did you hear the reaction when Dale Earnhardt, Jr. climbed from his car on pit road to be interviewed by NBC following the race?
The front stretch grandstand at the venerable old track was packed and no doubt a significant number of those fans came because Earnhardt was in that race. And that crowd erupted when the former most popular driver offered them a wave. Despite semi-retirement from driving, he is still a star in their eyes. And as was mentioned earlier, stars now -pardon the pun- drive sports fandom more the game itself.
Lesson No. 1 from my Saturday- Stars matter.
Both during and following the Xfinity Series race at Darlington I paid attention to several college football games. Among those, sadly, was the contest that saw Georgia State take Tennessee down inside a barely half full Neyland Stadium.
But it wasn’t just in Knoxville where there were vast empty spaces in the seating areas of football’s well-known palaces. Despite very cheap ticket prices, the suddenly moved from Jacksonville to Tallahassee Florida State vs. Boise State game almost looked like a small college or even a big high school sized crowd. Further, the border battle between North Carolina and South Carolina featured a very depleted upper deck in the Charlotte home of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.
When I was a kid(in the Dark Ages), even when major college games that featured a power house team against a light weight would fill up a stadium on the opening week of the season. Apparently that isn’t the case anymore.
So when NASCAR’s attendance began to drop off it might not have been entirely a NASCAR problem. It appears to be a sports problem. There are just so many things to do that can get the attention of young people, or even old ones for that matter.
And to further reinforce the point that sports could be in trouble going forward regarding the challenges from other options, my two teenage sons have spent their day only glancing at the racing and football coverage I have on the TV. Instead, they have watched YouTube and Netflix most of the time.
Lesson No. 2 from my Saturday- NASCAR and all other sports as well as their broadcast partners will face major challenges in the not-so-distant future as fans my age continue to get even older and are replaced by smaller numbers of young people.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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