Are politics playing into NASCAR’s decline in popularity?

by John Boruk

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NASCAR appears to be losing fans by the truckload.

What was once one of the fastest growing sports in the early-to-mid 2000s, you will now many racing venues with not just empty seats, but deserted sections where they’ve stopped selling tickets.

Bristol Motor Speedway was considered the toughest ticket in NASCAR with a string of 55 consecutive sellouts from 1982 through 2010. Now, they’re lucky if they can fill half of the 146,000-seat half-mile monstrosity. 

The star power has dwindled from the retirements of Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Tony Stewart, but the decline started while they were all in the twilights of their careers. 

According to Forbes, NASCAR stopped reporting attendance figures in 2013, and if you think fans are staying home to watch racing, that doesn’t appear to be the case either. On average, television viewership is down 25-35 percent over the past five years, which is comparable to the bleeding numbers of homeowners dropping cable television. 

The NASCAR Cup Series was once a regular Sunday staple on FOX Sports, but for the most part, it’s been relegated to FS1 and the NBC Sports Networks. 

Gordon and Dale, Jr. believe the sport is in a transitional phase, but it appears as if NASCAR is looking to expand and grow their fanbase while many feel they’ve deserted their most loyal ones. 

But scour posts on social media and you’ll quickly see how identity politics is playing into racing and how fans are detaching themselves from the sport.   

 

THE CONFEDERATE FLAG DEBATE

If there’s one fanbase that would love to bury political correctness in the trunk of their cars, it would be racing fans. With tracks in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and South Carolina, the hardcore white, conservative crowd is deep-seeded in the South with strong roots to the Confederacy. 

During the sport’s heyday, if you glanced across the parking lot come race day it resembled a calvary-like scene for General Robert E. Lee during the Civil War with the number of Confederate flags flying around the lot. 

But the Stars and Bars Confederate symbol can be linked to white supremacy and the days of slavery and segregation. Even Dale, Jr., the sport’s most popular driver for nearly two decades, has denounced the flag.

“I think it’s offensive to an entire race,” Earnhardt said back in 2015, “It does nothing for anybody to be there flying, so I don’t see any reason. It belongs in the history books and that’s about it.” Gordon referred to the flag as “a delicate balance.”

Yet, those who support the flying of the Confederate flag point to their heritage along with a freedom of expression. “I’m still flying mine,” Chattanooga fan Brian Ellis told USA TODAY Sports in 2017. “It means something important to me — a part of my heritage because my relatives fought under it. Nothing the president or anybody else does or doesn’t do is going to change that.”

However, how many of those same fans would support a Nazi or even an ISIS flag waving in the air outside a race track?

While the corporate suits that now oversee the sport would ideally like to ban the flag, and understandably so, they also run the risk of alienating their most passionate and dedicated fans.

SPONSORSHIP 

The identity of the “good ole’ boys” from the 1980s and 1990s was one of guns and cigarettes – two brands that the executives have started distancing itself from.

For more than 30 years, the RJ Reynolds tobacco company was the league’s biggest sponsor and between 1971 and 2003, the Winston Cup series defined auto racing in America. Once that contract expired, NASCAR signed on with telecommunications giant Nextel which also led to Toyota’s presence in NASCAR racing. 

Needless to say, it was deeply upsetting to those who uphold a “Buy American” position, a widely-held feeling within the NASCAR community.  

In its effort to draw in a different demographic to the sport, NASCAR has brought in corporate sponsorship that has more of an appeal to the millennial movement than the traditional sponsors. In December 2016, NASCAR chose Monster Energy as its primary corporate sponsor in an effort to go after a younger, more edgier audience. 

More recently, following the shooting tragedies in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas, NASCAR is now starting to distance itself from gun ads, as they’ve started to reject the type of ads that promote that types of guns that have been used in mass shootings.

Those fans who are highly protective of the Constitution’s Second Amendment have openly questioned NASCAR’s “gradual shift” on gun advertising and how far they will reject ads as it pertains to gun ownership. 

THE PC POLICE

Earlier this month Rick Ware Racing unveiled plans to roll out a special Slayer-themed paint job for J.J. Yeley’s #54 car, which the driver sent out to fans through a tweet. The partnership was in recognition of the band’s 40 years of music and their final world tour.

While I’m not personally into Slayer’s hard core brand of music, the car design was exceptional – a gesture to the longevity of the band and their accomplishments over five decades. The heavy metal band didn’t pay Rick Ware Racing for the sponsorship.

However, it didn’t take long for the idea to ruffle the feathers within the corporate flock. Within a few weeks after the announcement, the two sides backed off their reported agreement.

“Today, reportedly due to reactionary concerns from other long-time participating sponsors, Slayer has been pulled as the primary sponsor,” the band said in a statement.

Apparently Slayer has been linked to a white supremacy movement, sympathies towards Nazism and with a pentagram as its logo a link towards satanism.  58-year-old lead singer Tom Araya considers himself Catholic with deep-Christian beliefs, “I think that’s (satanism) one of the biggest misconceptions towards the band, but next to that just the fact that we’re normal.”

I’m curious if these other sponsors would have raised their red flags if any NASCAR team made the conscious decision to promote a highly controversial and offensive rap artist in an effort to diversify its audience. The political correctness behind the decision to pull Slayer seemed to be more upsetting than the decision to promote the band in the first place.  

NASCAR is at a crossroads of trying to re-invent its brand and appeal to an ever-changing audience that doesn’t seem to have the patience or desire, like they once did, to watch a live event in its entirety. Technology now has a way of delivering a big crash, a helmet-throwing tirade or a heart-pounding race to the finish line as it happens.

No need to wait around wondering when it might happen.

But like the NHL, they have a very devout, loyal audience. Once you lose these fans in massive numbers, the sport itself will ultimately crash and burn.