Murto: NASCAR continues to battle for ratings

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is having the best start of a racing season he’s had in his entire career; will it be enough to save NASCAR?

One thought about NASCAR’s plummeting TV ratings was that if Earnhardt ever got back to form, his fans would return and the sport would regain some of the stature it seems to have lost in the past few years.

But so far it doesn’t appear that has happened.

The Sprint Unlimited — formerly the Budweiser Shootout or the Busch Clash — was the lowest-rated and least-viewed edition of the race since 2001, according a report on Jayski.com.

The Daytona 500 had slightly more than nine million viewers, down from 16 million in 2013. But given the record-setting weather delay, that number doesn’t matter.

But what happened after that does matter. Earnhardt won the Daytona 500, and it should have generated incredible interest in the sport. The Phoenix race, however, was the lowest-rated second race of the season in 14 years.

It may be that fans are simply weary. We may not have SPEED Channel any longer, but not a day goes by that there aren’t a number of NASCAR-related programs on different sports networks. When is it enough? When is it too much? And will they know?

Obviously NASCAR still sells in the advertising world, otherwise these NASCAR-related shows would no longer exist. But when will declining ratings lead to an end to the saturation of the market NASCAR currently enjoys?

Ratings are obviously important. That’s why NASCAR changed its qualifying procedures, to give fans a reason to tune in. But do we really have to see it? And do we really have to see each and every practice session of each of the top-three divisions? Does anybody really sit down with a six-pack and a bag of chips to watch Camping World Truck practice, or even qualifying?

Weary fans translate to empty seats in the stands as well. Some tracks have actually torn seats down in recent years.

It may not be simply that the sport has reached its peak; it may be the way the sport handled its peak that resulted in the decline we see now.

I’ve had a particular insurance company for nearly 40 years. The one time I had to make a claim, instead of the good hands I got the finger. And now my agent is surprised to hear I’m about to make a change? People don’t stay where they feel mistreated.

At one time NASCAR races were an affordable weekend for families, including inexpensive seating sections and free tent camping. A father could go for the weekend with his children and enjoy the races as well as a camping experience; such families made NASCAR the fastest-growing sport in the country through the 1980s and into the ’90s.

But then they decided to charge for camping. Many tracks got rid of tent camping altogether. Ticket prices soared, as did hotel rates near the tracks. Families that once traveled to four or more races a year could no longer afford to go; they felt the sport mistreated and abandoned them.

I read that the average age of a NASCAR fan is 43, and they really want a younger demographic. The older fans won’t be here forever. The younger demographic is who they tried to reach when they changed the points system this year.

But their plan isn’t working. In some ways it’s backfiring. You know you have a problem when Dale Earnhardt Jr. has his best start yet and it isn’t enough to save the TV ratings.

It’s not only that the sport drove its core fans away with increasing prices. The constant changes alienate older fans. And it is the older fans that bring the younger fans to the races; the kids can’t afford to go by themselves.

There’s the root of the problem: money.

If NASCAR lowered its cost to tracks and tracks lowered their ticket prices and offered free camping, etc., with a little patience the grandstands might fill up again. The reason the sport grew was because it was the best deal in sports entertainment; once it was no longer a deal, the growth stopped. And with it went the next generation of potential fans.

If the TV rights didn’t cost so much, maybe the networks wouldn’t need to milk every moment a car is on the track for ad revenue. If the sport weren’t so over-exposed, people might again become interested in watching.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.