It’s not the NFL, but Nascar that has the real viewership problem in US sports

Will the fans show up on Sunday?
Will the fans show up on Sunday?
Image: AP Photo/Terry Renna
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If you think the National Football League has a viewership problem, just look at what’s happening with another iconic US sport—Nascar.

The sport of stock-car auto-racing, which will hold one of its biggest races of the year on Feb. 26, has been hemorrhaging TV viewers over the past decade. And efforts to revamp the sport for new audiences have alienated its core fans. Since its peak in 2005, Nascar’s TV viewership has fallen 45%, the Wall Street Journal reported (paywall), citing an analysis of Nielsen data by the trade publication SportsBusiness Daily.

The NFL’s 8% decline in viewers during the 2016 regular season looks like a paper cut by comparison. And the National Basketball Association’s double-digit percentage declines since the 2012 lockout season (paywall)? A mere flesh wound.

Venues used for Nascar’s top races have eliminated about a quarter of their seats over the last five years, according to USA Today. And operators still can’t fill the remaining bleachers on most race days. Race attendance has fallen so much that Nascar no longer provides estimates to avoid the headlines. And the sport had to accept considerably less for its top sponsorship—bought last year by Monster Beverage Corp.—than it originally sought.

Nascar is subject to the same forces that are constraining other major sports like the NFL and NBA—namely, the audience shift away from TV, as well as periods of fewer rivalries and a dearth of big-name athletes. But those issues are compounded by the fact that its core audience—working-class and white Americans—are aging without being replaced by younger viewers. Those older viewers have also yet to fully recover from the 2008 recession.

The sport has been courting more affluent fans with luxury suites, views from race tracks of teams working on cars, and newer offices in metropolitan cities like New York and Los Angeles. But those efforts have not widely caught on yet. And worse, they neglect some longtime fans, like Sam Cobb, 41, who told the Journal he missed when race weekends were the “largest concentration of rednecks in sport.”

“They’re strangling the fun out of Nascar,” he said.