By admin | February 13, 2012
By Richard Allen
Earlier in this current off season, NASCAR released a report that essentially said a study they conducted has revealed that fans are not nearly as interested in articles and/or columns that analyze the state of the sport as they are about those pieces that focus on personalities in the sport. While it’s not surprising that fans enjoy hearing about their favorite drivers, has NASCAR, like many other facets of today’s society, become too much about personality?
On a personal note, I can both agree and disagree with that study. Typically, I receive more site hits on this blog when I post a story that is more personality related but I get far more comments from readers when I post columns about the state of the sport. Perhaps it could be said that stories about drivers are simply more reassuring while pieces about the state of the sport are more thought provoking. (And I’m not just referring to stories written by me but all writers.)
NASCAR has always been filled with big personalities. From the early days of people like Junior Johnson up to Richard Petty to Darrell Waltrip to modern day attention getters like Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon fans have been drawn to particular individuals. And this year, of course, the sport is about to receive yet another infusion of personality when Danica Patrick makes a fulltime go of racing in the Nationwide Series ranks as well as part time effort in the Sprint Cup Series.
There are obvious benefits from having fans be more centered on personality than the condition of the sport. Such a situation appeals to sponsors as those companies involved in racing like having high profile associations. And, more revenue is generated by such things as souvenir sales and other forms of merchandising.
However, there are also negative aspects as well. What happens when those personalities go away? All drivers eventually retire, so if a set of fans were simply attracted to one individual they may lose interest when that person is gone.
Also, when fans are only tied to a personality rather than the sport, interest levels can rise and fall with the fortunes of that one driver. An early exit from a race by one or more of the popular drivers could cause a drop off in television viewers. A bad season by those stars could have far reaching implications for tracks and networks.
No individual or group of individuals can ever be allowed to become bigger than the sport itself. Unfortunately, in NASCAR such is not only be allowed to happen, it is being encouraged. As evidence, look how much attention is paid in pre-season promotions for NASCAR to a driver who has not won since 2008(Earnhardt) and a driver who has never turned a competitive lap at the Sprint Cup level(Patrick).
But this is not only true of NASCAR but other sports as well. In my home area of east Tennessee there was a sudden influx of “Colts” fans during each NFL season from the late 1990s to the present. People in this area do not say, “Did you see the Colts play on Sunday?” but rather, “Did you see Peyton(Manning) play on Sunday?”
Should Manning be traded or released from the Colts in the near future there will be an abundance of blue jerseys available in spring and summer yard sales all around the Knoxville area.
Having immensely popular personalities can provide a great short term boost for NASCAR or any sport. Revenues will soar in the short term as apparel flies off the shelf and sponsors offer up money to get involved with the next fresh face. But what happens when that personality fades into history or some unforeseen drop in popularity takes place? Ask the PGA that question.
In 1969, star drivers refused to race at the brand new Talladega Super Speedway because of concerns over tires. Then NASCAR boss Bill France, Sr. recognized that the sport had to be bigger than any of them and held the race anyway. The crowds still came. And the next year, so did the star drivers.
I do not believe the current leadership of this sport has that same long term vision. As long as souvenirs are selling right now, little else seems to matter in terms of long term impact.
NASCAR officials were almost boastful when they declared that their study showed fans cared more about stories on drivers than on the sport itself. But to me, what that study showed was that the fate of the sport could rest with the fortunes of three or four individuals who are, after all, only human.
But then again, maybe it’s just the way our society functions nowadays.
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