Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series gears up for Talladega Superspeedway this week:
Turn 1: NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France says all sports have attendance issues. Do you see NASCAR’s issues as worse or on par with other sports?
Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: Because of the base with which we’re working off of, yes, it certainly seems worse. In the late 1990s and in the first decade of the 21st century, we saw annual expansion with tracks continuing to add seats year after year. Then came the Great Recession. It has become a very repetitive discussion, but the perception of the crowds today will always be based on empty seats rather than full seats. The past three races saw more empty seats than filled ones. Our sport has benefited enormously from television revenue recently, but it has come at a price because as the economy has recovered, the grandstands have not. People have discovered a far less expensive way to enjoy NASCAR.
Ryan McGee, ESPN.com: Worse. When I’m covering college football, the athletic directors come to me freaking out when the student section is sagging, not the luxury boxes or the seats at the 50-yard line. In other words, they’re dealing in small percentage drops, not double-digit drops.
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: Worse. The Richmond crowd Sunday was about 30-35 percent of its prime. The publicly operated tracks have lost 52.7 percent in admissions revenue (without attendance reports, ticket revenue is the only measuring stick, and that does include other forms of motorsports) over the past nine years. In the same time in regular-season attendance, the NFL has seen a 2 percent gain, the NBA and NHL are flat and baseball is down 8 percent. NASCAR also battles something other sports don’t — a significant part of the foundation that created passion (a society with manufacturer loyalty that loved cars) continues to disintegrate. The passion for the home team in other sports doesn’t wane as much.
Matt Willis, ESPN Stats & Information: Just by appearances alone, NASCAR is in bigger trouble than other sports. Because of its once-or-twice-a-year make-up, only being able to half-fill the grandstands for a race means that people are passing on their only opportunity to see a race. Plus, when you have a track that seats 100,000 people, a crowd of 40,000 — which is still a lot of people — makes the track seem much more empty than when you put 15,000 people in a baseball park that only seats 30,000.
Turn 2: What do you expect the next 27 races to be like for Dale Earnhardt Jr.? Does he make the playoffs?
Craven: I believe Dale Jr. has the commitment and determination to make it productive and potentially rewarding for him and his fans. The difficulty is that while other drivers have been waking up each morning consumed by competing and building toward a title, Earnhardt has spent that time somewhat preoccupied with his future, wondering whether he should or shouldn’t retire. We know the answer now, but keep in mind that has been and will be a monumental decision that’s occupied him all season long. It goes back to my view “distraction is poison,” no driver can perform at his best carrying that level of distraction. Things should get better from here on out.
McGee: I think he does because I think he wins a race, but I think it’ll be way closer than anyone wants it to be. It feels like it’s building toward that late summer stretch of tracks he likes to grab the win and the playoff spot. Then again, we’re in the middle of a very similar section of the schedule and that hasn’t gone so well. Maybe he’ll go on and win at Talladega and get the drama over with! If Bill France Jr. was still in charge, I would’ve already bet my truck on that one.
Pockrass: The heart and the gut says for sure, but the mind has to wonder. He makes the playoffs as long as only one or two drivers outside the top-16 in the standings have wins. A bunch of upsets could ruin any playoff hopes as he has led only eight laps this year and sits 24th in the standings.
Willis: I expect the rest of Junior’s season to play out like this multipart epic. For the next couple months, he’ll hover around 20th in points, trying to figure things out and looking like he needs a win to make the playoffs. That wins comes in his final trip to Daytona in dramatic fashion, capping his legacy at that track and giving him a playoff berth. He survives the first playoff leg by avoiding trouble and picks up a clutch win at Talladega to advance in the second round. But the lack of speed takes him out in the Round of 8.
Turn 3: Which of the drivers who haven’t won a championship has the best chance of winning one this year?
Craven: Joey Logano. He was actually my preseason pick to win the title. With all due respect to Kyle Larson, who seems worthy of a championship run this season, Logano has the nod down the stretch. It is his time.
McGee: It’s all about how a driver is at Homestead, right? Well, Larson was the best car there last November. Now he’s having the kind of season to make that matter. But I think the season already feels like a Logano coronation. I know a lot of fans don’t want to hear that, but they’d better get used to it. I think he’s just getting going.
Pockrass: Larson. His consistency and speed at a variety of tracks make him a threat. Don’t forget: He led 132 laps at Homestead last year and finished second.
Willis: Logano is my pick to win the title right now. Team Penske has won three of nine races this year, and Logano leads the series in top-10s (eight) and average finish (7.2). Logano has shown he can get to the end of the playoffs; he raced for a title in both 2014 and 2016.
Turn 4: With NASCAR and the tracks getting millions from the television deal, does attendance matter as much as it once did?
Craven: It matters to Wall Street! Every track other than Pocono and Indy answer to Wall Street. Television revenue has acted as a buoy for the three publicly traded stocks, but the folks capable of lifting the stock prices won’t participate unless they anticipate growth. Revenue growth depends heavily on people going to events. I’m becoming more optimistic, but there remains much work ahead.
McGee: Financially no, but only in the short term. Every single Sunday I receive texts from friends, family and colleagues all having just flipped channels to the Cup race. “Dude, where is everybody?” That’s a bad look. The kind of look that causes corporate execs to start questioning their investment. The good news is that those big TV checks and the length of the TV deal allows the time — and the financing — to try and get it turned around.
Pockrass: Not as much, but it matters because the health of teams (and as a byproduct, the quality of the race) depends on sponsorship. CEOs who see empty stands or lethargic fan zones will question their investments.
Willis: From a financial standpoint, it really doesn’t matter if the stands are full, half-full or a quarter-full. But from a public perception standout, it’s very important. One of the non-Junior comments I hear from people more than most is how empty the stands look for races. Regardless of what TV ratings are, if the tracks look empty, it creates the impression that popularity is down.