As I write this column on the declining popularity of NASCAR, I'll open with this admission: I'm a casual racing fan at best. I'll take a peek at big races to see how they're progressing, and I'll scan the results to see how certain drivers did.
I'm also the type of fan who gets annoyed when anytime I turn on a race, it seems to be in a caution, so I quickly turn my attention elsewhere.
But reporting this long for a publication that covers tire and rubber product makers, I like to keep an eye on racing because tires truly are a critical part of the sport. I recall when Firestone re-entered Indy car racing, challenging Goodyear as a supplier to the series. When Firestone came out the winner and signed on as exclusive tire supplier a couple seasons later, Goodyear moved quickly to nail down a similar deal with NASCAR.
At first it appeared that Goodyear was getting a consolation prize, but for years that was hardly the case. NASCAR worked hard to broaden its base and expand its revenues, and became one of the most popular sports in the U.S. The racing series saw TV ratings soar, easily beating Indy car ratings. NASCAR also saw the revenues it brought in by sponsorship and television rights skyrocket, with its TV contracts still set to bring in billions of more dollars through 2024.
But NASCAR has seen its fortunes slide quickly in recent years. TV ratings are down 45 percent since 2005, according to reports, and attendance is down precipitously, as evidenced by the empty bleachers on TV. And when Monster Energy drink signed on as title sponsor starting this season—replacing Sprint after 13 years—the rights fees brought in far less than NASCAR hoped for.
There are many theories on why the drop in popularity. Some say the series went too mainstream, getting away from its Southern roots. Others say the core working class fan base was hit harder by the Great Recession than the core fan groups of some other sports. And the climax of the "Chase" directly competes with the NFL and college football.
Personally, there are a number of things that make following NASCAR difficult for me. It always has seemed strange that the circuit holds its "Super Bowl"—the Daytona 500—as its first race of the season. The series also has had difficulties in determining a formula to crown its season long champion. This season brought the advent of "stage racing," where drivers competed to win various parts of the race. I just don't get it.
Even with the sport's difficulties, however, NASCAR remains a key part of Goodyear's marketing efforts, not to mention the gains in technologies it fosters.
But like many investments, the return won't ever be what it once was.