Will NASCAR’s Aging Fans Demand that Medicare Pay for More Comfy Seats at the Speedway?
(Editorial warning: No photos this week, but the article is almost depressing enough to have rated an Addams Family cartoon - and if you know what they are, you’re in the intended age bracket for this discussion.)
I owe the inspiration for this article to veteran motorsports writer/announcer/PR guy Ernie Saxton and to Area Auto Racing News, which gives him a page to share his thoughts every week.
On that page this week, Ernie shared highlights from a Sports Illustrated article which cited a study showing the fans of most sports aging at a much higher rate than the overall population.
Here’s what that means; the average age of Americans in 2016 was 37.7 years, but the average age of a NASCAR fan was 58. Oops. If that trend keeps up, who’s going to fill those seats (the ones that haven’t been removed already) when we’re 68 or 78 and maybe aren’t up to sitting out in the elements all day just to watch a bunch of young guys we don’t identify with in the first place? And how come fans the age of our new generation of drivers aren’t flocking to the speedways?
(Hint: It’s not Brian France’s fault.)
It all sounds grim for NASCAR until you read further and realize that the average age of professional golf fans is 64 (for the PGA) or 63 (LPGA). Professional tennis clocks in at 61, and lots of other sports are geezer-izing at nearly as depressing a rate. International soccer has the young fans (average age 39), but that sport’s raw ratings are nothing to crow about.
“But!” you say, “I see lots of kids and young people at the races, from NASCAR down to the local dirt tracks.” Yes, you do, but most of them aren’t driving, yet, and they get there courtesy of parents. Once driving brings additional freedom, we lose lots of those fans, and when they marry and start working 60-hour weeks (possibly with multiple jobs to pay for insurance, groceries and the dimmest hope of retirement one day), the complexities of life rob them of much of their freedom, and the cost and time required to attend races reduces the pool even more. All of a sudden, there are still fans, just not enough of them.
None of this has one lick to do with playoffs, charters, insane rules and point systems or all those other topics we hardcore fans in the geezer-sphere spend our time debating. Rather, it has to do with the pressures (real or self-imposed) of modern living, the addictive lure of computer/video gaming, and a culture that says you change your interests more often than you change your glasses - I almost said “underwear”, but I don’t think it’s quite that bad… yet.
So all we need to do is tweak our beloved sport in ways that make it more compelling to a teen or 20-something than computer gaming; keep it changing all the time so nobody gets bored with the status quo, and make it both less demanding of our time and a lot cheaper. Oh, and we geezers get to demand that the clock be turned back to the good old days of 1969, or we’ll find something else to do, too.
Good luck with that.
I kind of doubt we can turn this train around, but I’m not that worried, because I think NASCAR and racing in general will continue to exist at a level that gives hardcore fans something to follow, and everybody else will follow… well, whatever’s about to enter its 15-minute window of fame.
I remember looking at bunches of Sports Illustrated covers over the years - you can find compilations online - and noting that track/field and horse racing used to be pretty regularly featured. Both remain in the spotlight: horse racing for a week each spring when the ponies are running the Kentucky Derby; track every four years when the Olympics provide a diversion. Both are still around for hardcore fans and invisible to everyone else. NASCAR could easily end up the same way - along with other sports currently enjoying higher popularity levels among “mature” fans.
Maybe then charters, playoffs and all the other nonsense we fuss about won’t matter, because nobody will care that much.
It could happen.
(OK, there’s gotta be something visual here, so here’s an Addams Family cartoon. Couldn’t find one with a race car, so an RV will have to do.)
(And, for those of you who identify with the TV show from 1964-66, here’s the wonderful cast. If you identify with the much more recent movie, find somebody else to show you that.)