CONCORD, N.C. _ These days it seems everyone in NASCAR is trying to figure out the reasoning for a decline in attendance and major drop television ratings. Empty seats and poor ratings have dominated the conversation as of late, instead of one of the most competitive Chases.

Most agree the economy has played a major role, some blame the Chase for the Sprint Cup, many argue it is ESPN and others point to the dominance of Jimmie Johnson

In the last week alone, television ratings dropped 30% from last year, earning a 2.5 rating on ESPN, which equates to 4,072,000 viewers. While over four million viewers may seem like a lot, when looking at the programs that beat out ESPN’s broadcast from California, it is astonishing.

The Sprint Cup Series race, the fourth of the NASCAR’s ‘playoff’ system, ranked 17th of 25 shows tracked by TVbytheNumbers.com for the week of October 10th. That same week, Teen Mom 2 on MTV earned more viewers than the NASCAR race. So did Saturday morning’s Spongebob Squarepants, Monday night’s WWE broadcast, every Major League Baseball playoff game and Thursday night’s Jersey Shore on MTV.

On the positive side, Sunday’s broadcast did beat out American Pickers on the History Channel.

“The broadcasts have gotten much more sophisticated – some people like that, some people don’t,” ESPN’s Dr. Jerry Punch explained. “We have a lot more bells and whistles, a lot more things we can do in the telecast with real-time data, you would think that would make more people interested because we can give real-time data on what is happening with intervals between cars, positioning on the race track, things we didn’t have back in the late 90’s and 2000.

“The racing, if you look at the overall racing, there were a lot of cars more and more laps down back in the 90s, there’s a lot of cars on the lead lap and finishing towards the front than ever before,” he said. “So, I don’t know. I hope and pray that it is a temporary thing and we can get these fans back, because the NASCAR fans are the college football fans and the college basketball fans and that means they are ESPN fans. Sometimes, our network, we our own worst enemy because we have great ball games that we can promote on the other channel while we’re covering a Nationwide race or a Cup race.”

So, what’s the problem here? There are a number of thoughts on the topic, I have offered my criticism of the actual broadcast of the race on other web sites, but ultimately, the conversation comes back to either the Chase or Jimmie Johnson’s dominance.

Johnson, however, does not believe he is to blame.

“I know I’m not the reason for those things, and I sure as hell know I’m not vanilla,” Johnson said. “From the success that I’ve had – it’s just unfair to put it on a driver’s success. When you look at the economy and the challenges that it has imposed on a lot of people – there’s a lot of conversations about the prices being too high for hotel rooms, the tracks work very hard to get their price point down and that hasn’t really moved the needle all that much. We have an amazing television package and people aren’t tuning in to watch, and we don’t know why.

“It’s not just our sport, it’s all sports, and it’s all television,” he said. “It’s not me and I know that. I kind of chuckle about it and if people want to spend time talking about it, they can.”

People are definitely spending their time discussing it as of late, not only asking Johnson, but other drivers throughout the garage.

Fellow Chaser Jeff Burton is just as confused as anyone in trying to come up with answers. Yet, he is not as quick as others to blame Johnson’s dominance for the dip in ratings.

“The racing has been good,” Burton said. “It is not a run-away Chase. I mean, my God, anybody that thinks this is a run-away Chase isn’t paying attention. I don’t know. When other teams go on runs and start reeling off; when Tiger Woods is winning a lot of tournaments, more people watch. If you argued that Jimmie having success is bad for the sport then why was golf so good when Tiger was so good?  Doesn’t make sense to me and I don’t proclaim to understand it.”

There may not be one simple answer as to why fans are not showing up and tuning out. Carl Edwards, like Burton, is baffled by the decline in ratings, saying the racing has been impressive all year.

“I think you’ve seen really great racing, a ton of emotion, you’ve seen guys just laying it all on the line and, for whatever reason, our television ratings have not been as good as they could be,” Edwards said. “I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know the reason, but I’d say all we can do is try to embrace all the new technology that we can and try to explain the sport the best we can through the television broadcasts. Aside from that, I don’t really have any suggestions for them. I think I’d be speaking out of place.”

For Johnson’s teammate Jeff Gordon, the problem is not the dominance of the No. 48 team. One of the most dominant drivers during NASCAR’s seemingly exponential growth, Gordon’s on-track success never hurt the ratings or attendance as people claim is happening with Johnson today.

What helped during those years of growth in the late 1990s were the battles taking place on the track. Be it Dale Earnhardt and Gordon, Earnhardt and Wallace, Wallace and Gordon, Wallace and Rudd, Ford and Chevy, there was usually a heated rivalry developing on track and not in the media center. In Gordon’s opinion, that is what is missing these days.

“My only argument is rivalries,” Gordon said. “I think there needs to be some more rivalries out there.  When I won my first championship, obviously the rivalry with Earnhardt and even in the other championships I never really had the rivals like that, but there was always Ford versus or Chevy, or with Mark Martin and Dale Jarrett, or Bobby Labonte—some things like that.  I just think it’s important to have rivalries.  I don’t think it’s anything about Jimmie Johnson, it’s just nobody has really rivaled him.  The only one that has besides Carl [Edwards] I guess, I would have thought that that would have been pretty decent ratings that year, but Carl is probably just too nice.
“It’s two nice guys going against each other, even though its Ford vs. Chevy; I think there is a certain entertainment aspect to it that plays out and that just depends on the guys’ personality and their fan base.  Right now if it was Kyle Busch versus Jimmie Johnson, I think it’d spark a lot more interest.  I think that Harvick kind of plays that role a little bit and he’s there.  If that battle heats up, I think it could be interesting.  I think right now anything that sparks a good battle with Jimmie, even if it’s me I think will spark some things.  Those guys have dominated so much that when we get to this position I think a lot of people just go, ‘oh man, he’s going to do it again.’ But, I also think they’re waiting to see if somebody else can beat him.”
If Johnson goes out there and wins the next few races and makes history winning his fifth championship in a row – something he is fully capable of – do not be surprised by a further dip in the ratings that lasts into next season.

There seems to be a lot of opinions on why ratings have dropped dramatically and attendance is lacking all around, yet few seem to offer solutions to the problems. NASCAR has done a great job listening to the fans over the last two years – implementing double-file restarts and green-white-checkered finishes – and if this trend continues over the next few months, this will be something NASCAR needs to work on and the fans need to be involved. Otherwise, the decline will most likely continue.

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