NASCAR has a problem and even Dale Earnhardt Jr. cannot fix it. For the third week in a row this season NASCAR ratings are falling. Despite the fact that their most popular driver is off to the best start of his career. Earnhardt Jr. just won his second Daytona 500, returning to the winners circle for the first time since June 2012, and has posted two second place finishes as well.
Yet people are not tuning in to watch. Which contradicts the belief that if Earnhardt Jr. ever started winning it would be a boon for television ratings, which continue to drop despite the fact that he has won, or coming close, every week in 2014. Ratings for the Daytona 500 dropped 43 percent from 2013, but those numbers are virtually useless since there was a rain delay over six hours to NASCAR’s premier event. The more pertinent numbers would be ratings for the next two races in Phoenix and Las Vegas, both of which featured a second place finish by Earnhardt Jr. Again, ratings dropped three percent and four percent respectively.
So maybe Earnhardt Jr. and his popularity is overstated.Or maybe there is no correlation to the most popular driver in NASCAR and the popularity of the sport. Not true according to Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage.
“Whenever Junior does well, we all do well,” Gossage told USA TODAY Sports. “At the same time, no one person determines the sport’s success or failure. It’s just that Junior contributes it more to it than probably anybody.”
Gossage would appear to be right on when you consider that social media views and page mentions are up. So too are merchandise sales and attendance has climbed for qualifying as well. NASCAR claims to not be concerned about falling ratings at the moment. They believe that change as the season goes on and this is merely part of the process. Their thought process is simple. Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning is always a good thing for the sport and it is only a matter of time before television ratings climb like all the other indicators have.
Maybe not though. The numbers are self-evident. Earnhardt Jr.’s best start in his Sprint Cup career has not attracted viewers to the television and attendance numbers at the races are slightly down as well. There is no disputing that. Perhaps it is possible that increased merchandise sales and greater attendance for a qualifying run probably do not mean a whole lot given it is likely the same fans purchasing more products or going to more than one event in a week.
Which would mean NASCAR is facing the same dilemma it has had for years. It has seemingly peaked in popularity and never crossed demographic lines like they thought they would. Like football did.
For his part Earnhardt Jr. claims this is not something he worries about. He is concerned with winning races and keeping NASCAR healthy, not about television ratings.
The sport is healthy. It just is not booming the way they hoped it would when its’ popularity took off a generation ago. It reached a plateau and not even NASCAR’s biggest star can stop falling ratings.
Commentary by Mick Varner