Change and The Way We Watch Sports

CBSs 60 Minutes and Vanity Fair recently released the results of a poll that provided some surprising insights about how people watch sports – some of which might be relevant to the constant discussion of declining television ratings and attendance at races. The most interesting question in the survey (IMO) was asking people whether they prefer to watch their favorite sport in person at a live event or on television.


I found this sort of interesting – more people would rather watch an event on television than attend it in person.  But what I found even more interesting was that they broke out the responses by age.

The leftmost group of bars shows the same data from the pie chart above.  The next four sets break out four demographic groups:  18-34, 35-44, 45-54 and 55+


There’s a very clear monotonic (changing steadily in one direction) trend here:  The older you get, the more likely you are to watch your favorite sport at home than to attend an event in person.

That sort of flies in the face of what one might thing:  That the core (aging) fan base are the ones who make it to the races.  Actually, we’re more likely to lose these folks the longer they’re fans.   The good news is that the young people we keep talking about needing to attract are more interested in heading to the track than their older counterparts.


NASCAR has made some significant changes and hinted recently that there are more to come.  They’re listening to the teams, the media and the fans more than I suspect they every have before.

The prime topic of discussion on blogs and radio is people calling for change or railing against it.

Another thing that happens as people get older is that they become more resistant to change.  You get comfortable with the things you know.  Most research indicates that you’re most open to change in your twenties, and become progressively less so, in part due to the fact that it becomes harder to change.  It becomes much harder to change careers once you have a family to support, for example.

I’ve got a rather different take on ‘changes’ that could be made to attract more people to the sport.  I would focus on making the sport more appreciated and accessible and less on tinkering with the racing.

When I speak at a university or high school, I always get people who come up to me after my talk, usually a little embarrassed, who say something like “I didn’t realize NASCAR was so interesting.”  Or complicated.  Or challenging.   For most people, it’s cars running in circles for hours.

Coming to NASCAR as a non-sports fan (and with no motorsports in my background), I had no idea how interesting it was either.   This all jelled this week when I read the comments Joseph Shelton (@That SheltonGuy) made about The Physics of NASCAR in his Bleacher Report summary of books NASCAR fans should read during the off-season.  I thanked him for mentioning my book and he tweeted what I think is a key point:

Your book is proof as to why @NASCAR should be taken more seriously than it is.  A lot more goes into it than thought.

While some motorsports fans denigrate NASCAR for being low-tech, NASCAR is incredibly high-tech compared to throwing a ball back and forth.  Much of magic of this sport is invisible.  You can’t see friction, you can’t see a tire heating up or wearing… not like you can see a running back zigging and zagging.  Getting a real appreciation for the strategy, the need for a zillion things to all work at the same time, and even for how absolutely difficult it is to drive a car on the edge of traction is hard – I think it’s a barrier for many people to become NASCAR fans.

So perhaps what we need is not so much changing the racing, but changing the accessibility of the racing.   This is where second-screen experiences have huge potential for helping people appreciate the sport.  I watch twitter during races along with the television and/or radio.  But I’d really like more data.  I want to see average lap times and be able to track them as a function of time during a race.  I want to be able to access history and see, for example, a graph that shows how Jimmie Johnson has historically finished when he starts in the rear of the field at that particular track.  I want a track map I can pull up at any time that includes elevation changes and maybe a drive along so I can appreciate what it looks like from inside the car.  (And trust me, Road America looks so much more awesome from inside a car than it does from the stands!)

The newbie fan might like an interactive glossary using something like blippar, where they could get real-time definitions and maybe even short video-taped explanations of specific terminology.  (The idea of a “loose car” can be baffling to the new fan.)  The second screen offers the option of customizing the experience for each fan.


Off my soapbox  now.  There was one more aspect of the CBS 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll I found interesting.  The question was “Which Sport has  the Highest Percentage of Jerks?”


And I think I’ll let that one speak for itself…


  1. As one who is in the 55+ bracket I can give my reason why I would rather watch from home. Going to a race involves a LOT of walking. The older you get, the harder that is. Plus the good seats are up high. Lots and lots of stairs to climb. NASCAR events don’t have people walking around with food and beverages in he stands. So if you want to eat……..DOWN lots and lots of stairs and then back up. Then the race is over and you walk at least a mile back to your car. I’m just not capable of that any longer.

  2. Becki’s comment regarding race attendance is valid. At Charlotte Motor Speedway Nationwide Insurance has a fleet of golf carts for fan transportation. MRO Ambassadors are available to assist fans in having an enjoyable race experience. We have golf carts and wheel chairs.
    There are few beverage and snack vendors in the grandstand in response to complaints of obstructing one’s view. Becki is correct, the better seats are higher. At CMS ramp-level rows begin with 26. If your seat row is 40+, you’re going to climb! There are Ambassadors (in blue shirts) available to help those who need assistance to their seat. Becki, if you attend the Coke 600 in May, let me know and I’ll see that you get the nourishment you want without leaving your seat. Ambassadors can be reached by calling the Motor Racing Outreach office at 704-455-3828. We’d love to help you. I’m Crew Chief Gary.
    One suggestion regarding interest-building: erect a position board with all 43 car numbers. If a favorite driver is running below 25 they are difficult to locate at most tracks. Also, “the race within the race” could build interest, like, who’s racing for the Lucky Dog, or who needs to finish where to maintain team exemption. (What? No Jerks in Major League Baseball??!!)
    Gary Wilt
    Huntersville NC

  3. For whatever reason, NASCAR (and the media) is resistant to providing fans with more technical information, especially during the race. The shows that featured technical aspects have been cancelled. The race announcers will say ‘2 rounds on the track bar’ with little or no background or visual on what was happening that the adjustment is supposed to cure (luckily, I know, so I can infer, but I’m not sure most fans can… or care?). Lap times are rarely mentioned. No explanation is given as to how a car that was running terrible can suddenly be challenging for the lead (did they make a change? did they get faster in an absolute sense, or did their times fall off less than others? Why?). The interviews with crew chiefs are both repetitive (they all say the same things) and uninformative (“we like our changes, the fill in the blank Chevy is really strong today).

    Paradoxically, the more a sport offers in coverage for the home viewer, the harder it will be to get people to come to the races. At the track, I get next to none of the commentary/explanation (even the little that there is). I don’t get to see the twenty angles on a crash. Unless I happen to be listening to a particular driver at the time, I miss 90% of the really fun/entertaining radio chatter. I can pause the TV at home without worrying about missing something, which isn’t the case if I want to get something to eat at a time other than during a caution. And, while this probably keeps me from being called a true fan, I’ll watch the race somewhat delayed, and watch the race at 2X speed, and I slow it down when I see something exciting happen. I don’t get the audio, but they don’t have anything worthwhile anyway during the green flag runs, and I get to save myself from having to watch the 90% of the broadcast where nothing exciting is happening.

    • I’m not sure that providing more information on the television necessarily discourages people from going to the event. The more you learn about the sport and the more you appreciate how challenging it is, the more of a fan you will become. Nothing replaces the sights (and sounds!) and being part of a community of fans you get from going to the track.
      My father was a big baseball supporter and we were season ticket holders when baseball returned to Milwaukee. He always used to say that going to the ballpark was more about eating Vienna Sausage with sauerkraut and drinking beer than it was about the game per se. Maybe with all the networking we do now, we’re less inclined to want to get out there and actually interact with people (which, face it, takes more energy than having the TV on in the background while we get our chores done.)

      Thanks for your comments!

      • Gary: Thanks so much for responding. MRO is such a welcome presence at the races. I remember covering my very first in Atlanta, standing outside the credentials line in the pouring rain. Even though I had a rain poncho, I was drenched. The man who offered to share his umbrella with me…? From MRO. Everywhere you turn at the track you find people from that organization doing good. Thanks for the response and for all your organization does.

  4. Found your blog Jeff Gluck who RTed the points system discussion! I became a fan thanks to the live experience. I used to sit and watch races with my girlfriend’s dad but it wasn’t until I went to the track that I became a fan. I then gravitated towards IndyCar and am now an ecumenical motorsports fan. Nothing beats going to the track! I can watch video at any time, but to be there? It is the best! I’ve met Mario Andretti at the track, given Chip Ganassi a high five, trolled Danica in person…who can beat that? Or the smell of fuel? Am excited to read more from you. If you have a minute, the voting is over on my entry to win tickets to the Daytona 500 but you might enjoy this!

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