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…