In July, author Gregg Gethard wrote an insightful column for The Classical about the precipitous decline of fan interest in NASCAR. Gethard attributed a drop in race attendance to the "Great Recession," which hit NASCAR's middle-class fans harder than most. With less disposal income, these gear-heads are less likely to gas up their RV, take a few days off work, and shell out cash for infield tickets.
But is that the full story?
As NASCAR heads into its annual playoff season, the series is seeing its lowest TV ratings in 29 years, prompting broadcast partners ESPN and Turner not to renew their contracts. If financial hardship drove race fans away from the track, why would it affect the TV audience?
The consumer data our company collects suggest a deeper and more systemic problem for NASCAR, one that can't be simply blamed on economic cycles. If you look closer, you find an uncanny similarity between NASCAR's eroding fan base and the deteriorating foundation of another, mostly-white, male-dominated establishment -- the Republican Party.
The Republican Party's so-called "demographic problem" has been well dissected and documented, no more than by the GOP itself. A growing Hispanic population, a shrinking old white male population, and a progressive, younger generation could spell trouble for the GOP. In 2012, Mitt Romney won white voters by 20 points but it wasn't nearly enough. Barack Obama cleaned Romney's clock among women, young voters, and minorities, winning the election comfortably.
Trying to attract new voters puts the GOP in a tough spot. Most women aren't in the Republican camp on issues like abortion or guns. Minorities aren't changing their tune on immigration or income inequality anytime soon. Try finding someone under 35 who opposes gay marriage. Yet, if Republicans move left on these issues, they risk alienating the ardent base of voters who still keep the party's head above electoral water.
THE OBVIOUS AND NOT-SO-OBVIOUS PARALLELS
NASCAR is facing an eerily-similar demographic problem. From the drivers, to the sponsors, to the country music acts that sing the national anthem, the sport appeals to a particular (and shrinking) segment of fans. NASCAR's base is male, older (almost 2x more likely to be over 45 than under 29), White (Blacks are 27% less likely and Hispanics 20% less likely to follow the sport). They're twice as likely to live in rural areas of the South or Midwest, 20% more likely to support more lenient gun laws, and 26% more likely to say their religious beliefs are "very important" to them). They're 36% more likely to drive a truck than a sedan. And, for good measure, NASCAR fans are 50% more likely to be registered Republicans than Democrats.
To attract new segments of fans, NASCAR is faced with many of the same challenges as the GOP. A pre-race performance by Wiz Khalifa might engage new TV viewers, but only until he gets booed out of the infield. Sponsor deals with Lulu lemon or Zara might catch the eye of a few younger women but why in the world would they do it?
Not unlike the GOP's "Hail Mary" pick of Sarah Palin for VP in 2008, NASCAR is betting big that Danica Patrick can put a different face on the sport without offending the die-hards. While, like Palin, Patrick may have dominated the news cycle for a short time, the persistent decline in attendance and TV ratings suggest she isn't really moving the needle.
Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya enjoyed success after moving to NASCAR from F1 in 2007 but his fans never moved with him. Now he's losing his ride. You could draw a parallel to Senator Marco Rubio, who enjoys strong support from Hispanic voters in his home state of Florida but polls only 1% better than Romney among Hispanics nationally.
Simply parading out new faces of diversity can't stop NASCAR's decline, leaving them with as few options as their GOP counterparts. Demographic trends are too stacked against them and not likely to get better. They can continue drifting further into the margins or do something drastic.
THE QUESTION OF REINVENTION
If you Google "reinventing the Republican Party" you will find more than 24,000 results. Thought-leaders across the political spectrum make a compelling case that a marginalization of the GOP, at least in its current form, is inevitable. They argue that only a complete re-thinking, one that risks alienation of the party's Limbaugh-following zealots, will do the trick.
If you Google "reinventing NASCAR," you'll find 10 results, only one of which is relevant. Two years ago, NASCAR execs embarked on the kind of "five-year plan" that consultants love. It included things like "increasing engagement among children and college-age consumers" and "attracting a multicultural fan base." They've ramped up their social media efforts and inked deals to broadcast races in Spanish. It's the right line of thinking but will it go far enough?
The differences between NASCAR fans and non-fans are as stark (if not as visceral) as the differences between Republicans and Democrats. NASCAR cannot become a bastion of hip-hop and hipsters without risking serious collateral damage. If the lessons from the GOP are any omen, then a handful of clever marketing tactics are unlikely to turn the tide for NASCAR.
The dynamics of the U.S. population are changing at a torrid pace; NASCAR and the Republican Party are by no means the only institutions at a major crossroads (see: The Catholic Church). To maintain relevance, let alone spur growth, these groups may need to completely reinvent their image and culture. But who will actually have the courage to do it?