If one follows the national Sports media in this country, you may often hear the term "four major sports leagues." They refer to the National Football League (NFL,) Major League Baseball (MLB,) the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Hockey League (NHL.) These entities are where our home town teams play, and for decades they have been a fabric in our American Sports Culture. They have unofficially been labeled our nation's top four sports.
So let me make it official: NASCAR should be mentioned in this discussion. In fact, I will go further and claim stock car racing is number two, second only to professional football in America!
The sport sometimes still appears stuck in the south where its roots are. You don't hear about NASCAR much on talk radio where the major media are on the west coast and in the northeast. The cable sports panels hardly ever mention the "good ol' boys." To the non-fan, to even mention the fact that NASCAR competes well with the major sports seems silly. But, make no mistake, there is a huge fan base that watch and go to the races, buy the gear and follow their favorite drivers.
I should say 'worship their drivers.' Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Jimmy Johnson and Tony Stewart top the list of brand names that rabid die-hards follow like housewives tune into soap operas. With no pun intended, those personalities drive the sport. Forty three of them in every race. This is the most important difference from all those professional 'team' sports. But wait, Stock Car Racing is a team sport! From the car owner to the crew chief down to the pit crew, it is as much as a team effort as anything played with a stick and ball.
In 2008, according to television ratings and merchandising sales figures, there is no question that the NFL leads the pack. No other sport in the United States attracts half the viewers or sells the most gear as the National Football League.
Looking at the average Nielsen TV Ratings for the last complete regular season, the NFL leads with a 10.2 share. Second is NASCAR Sprint Cup with 4.2, which is more than double than the next number the list. Tied for the third position is the NBA and MLB at 2.0, and professional Hockey comes in at a dismal 1.1 rating. College Sports do respectable with football at 3.8 and 1.6 for basketball.
Clearly, NASCAR wins the battle for second place when it comes to the ratings through the season, however, when it comes to the playoffs, Baseball (6.8,) Basketball (3.9) and the major college sports (New Years Day and BCS games averaged a 7.5 and March Madness came in at 6.1) draw more viewers than NASCAR's ten race chase format at a 3.8 rating. The Chase occurs when Pro Football begins and baseball is in their post season, so the competition is tough, but the sport appears to hold up fine.
Even though NASCAR had a down year in 2008, since TV rating were down, the entity stands tall among the other professional leagues. Major League Baseball has been tarnished by the steroids scandal, the NBA has lost viewers and some credibility recently with their referee scandals and the professional Hockey strike of a few years ago nearly killed the league. Even the NFL does not know what to do about the New England Patriots video taping issue. Professional Stock Car has had their problems too, however, one thing you can say is about NASCAR is that they usually address them, such as penalties for bending rules. Top drivers like Gordon and Johnson were docked 100 championship points last year. In 2008 NASCAR has vowed keep the sport fan friendly. That is a key, those fans need to keep coming and keep buying the merchandise.
Figures for licensed sports merchandise are hard to find, and they are only estimates. NASCAR claims sales of over two billion dollars. That does not come close to the NFL ($3.5 billion,) and MLB ($3.3 billion.) Without exact figures, the sport could be neck and neck for third with the NBA ($2.2 billion.) One thing no other sport can claim is the huge local economic impact of a event. Stock Car racing scores big in that department.
February 17 will be the 50th running of the Daytona 500, the sports biggest event. According to a report conducted by The Washington Economics Group, Inc. the race has a total economic impact of $1 billion. Compare that to the estimated impact of the recent Super Bowl XLII in Glendale of $400-500 million to the Phoenix area. In speaking of Phoenix, it is also estimated that the area gets about $350 million annually from the two NASCAR weekends they host. One more bit of extraordinary trivia: Of the 20 largest events of 2007 in terms of attendance, NASCAR clams 17 of them.
There is no question that NASCAR solidly holds second place as the nations most popular sport, given the statistics of attendance, TV ratings and economics.