NASCAR chairman Brian France just finished up giving his annual year-end comments to reporters, and frankly, I found it to be very disconcerting.
As usual, France's ideas about the sport and his evaluation of its current health is much different than many fans. That's to be expected, given his role and history.
But what stunned me was that France – who has tried to be more engaged than ever by holding "town hall" meetings with drivers and follows the results of a 12,000-member Fan Council – seemed to have no clue what many fans think.
For example: France was incredulous and seemed genuinely taken aback when a reporter asked him about the many fans who don't like the Chase.
"You've met somebody that's telling you that?" he asked, as if such people were as rare as a unicorn.
I don't know about you, but I meet people every day who say that. Personally, I disagree with them – I think the Chase is a good thing – but I acknowledge that there's a sizable number of fans who want to scrap it (an informal poll in September showed a 50-50 split).
How could France not realize that potentially half of his fan base hates the Chase? I understand if he disagrees with them, but to not even recognize that there's a major chunk of people who are anti-Chase gives the appearance that he's out of touch.
France also went out of his way to effusively praise ESPN – the network that has riled a vocal group of fans who believe it makes races unwatchable with excessive commercials and difficult-to-follow action.
France isn't in a position to bash NASCAR's TV partners, of course, but being so complimentary seemed like a slap in the face to fans who are begging for more watchable broadcasts.
"I think the broadcast has been as good as I've seen in a long time," he said. "I think the energy level and the calling of the action, the on-air talent, is top-notch right now on their network."
Again, while I only agree with part of the anti-ESPN crowd (the part concerning far too many commercials), you'd think France would at least be aware there's a decent number of people who want to feel like they're being heard on the topic.
Clearly, they aren't.
What is NASCAR's Fan Council telling France? What are the people around him telling him? Is it all sunshine and rainbows?
There were some major positives, as France hinted at shortening some of the races. But much of the talk seemed to be disconnected as to what fans using social media are saying.
France touched on several other topics that seemed surprising as well:
• He said NASCAR is "not monitoring" the potential NFL lockout – which would leave NASCAR with no competition next fall – and said "Our hope is that all leagues do well." Wouldn't NASCAR have a plan in place to capitalize on the absence of the NFL and grab those sports fans with nothing to watch on Sundays?
• He said moving to earlier start times this season came with a risk of "ratings erosion" – even though NASCAR said earlier start times were expected to improve ratings – and that ESPN was in fewer homes than ABC but had a "younger demographic" than the broadcast network did (Some fans say they haven't been able to watch the second half of the season due to cutting their cable in a bad economy).
• On the topic of declining attendance/ratings, France said everything in the sport would fix itself if the racing was good. France noted, "If we keep the racing as good as it's been in the second half of this season, I'm not worried a thing about the popularity of the sport." Shouldn't he be? Instead of viewing the dwindling audience as a mandate for change and a call to action, France said officials won't make decisions based on a year of poor ratings.
On a personal note, this is what I find so frustrating about NASCAR. Instead of publicly acknowledging issues in the sport and saying: "Look, we know we have problems – we're working on them, please stick with us as we figure this thing out," everything is politics and spin and denials.
Why can't France say, "Now, I know there's a bunch of people who aren't fans of the Chase, but I really think they'll grow to like it over time" as an acknowledgement they're being heard? Why can't he say, "Sure, there are a lot of commercials, but I would ask fans to be patient with that as we figure out a way to make the broadcasts more watchable" as a sign of hope?
Is he really unaware of how fans feel about the sport? I hope that's not true.
After all, if NASCAR doesn't understand what's driving some fans to leave, it's going to be tough to get them back.