An Apocalyptic Sign of the Times

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To some, this will come across as a rant from a grumpy old man in full-out Get off my Lawn mode. I don’t mean for it to, but younger readers will probably view it that way. Instead, I consider it simply a look at the ever-changing landscape in sports.

Something happened in the sporting world last weekend that pretty much went unnoticed, but I think it speaks volumes and could be viewed as only the tip of the iceberg – especially regarding motorsports.

Two ranked teams in college football squared off – No. 16 Notre Dame and No. 23 Navy – at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. The Fighting Irish beat the Midshipmen by a score of 52-20, but that’s not what happened that caught my eye.

The game ended a streak of 273 sellouts at Notre Dame that dated back to Thanksgiving weekend of 1973. Richard Nixon was in the White House then. Touch-tone phones were a novelty and Johnny Rutherford had yet to win any of his three Indianapolis 500 victories. Rudy was still getting his brains kicked in on a weekly basis for the Irish – that’s how far back that was.

In those 273 games, Notre Dame won three National Championships and also played a lot of bad football – remember the years of Gerry Faust, Bob Davie, Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis? But regardless of the record or the weather, Notre Dame always sold out their stadium – until last weekend. This comes after the school spent around $400 million refurbishing the stadium, which was completed in 2017.

The thing is, these weren’t two bad football teams. Both teams were ranked. Yet for the first time in forty-six years, Notre Dame failed to sell all of the available tickets. It may not seem like a big deal, but I’m sure it was a sign of the apocalypse to Notre Dame administrators.

On my way to work on Monday morning, I was listening to some nationally known talking heads discussing the dilemma as guests on my usual local sports-talk radio. Yes, there were other factors mentioned, but the overwhelming culprit that they sited was that “millennials have tuned football out”.

That doesn’t surprise me. I’ve been saying this for years here on this site. But to hear someone of national importance (Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com) say it, still took me by surprise.

I have opined about this before, but this makes me fear for the future of motorsports even more. IndyCar was forced by manufacturers wishes to switch to hybrid technology, when the new engine formula comes on board in 2022. I think if you were to give truth serum to Jay Frye, he would probably say that he was reluctant to make the move – but if that’s what it takes to get a third manufacturer on board, that’s what he had to do.

The manufacturers know what’s coming. Whether they want to or not, they are all including hybrid or totally electric cars in what they are offering to consumers. This is not meant to be a political narrative on how to save the planet. If you want to own and operate an electric car – that’s your right. It’s not for me, but if you think that suits your needs best, then go for it.

This is also not meant to be a diatribe against millennials, but most of you know how I feel about man-buns. I really don’t consider the term “millennial” to be an age demographic – it’s more of a description of a chosen lifestyle. In the late sixties, we had hippies. In the eighties, we had yuppies. Today, we have millennials. My friend Paul Dalbey of Fieldof33.com barely fits into the age demographic of a millennial (although he vehemently denies it), but I certainly don’t consider him to be a millennial.

I’ve been saying (and fearing) for years that millennials don’t like sports, or even competition for that matter. They have bought into the theory that competition is evil and we should all just get along and not try to compete against each other. In a marriage, that kind of thinking works, but in the real world – it is flawed logic. Most of us face some form of competition every day in our jobs. It may come from other companies or it may come from our own co-workers. Some co-workers are openly competing for the best results each month, while others are silently competing against us behind our backs. Those that say that we are not living in a competitive environment are living in a fantasy world.

Sporting events embody the term “competition” and no sport clearly separates winners and losers more than racing. In football, you have two teams on the field. One will walk away victorious, while the other will be hanging their heads in defeat. But half of the competitors will win on any given day. In an IndyCar race, you have one winner and more than twenty losers. Some may feel good because they did much better than they thought they would, but they still lost. What’s that old saying? Second place is the first loser. Or as Bobby Unser used to say “No one remembers who finished second, except for the guy that finished second”.

I concede that I don’t have the youngest readership out there, but I also know that several people under the age of thirty read this site on a regular basis. I am not talking about them because they are obviously racing fans, or else they wouldn’t be coming here.

But when millennial students or young alums are no longer showing up at Notre Dame, what many perceive as the cradle of college football, there is an inherent problem. If a tradition-rich program like Notre Dame can no longer draw in the younger crowd, what does that say about motor racing?

Football is the most popular sport in the US. When I was growing up in the sixties, it was baseball. Baseball is on a decline that I think is irreversible. Two or three years ago, I heard that the average age for baseball’s All-Star Game (which used to be very popular) was 56. I have an idea that by the time the 2020 All-Star Game rolls around next July that average will have risen. Kids no longer follow it and those that still do are dying off. Eventually, baseball as we know it will die off as well. It won’t be in my lifetime, but it will eventually happen.

In my lifetime, I’ve already witnessed several so-called mainstream sports morph intro what are now considered niche sports. Boxing, horse racing and tennis come to mind. In the early to mid-seventies Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier were on the minds of every kid in school. I was more of a Frazier fan, but most cheered for Ali. None of us got to see their epic fights on closed-circuit TV, but we read about them in the papers a day or two later.

The seventies were also filled with Triple-Crown winners. Secretariat was a finalist for the Sports Illustrate Sportsman of the Year (losing out to the great Jackie Stewart) in 1973. The battles between Alydar and Affirmed in the three Triple Crown races of 1978 are still legendary today. There was a second Triple Crown winner in the past five years in 2018. Can you name him? I thought not. It was a horse by the name of Justify.

In the late seventies and early eighties, everyone knew of the great matches at Wimbledon between Sweden’s Bjorn Borg and USA’s John McEnroe. Although most of my friends cheered for McEnroe because he was an American, I liked Borg. I just thought he was a much classier individual and I liked watching him play. Back then I watched as much Wimbledon and the other Grand Slam matches as possible. I’ll bet it’s been twenty-five years since I’ve watched any tennis at all.

All of these sports were giants when I was growing up. They are now considered niche sports. Unfortunately, I see all of auto racing going that route and it saddens me.

Formula One has its core of fans in the US, but they are small. We know about IndyCar’s track record in TV ratings and attendance. One can only hope that the new Penske leadership will help that, but I don’t ever see the NTT IndyCar Series even getting close to the viewership that CART enjoyed in the early nineties.

And then there is NASCAR. Less than twenty years ago, NASCAR experienced unprecedented growth. In the early 2000s, NASCAR threatened to go mainstream. Suddenly people around Monday morning water-coolers were talking about what Sterling Marlin and Jeff Gordon had done the previous day. Just a few years earlier, these same people didn’t know a lug-nut from a restrictor-plate. Yet here they were following a sport that it was suddenly considered cool to follow.

So what did NASCAR do? They changed the rules, beginning with the Chase for the Championship in 2003. Then they changed the rules again…and again…and again. Today, their rules about playoffs and stage races have angered their core fans and it did nothing to attract new fans. The new fans they acquired in 2001 were already dwindling away by 2007. Today most NASCAR races show a lot of empty stands – something unheard of in the early 2000s. Part of that is due to their own stupidity, but most of that is due to the preferences of the millennial.

I’m very lucky that my father exposed me to the Indianapolis 500 at such an early age (six years-old in 1965). I fell in love with the sport instantly. The speeds, the smells and the sounds were all intoxicating for a kid all through elementary school. I noticed that all the drivers were surrounded by beautiful women, but to a six year-old – that didn’t particularly interest me. By about age ten, that became another allure to racing. By the time I was a teenager, there were only two things on my mind – girls and cars, but not necessarily in that order. The faster, the better – and that applied to both.

My kids are both in their thirties and I have no grandkids, so I have no regular contact with today’s teenagers. But from what I can surmise, today’s teenage boys have no interest in cars. They are looked upon strictly as means of transportation that are destroying the planet.

My father died twenty-five years ago in 1994. He and I attended the 1993 Indianapolis 500 together. He never would have dreamed that the Indy car series of today would be racing on ovals in front of mostly empty seats. The last oval race he and I watched together was the 1994 Michigan 500, when the place was packed. We have grown accustomed to such sights as empty grandstands, but what will our kids be watching in the next twenty-five years? I’ll be 86 when the 2045 season rolls around. If I’m still above ground, will there even be a series to watch? Will motorsports still exist?

I’d like to think so, but I’m not so sure. When I was a kid, I never thought baseball would be an afterthought in the minds of most Americans. Who would’ve dreamed that boxing and tennis would have shrunk to what they are now? Race cars were once something that we would gaze at longingly. Have they been reduced by twenty-somethings to loud noisy relics that pollute the planet and use up fossil fuels and encourage primitive competition?

IMS has announced the Indy Autonomous Challenge to take place in 2021. Is this what interests the youth of today? As George Patton allegedly said in the movie Patton, when he was asked about new wonder-weapons that involved nothing more than pushing a button; “Wonder weapons? By God, I don’t see the wonder in them. Killing without heroics? Nothing is glorified? Nothing is reaffirmed? No heroes? No cowards? No troops? No Generals? Only those that are left alive and those who are left…dead. I’m glad I won’t live to see it”.

Football fans across the country probably never thought they would see the day that Notre Dame could not sell out its stadium with two ranked teams playing, with one of them their beloved Irish. Unfortunately, I think it’s a sign of the times.

Like Patton, I’m a bit of an anachronism and a romantic when it comes to racing. I don’t share the current interest in electric technologies when it comes to cars, especially race cars. I like my racing loud, fast and powerful. If this is where racing is eventually headed, I’m glad I won’t live to see it.

OK, my lawn is cleared off now. Come back Friday for something a little bit more upbeat.

George Phillips

17 Responses to “An Apocalyptic Sign of the Times”

  1. If people go to a sporting event, they go to a sporting event, with all the hassle and expense of attending a sporting event.

    If they stay home they not only have a better view of the sporting event on a huge screen television, they can Facetime with relatives, play video games, call Uber-eats for snacks, avoid babysitters, do their taxes, gamble, catch up on work, feed the dog, save money and watch 4 other sporting events at the same time.

  2. Maybe it’s simply the costs that are involved for some of these events; I’m assuming that you’ve looked at what Notre Dame asks for tickets to any single game? And certain games become “premium price” , sporting pretty significant upcharges for those dates.

    And that doesn’t include parking and/or transportation costs, which are pretty steep as well.

    Take four people to a game and you’re looking at ~$ 400-$500+ for tickets and parking. Add in some food and drink and the tab easily goes to $600 (or much more).

    These days I can buy a pretty good big screen TV for less than that. A lot less. And have cash left over. As Redcar said previously, the advantages of staying home are obvious.

    And the same is true for Indycar, Nascar, IMSA, etc. Right now, the only racing that I’d pay for to see in person is F1; the atmosphere at the track is electric, and the best events (Canada) is a week long festival, and Montreal is great to visit.

    • That atmosphere would not be there if no one went to the race. It’s impossible to replicate the sensory dimensions one experiences at a live event. To me you are missing a lot not being there/ t.v. can never replace that.

  3. Bruce Waine Says:

    “You cannot go home…….”

    One at some point in the journey may reach the realization that this is a natural (and unavoidable) occurrence as the pages of the calendar fade away.

    Nothing is new here other than a realization as one grows older and more reflective on life, etc. that you cannot go home………

    Enjoy your brief visit to the museum (of life) while you are able to do so……….

  4. Jack Phillips Says:

    George, I agree with you – certainly about the electric cars. However, the youth probably do see electric cars as a real option, and don’t care for the sounds and smells of internal combustion engines. I seem to recall a certain 10 year old in 1968 who LOVED Granatelli’s turbine powered cars and pouted for days after Joe Leonard flamed out, giving the win to Bobby Unser’s turbocharged Offy, which actually sounded like a race car instead of a vacuum cleaner. Imagine how the Indianapolis 500 could have gone had USAC not regulated the inlet areas for turbines out of the competitive realm. I can visualize Tony Hulman saying “Gentlemen, spool up your turbines!”

    The question is, will going to electric cars bring in enough Millenial fans to save the series? Probably not. There are simply too many choices for entertainment out there. Remember when ABC’s Wide World of Sports was a Saturday afternoon TV staple? We watched it any Saturday that they were showing a USAC race. It’s not on the air now because each of those sports has its own channel now and you don’t have to sit through a session on figure skating to see the sport you really tuned in to watch.

    The times are indeed changing. We just need to figure out how to do the best with what is left to us. I frankly don’t care to watch a race between electric powered, self driving cars. If Indy Car racing becomes just a small, niche sport so be it. As long as it exists at all, it will be worth watching. It already is nowhere nearly as exciting as it was back in the 60’s, when there were dozens of different chassis on the track, and several different types of engines (looking back to the 1968 500, how many different engines were running? I can name at least 5 – normally aspirated Ford twin cams, normally aspirated Offy’s, turbo Fords and Turbo Offy’s, and the Pratt & Whitney turbines. Now in order to reduce the cost for the teams, we have one chassis and two engines, and everyone’s cars look just alike. Boring. Maybe this is why interest has waned.

    Get off my lawn!

  5. Well, from the beginning, I have a big ass TV and a thousand or so channels showing almost every sport everywhere in super HD. Who needs to even go outside?

    My last NASCAR race was a 1990’s Michigan 500. 3 HOURS to get out of the parking lot.We were in heirloom tickets in a grandstand with a really poor view (since removed) and we were the only ones in a huge grandstand of thousands of people who didn’t have yellow Pennzoil hats. I would never go back because of the traffic and the Pennzoil fans probably didn’t go back when the tickets weren’t free anymore. Not happening again.

    We took 2 of 4 grandchildren to the Toronto Maple Leafs 100th anniversary game. At $249 for medium grade tickets and lunch and transportation and souvenirs ……….. we were WAY over $1000…….. and that’s the everyday price…… every game. Not happening again. That ‘s a giant NO to pro sports…. we could take them to Bermuda for less. (or buy another giant ass TV)

    As I remember in a misquote, Bernie Ecclestone said that he didn’t care if the grandstands were empty an long as he had the worldwide TV revenue and to that I wholeheartedly agree. My super wide TV with 1000 odd channels works just perfectly ……………….
    Well, you know,………….. except that Indycar isn’t
    broadcast in Canada anymore.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    Interesting that this post comes right after a weekend in which a racing movie trounced all other new releases at the box office (including one with a Danica Patrick cameo)…

    I would never deny that there are challenges facing motorsports now and going forward or that some forms of racing aren’t going to adjust well to them. But I understand and accept that the future of motorsports will be different, and that is not necessarily terrible. As long as there are things that go, people will compete with them, and competition is compelling when showcased well. While their interest may manifest itself in different ways than in the past, I’m sorry but I really don’t see an aversion to competition from people in the younger generation. I think motorsports will figure it out on some level and I expect I will continue to enjoy it.

    I also must quibble with your description of baseball’s slide (pun intended) from prominence. That slide is undeniable on a national level, but yet, baseball has transitioned to being a locally-focused piece of entertainment with tremendous success. Nearly every MLB team’s local broadcasts are the top-rated local cable broadcast and many are the top-rated local broadcast period. Most teams draw consistently respectable attendance and most sell millions upon millions of dollars in sponsorship. Even minor league baseball has found a successful niche as a piece of leisurely live entertainment (or maybe a glorified bar). It’s probably not really a model Indycar can emulate, but it is an example of sport finding a different route to success.

  7. Agree with most all you say George. In recent years I’ve wondered if Indy would turn into another Ontario. Perhaps Mr Penske is postponing this a few years or so. I don’t think there’s really a solution. Enjoy it while it’s here. 😕

  8. The first part I have some perspective on because I’m a livelong South Bend resident and lived a mile away from Notre Dame Stadium for the past 20 years. To be honest, a lot of us up here were surprised to hear we had a sellout streak dating back that long. I get that something is considered a sellout as long as all the tickets are sold. That said, there have been plenty of games over the past decade up here where you won’t find a butt in every seat. A lot of season tickets are held or purchased by local businesses who give them out to customers and clients. I’ve seen this on a small scale. For years my family had four season tickets through their construction company which they gave out to distributors/contractors/customers etc. Perhaps businesses aren’t making those investments as prevalently anymore. Which of course, speaks to George’s point that people are losing interest in attending sporting events I suppose.

  9. Must be a slow news day in Nashvulle Henny Penny. I was recently notified by the Green Bay Packer ticket office that I now have about 160,000 Packer fans ahead of me on the season ticket waiting list. No lack of interest in football here in Wisconsin at Green Bay or over at Badger Stadium in Madison. Even though I am Irish, I could not care less about the fighting Irish. Maybe they have just become boring.

  10. One problem with this theory, tens of millions of millennials tune in to watch other millenials play Fortnight or Call of Duty and those are all about competition. Probably more accurate to say younger people just don’t care much about the legacy sports anymore, i.e. sports that require leaving the house and spending a small fortune to sit in uncomfortable seats for several hours while being surrounded by sweaty, drunk sports fans. They would rather watch/play esports for free from the comfort of their couch. Not to mention they probably can’t afford to drop $100-200 to go to a ballgame. I know I can’t.

  11. well, Brandon, above, beat me to it.

    eSports, cost of attendance, and i would add:
    demographics of the college student body.
    at our local university, ~70% of incoming
    “freshmen” are female. ~15% are foreign born.
    …and the students are stuck with end zone seats.

  12. I don’t think we can paint all young people with the same brush. I meet many who are into sports. If fact my PT and I discuss football every session. He and his colleagues are surprised I know so much about current pro football and not necessarily the Rams. I don’t think many younger folks have the money to attend events on a regular basis. It will be interesting to see who shows up at the new LA stadium next year. I want to go to a Rams game there at least once. I doubt though it will be the thrill I experienced in my younger days sitting in the West End Coaches Society in the LA Coliseum.

    So, it is not the end of the world for live sports. It is just not the one in which we grew up.

  13. Talón de Brea Says:

    I voted “other.”

    The entire sports spectating world is changing, with racing further affected by factors related to technology.

    Motorsports long involved looking forward — in terms of technology and daring — and as incredibly visceral, colorful and LOUD as internal combustion racing is, part of “looking forward” means looking (for various reasons, but out of some necessity) toward a future in which such propulsion will be supplanted by forms no doubt less pleasing to those of us who grew up with Cosworths, Offies and Novis.

    Alternate energy solutions aren’t just a case of the neighborhood kids straying onto our lawns, even if it might feel that way to those who have long followed racing.

    Already I look at racing as a kind of “vintage racing” experience, and at my age and with the state of racing and spectator sports these days, I appreciate it all the more when I get the chance to attend. (It’s really more of a niche sport, but I think in terms of “vintage” because of all the nostalgia, history, long-ago father-son interaction, etc. tied in to following racing.) It’s strange to think that, eventually, it will all go away — as chariot races did. Eventually.

    The vicarious “Walter Mitty” aspect of car racing can’t help but be on the decline, as fewer 15-year-olds anxiously wait to turn 16 and get a driver’s license, and those who do drive are behind the wheel of an SUV or crossover or gentrified pickup with entertainment and communications centers. Even within internal-combustion vehicles, actual cars are on the decline …

    • billytheskink Says:

      Chariot racing isn’t entirely dead, it just morphed into things like harness racing. Niche? Extremely, but enough people still want to do it and to watch it. It wasn’t that long ago that Indy 500 of harness racing, The Hambletonian Stakes was on national network television too.

  14. As soon as I see the word “rant” in your posts, I stop reading.

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