Will The IRL Follow Other “Old” Sports?
I actually watched some of the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament this week. I couldn’t remember the last time I had watched any tennis for more than five minutes at one time. I got to thinking how popular tennis used to be in the seventies and eighties and what an obscure sport it has become. The same thing applies to boxing. Then a question dawned on me…has IndyCar racing pretty much followed the path of these two gigantic sports from the past?
The Borg-McEnroe matches at Wimbledon in the late seventies and early eighties were classic in every aspect of the word. Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and Boris Becker were all common names in the sporting world. Chris Evert, Tracy Austin and Martina Navratilova garnered as much attention on the women’s side. Professional tennis received as much hype as any other sport in the late seventies.
Boxing was another extremely popular sport of the seventies. Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier had fights around the globe that was shown only on closed circuit television. Most people wanting to see the “Thrilla in Manila” had to pay to go to a movie theater that was showing the closed circuit telecast. He also had epic bouts with George Foreman that engrossed the sports-following public. Like IndyCar racing, boxing also had a long rich history in this country throughout most of the twentieth century. By the eighties, there were different factions of boxing posturing to gain control of the sport. The different sanctioning bodies formed a virtual alphabet soup of ruling organizations. Boxing was splintered into the WBA, the WBC, the IBF, the WBO and the IBO. Most casual fans were confused as to what was what and basically lost interest. Sound familiar?
Today, except for the most ardent boxing fans – boxing has been reduced to a slimy footnote that is covered only by slick-haired goombahs out of Las Vegas. I consider myself a fairly well versed sports fan, but I don’t even give boxing a second look. When flipping around, if I land on a boxing match – it’s as if I can’t change the channel fast enough.
I can’t say the same for tennis. I found that I actually enjoyed watching the tennis, but I don’t think it was enough to make me start following the sport again, but it was enjoyable to watch for a little while.
My question is…has IndyCar racing gone the same way as tennis and boxing? Boxing probably peaked in the early seventies. Tennis probably peaked in the early eighties. Is IndyCar just in a lull while it tries to find its way through the split and then the growing pains of unification – or has it seen its peak and is now destined to wallow in obscurity?
Earlier this week, a reader left a comment on a post that the wane in popularity began with the first split – the CART/USAC split in the fall of 1978. There is some merit to that theory. Many of those CART seasons in the early eighties were boring and mismanaged. But CART did have its “glory” days which, in my opinion, took place I the early to mid-nineties. Even in those days, CART certainly had its shortcomings. Still, one must always wonder what might have happened had the CART/IRL split never taken place.
Probably the worst damage that was done by the split in 1996 was the amount of confusion that prevailed over open-wheel racing. Except for the hard-core fans, most casual fans who may have been cultivated into future hard-core fans – had no idea of what the split was about nor did they perceive any differences between the two series – much the same way with the different sanctioning bodies in boxing. All that was certain was that no one understood which drivers would be in which race.
The same held true for sponsors and potential sponsors. In the early stages of the split, CART had the big-name teams and drivers – but most importantly, they had the big-name sponsors. Corporations were willing to wait a couple of years for the two series to work out their differences. Ultimately, the sponsors wanted to be at the Indianapolis 500. When that didn’t happen after a few years, corporations forced their teams to participate at Indy or to move to the IRL altogether.
Unfortunately, on the other side of the racing picture – NASCAR was exploding. Some longtime open-wheel sponsors decided to focus their marketing dollars on NASCAR. Fans were flocking to watch stock cars in droves while the two open-wheel sides waged their battles in front of fewer and fewer fans. As open-wheel racing faded more into obscurity, it was obvious that one side would ultimately lose. Both sides had made significant blunders along the way, but in the end – it was the series that had the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in its portfolio.
Unification of what was left of the two series finally took place in 2008 – but were there enough fans left to notice or care? The dwindling car count, the shrinking sponsorship budgets and miniscule television ratings suggests not. What is left of a fan base consists of hard-core Indy 500 fans like myself that will watch anything having to do with that race; bitter CART/Champ Car fans who feel as if they “lost” and are being slighted and the curious Danica fans who are as likely to go away as quickly as they showed up.
So the question remains…will IndyCar racing ever emerge from the current doldrums and reassert itself as a relative entity among the elite sports that evoke Monday morning water-cooler conversations; or is IndyCar destined to barely survive as a niche sport that can only boast of its storied history rather than what the future holds? If it is following the path of tennis and boxing, I’m afraid the latter may be the case.
* – Please Note: There will be no blog on Saturday or Sunday of this weekend. I’ll return on Monday Sep 14.