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Accounting for NASCAR Tastes

NASCAR's Daytona 500 ratings point toward another year upward year for the sport. Although I follow NASCAR a bit, I'm not much of a fan. Three out of the four colleagues around my office are big fans. One fits the stereotypical profile -- a Georgia boy, educated but "redneck" at heart. The other two illustrate NASCARs broadening appeal. They both hail from the midwest. One is older with a business executive background. The other is younger and played college basketball.

What lies behind NASCAR's meteoric rise? One Michigan sports writer defines it by what it is not -- urbane, pouting superstars, unionized, and the like. An econ-oriented spin (thanks to Lancaster, Becker , Stigler) similar to the writer's explanation starts by noting that people do not really gain value directly from goods and services. Instead, at the broadest level, consumers value things such as entertainment and health (these might be broken down into smaller parts). They combine goods and services offered in markets with their own skills and time in producing and consuming items to generate entertainment, heath, and so on. These producing and consuming skills reflect a person's innate abilities, environment, and effort spent building them. NASCAR taps into the consuming skills of mid-America. Whether highly educated or not, the background and environment of these folks does not incline them toward the NY Times crossword puzzle, foreign films, or the ultra-urban offerings of the NBA. Instead, NASCAR fits them like hockey fits Canadians. During the 1980s and 90s, the financial wherewithall of these millions of Americans grew enormously and funded the market purchases of the NASCAR product.

In many ways, this is the reporter's story in econ-speak because many of the specifics related to "consuming skills" and the "environment" are hard to quantify. One relatively concrete aspect that may link NASCAR package to the consuming skills of mid-America is the weekend-based schedule that the circuit shares in common with the NFL -- another sport whose following has continued on an upward track. The Saturday (Busch)-Sunday (Nextel) race schedule fits mid-American lifestyles. In contrast, the 82-game + infinite playoff system of the NBA is all over the place in terms of days and times. I wonder what the NBA might gain by going to a reduced number of games, emphasizing, say, a Tuesday-Friday or a Friday-Sunday-Wed schedule. Some TV and league executives sometimes think that wall-to-wall is best but NASCAR and the NFL suggest a different way of linking with consumers.