Jeff Gluck.

When a piece of media coverage a league dislikes pops up, it’s often passed around and complained about inside that league’s offices. It’s sometimes even complained about publicly, as with the NFL and The New York Times, or with all sorts of various snarkiness from league PR execs on Twitter. It’s much rarer to see league executives actually pass those stories on to their sport’s athletes and cite them as “the kind of coverage killing the sport,” but that’s apparently what NASCAR did with a Jeff Gluck piece in USA Today last year.

Gluck, a veteran motorsports reporter now writing for his own Patreon-funded jeffgluck.com website, shared the story there Friday of what happened last year. He did so in a piece titled “An unpleasant anniversary.” Here’s the key part of his piece:

On the Friday of the summer Daytona weekend last year, a story of mine was published in USA Today with the headline “NASCAR Looks Beyond Declining Attendance, TV Ratings.” This story had been in the works for months, ever since editors watched the April race at Bristol and noticed the tens of thousands of empty grandstand seats.

The conclusion was to do a story explaining to readers what was happening in NASCAR, and I was given the assignment to write it. NASCAR knew the story was in the works — I interviewed chief operating officer Brent Dewar for it, along with 200 fans — but wasn’t happy it was coming out.

During the midseason update meeting, a high-ranking NASCAR executive held up a copy of the newspaper with my story and told all the drivers in attendance that this was the type of coverage that was killing the sport. You have to remember this was in the midst of a title sponsor search for NASCAR, so it was a particularly sensitive time for everyone.

Shortly thereafter, I was approached in the media center by David Higdon, who was leading the NASCAR communications department at the time. He gave me a heads up I’d probably be getting some hostility from the drivers in the coming weeks, because the story was discussed in the meeting and not received favorably by the drivers.

It’s pretty remarkable to see a league take that kind of step about a specific story from a specific writer, and it’s a demonstration of one of the most troubling issues in journalism; organizations trying to push back against publications or writers on future stories because they were unhappy with a previous story. Granted, just complaining about a story this way is much less severe than trying to pull the writer or outlet’s credentials, a fruitless and generally quickly-retracted move we’ve seen from the UFC, countless college teams, and MLS club Real Salt Lake (among others), but sending an implied message to all of your athletes to treat a certain reporter badly seems quite problematic. It definitely led to pushback for Gluck,  and as he later notes, not all of that blowback was based on drivers examining the coverage in question and making their own decisions about it:

I walked further down pit road, and bumped into a driver on his way to the car. He stopped and put his hand on my shoulder.

“You fucked us!” he said.

“Come on, did I?” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t know, that’s just what they told us in the meeting,” he said. “I didn’t read it.”

It’s understandable why NASCAR was upset about Gluck’s story. No league wants to be associated with “Declining attendance, TV ratings,” even though that was factual, and even though the piece in question did mention positives for NASCAR as well (a lucrative long-term TV deal, plus organizational commentary about increased digital and social engagement). And the outlet running this story perhaps particularly bugged them, as USA Today is and was the main national newspaper covering NASCAR on a race-by-race basis.

NASCAR gets national coverage from broadcasters, magazines and websites, and it gets significant coverage from local papers around each race), but it isn’t regularly covered by some of the big papers, partly because even nationally-focused papers still tend to emphasize their own city’s sports teams. USA Today is more the exception than the rule there (and it’s helped by having a rare completely-nationally-focused sports section), and its coverage is seen by a lot of people. Thus, even if Gluck’s story was perfectly fair (and it seems that way from the outside, but the executives in question may have had some bones to pick with it), it wasn’t going to go over well. It’s easy to see how execs saw this as hurting the league, especially while they were looking for a title sponsor.

However, that doesn’t justify NASCAR’s apparent response here. For one thing, as with many media bans, this kind of step is backward-looking rather than forward-looking, trying to deliver retribution for a past story instead of working to make future stories more tolerable. And making a reporter’s job harder (through either an outright ban or inciting negativity towards them) generally isn’t going to improve things. For another thing, this looks amateurish and unprofessional; if there was an issue with Gluck’s story, the smarter move would be to discuss it with him or his editors rather than try to punish him down the road. But it’s the attempt to rally drivers against Gluck that’s perhaps most disturbing. League or team executives deciding who they like or don’t like is one thing, but telling athletes a certain story or reporter is bad feels more problematic. Hopefully this kind of move won’t be repeated by NASCAR execs, or by anyone else.

[JeffGluck.com]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz is a staff writer for Awful Announcing.

  • BadgerBacker

    The reason the ratings are down is obvious, but nobody wants to admit it. It all started when NASCAR went to the “one network” contact with FOX start with the 2001 season (which they sublet some to NBC). You don’t intentionally limit your exposure/coverage! The ratings have been slowly backsliding since.

    Before that you had races on CBS, ABC, NBC, ESPN, TBS & TNN, plus they were not in group blocks, so each network reminded you to watch NASCAR while promoting their next respective race in a couple weeks. Plus each network had a vested interest to have some kind of coverage of the sport even if they did not have the race that week. Currently the coverage is on FOX and NBC who do not promote NASCAR except when it is their turn for their races. The other remaining networks have no need to cover NASCAR since they air no races, hence the downfall in ratings.

    The NFL has CBS, ESPN, NBC and Fox. The NBA has ESPN, TNT and about 20 regional networks. MLB has ESPN, FOX, FS1 and 20 regional networks which are constantly promoting the sport during other programming. None of these sports limit themselves to 1 network. All NASCAR needs to do is bid out the individual races again and the people would return slowly but surely because they would be reminded to watch and NASCAR would have max exposure.

    • Ted Mark

      Good points. It’s also amazing to me that those in charge of a so-called professional sports organization that obviously has problems retaining it’s fanbase would think that killing the messenger would be an appropriate solution to those problems.

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    • Respected Citizen

      NHL games are limited to NBC / NBCSN nationally, and their ratings are increasing. People complain about their college team’s 12 games being divided up among 4-8 channels.

  • Bill

    You bring up an interesting point BadgerBacker, but that’s not all of it in my opinion. I’m a nobody but have been watching this situation for a couple of decades as a gear head, race car owner, marketing guy, and a fan. If people like something, they will go after it regardless of what network it’s on. The numbers you see today are your real numbers VS the numbers in the late 90’s when NASCAR was peaking.

    Yes race promotion, consistency in programming, may attract more attention and grab some new viewers and help ratings, but that kind of inflation to me not dependable. Real Nascar fans don’t ever need to be reminded of a race, so today’s numbers are the real ones, and they are solid as I am one of them. At least we know what were really working with now.

    When we say ratings are down, down compared to what? The highest ever rating? The previous year. The last five… What we need it to be…U hear this thrown around a lot and often wonder that actually means and if people understand what they are saying.

    In the late 90’s, Nascar peaked due to a number of reasons converging at the same time! Just as any business could. But NASCAR DIDN’T PEAK. It literally EXPLODED. When I was in involved with NASCAR back in the day, the sport was completely different. The vibe was different. The hype was much higher, and it was exciting to just about anyone regardless of what you knew about it. Damn near very race was sold out at maximum capacity and ratings were booming. Everyone had to have have some of NASCAR. It was just different! It peaked. That had nothing to do with the network deals. It was the time period, a great economy and a perfect storm of factors that thrusted NASCAR out of sight of any real measurable number. There were waiting lists for sponsorship opportunities with some owners. How ridiculous does that sound today? Race tracks were increasing seating capacity like crazy. Of course we’ve removed those today the make the tracks LOOK full again. What a yo yo.

    I don’t believe that returning to the old programming method would restore those numbers, or anything close to it, because there are simply TOO MANY other factors that I hear FROM race fans on a daily. That’s a different discussion.

    I hope we are not comparing ANYTHING to that time period because it will never happen again. NASCAR in the 90’s into the 2000’s was a perfect storm on many levels. Nothing will ever top that that. So we shouldn’t base our expectations on WHAT IT ONCE WAS.

    I may be totally off kilter here, but I do love the discussion.

  • Aaron Wieringa

    I hate this regurgitated media… Read someone else’s original article, quote most of it, add a paragraph of writers “opinion” (which consists of several meaningless statements), call themselves a writer… Just stop.

  • sportsfan365

    This is a poorly written article. It starts with a nearly unintelligible headline, followed by some whining, then some sort of editorial about what the “crime” was. Apparently race car drivers aren’t allowed to be mad at articles that slam their sport, even though the clash between writers and the “victims” of their writing has been going on since time immemorial. Oh, and the last paragraph mentions a “ban” but that isn’t mentioned anywhere else thus it looks like the USA Today writer is simply bitching about the orchestrated anger.
    .
    This isn’t fake news but it is certainly worth its own moniker. How about we call it “crying towel news”.

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  • Nonee4

    The reporter didn’t have to write a negative article with a possible adverse effect on so many.For what ?

  • mmkkpro

    NASCAR has no one to blame but itself , over priced product too much micromanaging , cookie cutter cars and tracks . I grew up by Rockingham motor speedway , through the 60s and 70s , been to countless races up until 2001 . Let’s see , we will drop several tracks that built nascar , we will force all cars to have same horsepower , springs , shocks , gears and oh by the way all cars have to have the same drag coefficiency , we will only broadcast on channels a lot of people don’t have , it’s sad to see what big Bill France built be destroyed over greed , whatever .

  • Khara Snowdon

    April Bristol race was rained out ! That’s fact. Not Jeff Gluck . Act of God. His opinion and journalism is called a point of view. Freedom of speech..

    • Khara Snowdon

      Further more if NASCAR wants more fans than take constructive criticism more gracefully. And fans….. get up off that lazy butt and ATTEND THE NEXT RACE that’s close to your hometown!
      #getMoving #boogity

  • Chuck Wagner

    I’ve been done with NASCAR ever since Toyota came in the picture. That seems to be a watershed moment for NASCAR as a “sport”.
    A better moniker for NASCAR would be GREEDCAR, IMHO.

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