By Nate Ryan, USA TODAY
When it comes to the sport's declining TV ratings, Fox Sports chairman David Hill thinks some NASCAR executives are trying to make a mountain of a molehill.
Or, in this case, a gopher hole.
With NASCAR having solicited opinions from drivers and team owners in a "town hall"-style meeting Tuesday about reasons for this season's dip in Sprint Cup ratings (down 13%) and attendance, Hill says he received a recent e-mail from a high-ranking NASCAR official Hill declined to identify blaming "Digger," the animated gopher that has become a staple of Fox's coverage.
"It was because of Digger that people were turning off in droves because they couldn't stand it," Hill said. "I said, 'I'm so sorry. If I'd known, I never would have created him. I didn't realize how insidious he was.'
"It's the biggest crock of (stuff) I've ever heard."
Digger was conceived during a rain delay last year as the mascot for Fox's camera embedded in the racetrack. He has appeared in a series of cartoon vignettes, and Hill says $500,000 of Digger-emblazoned items have been sold (the character has a 53-foot merchandise trailer at races and would rank among the top 15 in driver sales).
"People have described him as the Mickey Mouse of NASCAR, and that's flattering to have a brand as strong," Hill said. "To blame the downturn on Digger is a little head in the sand-ish."
Hill said NASCAR is going through a ratings correction that every sport endures and could be attributed to myriad reasons such as a wave of younger drivers, a new car and a lackluster season for Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most popular driver.
He said NASCAR could shore up audiences with a consistent start time. Hill has lobbied for every Cup race to begin at 1 p.m. ET, "but they won't because that means starting West Coast races at 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning. But that's the logical way. Moving start times confuses people."
NASCAR declined to address Digger's ratings impact, but spokesman Ramsey Poston says the sanctioning body is "interested in a closer look at consistent start times."
Earnhardt Jr. will strap into his No. 88 Chevrolet Friday at Dover International Speedway with a new crew chief, but the immense expectations will remain the same. The sway of NASCAR's six-time most popular driver is so critical to drawing viewers to broadcasts or fans to racetracks, his success (or lack thereof this season) could be having an effect on the sport that's akin to Tiger Woods' impact on golf.
"I'm told by our research guys that if Dale won, more people would watch," Hill says. "I guess in a way because he hasn't, Elvis has left the building. I would love to see him win at Dover."
Fox will wrap up its 13-race section of the 36-race season with Sunday's Autism Speaks 400, and its NASCAR coverage could use a jolt. The first 11 races registered an average rating of 5.2, which is a 13% decline from '08.
It's prompted NASCAR to research the trend and solicit industry opinions about the quality of its competition. In the town hall meeting at its Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C., NASCAR Chairman Brian France and President Mike Helton led drivers and owners through a discussion of everything from the setup of its next-generation car to how drivers are marketed.
"There were no solutions but lots of great ideas," says veteran Mark Martin, 50, the oldest full-time driver. "The biggest thing we have to realize is we have the greatest thing going in sports. It may feel we've got a lid on us, but we're stronger than most."
Hill says Fox isn't panicking near the end of its ninth season with NASCAR, either.
"Nothing goes up forever," he says. "Every sport has a correction. We've had the most unbelievable run with NASCAR. Because of that, and maybe quite rightly, people think it'll keep going. If it had gone down 50 to 60%, there's something wrong. But 13% is no time (for) alarm."
Fox officials note Cup races still have averaged 8.7 million viewers a week, outranking the average network audience (5.3 million) for the NBA postseason. Fox's prerace shows have matched the rating (3.4) for NBA playoff games on ABC.
Hill says though Earnhardt's slump (he is winless in 33 races and ranked 19th in points) might have an impact, analyzing sports ratings "is like working out where a school of fish is. Every year is not a heady climb. You always factor in the rough with the smooth. If it goes on three years, then I'll start to squawk."
NASCAR is trying to anticipate discontent by garnering feedback through open-ended questions posed to a 12,000-member "fan council" on the Internet that is designed to be a scientific model of its fan base. France also has promised more open forums with drivers and owners, and Martin hopes NASCAR will form task forces to address issues.
"Everybody pulling together will make it better, but it takes time to implement those ideas," Martin says. "Sometimes you have to bring people together."
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