SBJ/November 13 - 19, 2006/This Weeks News

A wrong turn for NASCAR

So much for the notion that the Chase for the Nextel Cup would boost NASCAR’s television ratings. Unlike the first two years of the Chase, when TV ratings surged higher than previous seasons, this playoff run has not delivered the expected punch.

Even with the tightest points race between the top two drivers since 1979 and an abundance of story lines, NASCAR’s sizzle on the track has not produced more viewers. Four of the five lowest-rated Nextel Cup events in 2006 have been Chase races, and the fifth was the event leading into the Chase, or what NASCAR has dubbed the “Race to the Chase.”

That’s not altogether uncommon because NASCAR’s numbers tend to shrink as summer turns to fall and football season begins. But not to this extent. Five of the 10 Chase races in 2005 earned a 4.9 Nielsen rating or better. Through eight Chase races this fall, none had reached that number heading into last Sunday’s event in Phoenix.

Overall, the first eight races in the Chase have generated a 4.1 average rating, compared with a 4.7 in 2005 and a 4.6 in 2004 through the same period (see chart). That puts NASCAR even with the 4.1 it registered for the final 10 races of 2003, the season before the Chase was instituted.

“Do we wish ratings were up every week? Of course we do,” said Dick Glover, NASCAR’s vice president of broadcasting and new media. “Do we look at it and say there’s a problem? No.”

Looking deeper, though, NASCAR’s ratings through 34 races were down 8.6 percent on network TV (a 5.3 rating) and 14.6 percent on cable (4.1). And only three of those 34 races have seen an increase in viewership over 2005.

Until this year’s sag, NASCAR’s ratings had been a consistent performer, rising 11.5 percent on network and 23.1 percent on cable since 2001, or during the life of the current TV contracts.

The big question with the decline, of course, is why.

Why this year, why on the heels of record ratings in 2005, why at a time when NASCAR continues to tout its growing fan base? What’s clear is there isn’t one, simple answer.

It could be part of the maturation process for a sports property. Or maybe the promotion and marketing has been off.

And, occasionally, other things come into play. NASCAR counts on the largest home markets to move the ratings needle a tenth or so, Glover said, but on Nov. 5, with the Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, the race competed partially with the Dallas Cowboys’ game at Washington, which likely pulled viewers away from the race. The race drew a 4.3 rating, down from a 5.1 in 2005.

Also, two races were moved to Monday because of weather.

Conversely, it was thought that the presence of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon in this year’s Chase — they were absent in ’05 — would give the ratings a lift. If it has, it hasn’t been noticeable.

NASCAR on TV
Average network and cable ratings for the Nextel Cup Series
Year Network Cable
2006*
5.3
4.1
2005
5.8
4.8
2004
5.6
4.3
2003
5.4
4.3
2002
5.7
4.5
2001
5.6
4.4
* Through 34 of 36 races.

“It’s fair to say that, yes, we’re perplexed,” Glover said. “But why were ratings up so much in ’05? Last year, I was saying, ‘Great, ratings are up,’ but you have to look at the long-term trends. I’m still saying the same thing. If you go back five, 10, 20 years, ratings are way up.”

What’s known is that NBC is in its last year of NASCAR and its first year of its much-publicized “Sunday Night Football.” While the network hasn’t commented on the declining ratings, many, including NASCAR CEO Brian France, have theorized that NBC isn’t promoting NASCAR like it should and that has contributed to the decline.

NBC disputed that contention, with a spokesperson saying the network has been heavily promoting its NASCAR races during “Sunday Night Football” and pointing to the fact that its Daytona 500 rating in February (11.3) was the highest ever for a NASCAR race.

The truth no doubt falls in the middle, none of which explains the seasonlong decrease. Fox, which televised 16 Nextel Cup races from February to July, enjoyed a ratings increase in just one of its races. All eight of TNT’s races suffered decreases.

“Nothing goes up forever,” said Larry Novenstern, executive vice president of national electronic media at Optimedia, a media buying agency. “There could be a thousand reasons under the sun why the numbers are smaller this year. Maybe they just hit a high-water mark. Listen, they’ve been on an unbelievable run and, honestly, I’m surprised it hasn’t happened sooner.

“In my mind, it’s as hot as it’s always been.”

Fox Sports President Ed Goren blamed the ratings dip on his network to two rain-delayed starts — Talladega on Fox and Atlanta on FX — as well as fewer caution flags, which mean shorter races. With the first 13 races of 2007 on Fox, including the Daytona 500, Goren is confident his network will see a ratings increase.

Goren also called on NASCAR to do away with the bye it has in the third week of the season, which he said breaks the momentum built at the start of the year.

Other network executives are unanimous in believing that NASCAR ratings will rebound next year.

Chase for theNextel Cup ratings
Venue 2004 2005 2006
New Hampshire*
3.7
4.2
3.7
Dover*
3.9
3.8
3.7
Kansas
4.2
4.5
3.9
Talladega
5.4
5.3
4.7
Lowe’s
4.9
5.1
4.7
Martinsville
4.4
4.7
4.0
Atlanta
4.6
4.7
4.8
Texas**
4.9
5.1
4.3
Phoenix**
5.1
5.0
N/A
Homestead
6.2
5.9
N/A
Overall average
4.7
4.8
N/A
Average through
4.6
4.7
4.18 races
N/A: Not available or not applicable
* Races shown on TNT; all others on NBC.
** Race dates changed/added due to 2005 schedule realignment.

“[The ratings dip] gives me no pause at all,” said John Skipper, ESPN’s executive vice president of content, whose network takes over TV rights for the second half of the ’07 season. “There’s still an upward mobility to NASCAR’s ratings. I think we’re looking at a one-year anomaly.”

Turner executives sounded similarly confident about next season’s ratings.

“Whenever ratings are down, you’re concerned,” said Jeff Behnke, executive producer of Turner Sports. “We think the sport will continue to grow, and we will continue to push it forward.”

The consensus among media buyers is that NASCAR gets a pass for this year’s decrease, even though the networks haven’t been able to deliver on their ratings guarantees for much of the year, leading to a higher number of make-goods than usual.

And while optimism reigns, a second year of decreases will almost certainly affect business to a greater degree.

Few if any, though, expect 2007 to continue downward, mostly because of the coverage planned by ABC/ESPN, which has the rights to 17 races, including the Chase, through 2014. ESPN is bringing its “surround” approach to selling NASCAR by using its multiple platforms. Turner, likewise, is bringing a fresh approach with the possibility of nontraditional ads along the bottom of the screen.

“Turner is looking to limit the clutter and that’s going to be good for advertisers,” said Kevin Collins, a buyer at Initiative Media. “NASCAR did a ton of new business this year. Will it be there next year? I think it will. It’s cooled off, sure, but viewers are still finding it.”

Any approach that limits race-robbing commercials will entice fans and possibly keep viewers tuned in longer. Dave Despain, who monitors the pulse of the fans through his “Wind Tunnel” call-in show on Speed, said 80 percent of the complaints he hears are related to commercial interruptions. The rest of the complaints come from traditionalists who claim NASCAR has left its core fan base behind in its effort to attract the casual fan.

The traditionalists were used to coming home from church, flipping on the TV and finding the race at 12 or 12:30 p.m. Now races start at all times of the day Sunday and sometimes on Saturday night.

“Hey, this is sports at the big league level and NASCAR is taking its licks,” Despain said. “Other sports have gone through this. Networks make changes, people adjust. The reason it’s compelling is because this is the first time it’s happened to NASCAR.”

Finding more consistency with its start times is a priority for NASCAR, Glover said.

“The convenience, if that’s the right word, of knowing what time the race will start is something we have to take a look at,” Glover said. “It’s tough to balance all of the needs of the constituencies — the track, TV audience, sponsors, teams, getting fans in and out. But a more uniform start time clearly has a positive effect because it’s consumer-friendly. And when you take that stand, consumers will reward you.”

One factor that gives Glover and most in the industry optimism is NASCAR’s potential for growth in the largest markets. A typical race that draws a 5.0 nationally translates to about a 2.0 in New York. Glover said ratings in the largest cities — New York, Chicago, Los Angeles — were growing at a faster pace than the rest of the country in 2004 and ’05, but those markets have slowed this year just like everywhere else.

Cultivating that growth potential in those markets likely will take years. In the meantime, NASCAR wants to make sure that a one-year anomaly doesn’t turn into a two-year trend.

“There’s always going to be competition,” Initiative’s Collins said. “Next year, you’re going to have the FedEx Cup in golf, so there’s going to be even more choices out there. But I don’t think anyone doubts that there’s a very strong audience for NASCAR.”

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