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NASCAR is coming off a year in which its TV ratings dropped to their lowest point in a decade and attendance was flat or down at most tracks.
So why are TV network executives so positive about the coming season? Could a few changes, like allowing bump drafting and setting standardized start times, really make that much of a difference?
The truth is that the TV networks seem more enthused about the process NASCAR used to come up with the changes than the actual changes themselves.
You could almost hear Fox’s David Hill cheering late last month as NASCAR’s Brian France told media in Charlotte that the racing circuit “is a contact sport, and you’re going to see more contact” this season.
While Hill has long pushed for rule changes that open up the racing and bring the sport back to its basics, he was happiest to see that NASCAR actively was listening to its biggest supporters.
“I was very pleased they decided to make the changes,” Hill said. “They listened to the fan base, and they are very smart for doing that.”
When I caught up with Hill about a week after France outlined his planned changes, he compared NASCAR’s deliberative style favorably to the NFL. He unreservedly praised NASCAR executives for assembling a panel of race fans to look into what was and wasn’t working with the sport and acting on their suggestions.
Nobody knows if the various moves will work. The decision to move most of the race start times to 1 p.m. ET, for example, runs counter to every ratings lesson sports media executives have learned over the past 30 years. Since the early 1970s, leagues and networks have figured out that later start times almost always lead to higher ratings. But NASCAR and Fox believe the sport’s move to make uniform start times early on a Sunday afternoon will be just what it needs.
Fox Sports ad sales chief Neil Mulcahy said advertisers are responding favorably to the earlier start times. He said Fox’s ad sales for the NASCAR season are pacing 8 percent to 10 percent ahead of last year. Some of that increase is due to an overall TV advertising market that has rebounded for all live sports, but Mulcahy said advertisers are warming to the earlier start times, as well.
“The NASCAR viewer wants to go to church, come back, sit down and watch NASCAR,” he said. “We tried to make it as uniform as possible.”
It’s clear that NASCAR needed to do something to stop a ratings decline that arguably could be reclassified from a blip to a trend.
NASCAR and Fox officials clearly are hoping that 2009 was a low-water mark for the sport. Last year’s Daytona 500 dropped to a 9.2 rating, the lowest mark since Fox started broadcasting the race in 2001. And the ratings numbers only got worse from there. Fox and ABC’s combined 24 races drew just a 4.3 average broadcast rating, NASCAR’s lowest rating in a decade. It also marked the third time in the last four years that NASCAR’s broadcast rating fell. A steep drop in the most advertiser-friendly 18-24 demographic (down 24 percent) made matters look even worse.
The story wasn’t any better on cable, where NASCAR saw last season’s ratings drop for the fourth consecutive year. The 12 races on TNT and ESPN drew an average 4.0 cable rating, NASCAR’s lowest cable rating since 2000.
The steepest decline last year occurred on Fox, which saw its 13 races post an average 5.1 rating, down 11 percent from the previous year.
Even with that ratings drop, NASCAR still reached mass audiences and consistently was one of the strongest league properties on television last year. Fox’s NASCAR broadcasts were the highest or second-highest rated sports broadcast for 11 of the 13 weekends for its spring season, mainly competing against college basketball and the NBA.
Still, Hill said changes won’t be limited to the track. They’ll be coming to Fox’s production, as well.
“We’ve spent more time as a group talking about this coming year’s coverage than ever before,” Hill said.
The most noticeable change will come before the race, as Fox plans to roll out an hourlong prerace show that will be modeled after its successful NFL pregame show. The show, which will be called “Fox NASCAR Sunday,” will start at noon ET and run up to the new 1 p.m. start times for most NASCAR races. Much like its NFL counterpart, “Fox NASCAR Sunday” will give news and information and highlight story lines in the upcoming race.
Fox executives are hoping that the show’s noon start will build off of the NFL pregame show, creating a viewing habit that will draw audiences to the race. In past years, Fox’s prerace show coverage bled into the race coverage.
Starting this year, there will be a “clear delineation” between the prerace show and the actual race coverage, Fox executives say.
“We’re going to be in a position now where on most Sundays from September through June, you can come to Fox and get your pre-event coverage from 12 to 1 and get your event starting at 1 p.m.,” said Mike Mulvihill, Fox’s vice president of sports programming and research. “You come to Fox, you pretty much know what you’re going to get. You don’t want to ask the audience to think about where to find stuff.”
Interestingly, last year’s prerace segment regularly outrated “Fox NFL Sunday,” Mulvihill said, which made it easier to expand the show to a full hour.
“It puts the sport back on a pedestal,” said Rick Kloiber, vice president of sports sales for Fox. “NASCAR on Fox is big-event TV every Sunday.”
As for other changes, Hill is remaining mum, other than to say that the on-air talent will have more energy and plan to have more strategy discussions during the race.
“There have been a number of things that we’ve let slip and will reintroduce,” Hill said. “Hopefully, no one will notice what we’re doing differently.”
John Ourand can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.