SBJ/Dec. 6-12, 2010/Opinion

Can NASCAR grow past its negative perception?

What do you do if you’re Brian France? You left Las Vegas last week celebrating one of the best seasons in memory on the track, a year of excellent competition and close races, but major questions about declining TV ratings and consumer interest continue to swirl around your sport.

France, NASCAR’s chairman, hasn’t stood still over the years, working to give an edge back to overly scripted drivers and improving the at-track product, as well as moving race times and agreeing to shift most of the final Chase races to ESPN. Some moves have worked and deserve credit. But NASCAR fights a PR battle against the perception that its best days are behind it.

Since 2006, NASCAR has lost an average of 2 million viewers, part of a steadily eroding viewer base. Such a decline can no longer be called a “blip” by those with an interest in the sport. To continue to refer to it that way only hurts prospects for effective messaging, which hasn’t been consistent enough during the current dip.

We understand that ratings are fickle and can fluctuate. Improving these viewer numbers is no easy fix, but NASCAR and its partners seem focused on figuring this out. One aspect of the deal that you wonder whether NASCAR wishes it could do over again: moving nine of the final 10 Chase races to ESPN. It’s only in year one, and while Bristol execs can argue all they want that moving races from ABC to ESPN hasn’t hurt the viewer numbers, that’s tough to buy. We have seen it with too many other sports properties across other networks. You move a sport from a more broadly distributed network, and your numbers will go down. 

Some privately wish NASCAR would realize that its ratings glory days of 2005 may be gone forever and would instead more effectively argue where it is on the national landscape: a solid property that delivers consistent eyeballs and significant audiences, but skews older and hasn’t seen measurable growth in five years.

We understand that ESPN (and NASCAR) will be patient with this, and the hope is that being on ESPN attracts that 18- to 34-year-old audience racing desperately needs, but the jury is out. There is no exact science to boost the numbers. The mantra out of Las Vegas was consistent — better marketing by NASCAR and its media partners; a crying need for more stars, personalities and raw emotion from drivers; more effective use of social media to draw younger viewers; and changes to the system that place a greater emphasis on winning races.

Most observers feel NASCAR is lined up next year to see growth — Fox can promote Daytona coming out of the Super Bowl, the Winter Olympics aren’t around to provide competition, and this season’s Chase and on-track racing will provide some momentum.

Whether that includes more changes to the system by France and company remains to be seen. NASCAR’s top executives continue to pledge patience with the ratings, saying that viewers will find and appreciate the product now that the competition piece has been much improved. If you were Brian France, what more would you do?

Abraham Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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