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NASCAR this year ended three consecutive years of declining ratings and viewership on Fox and regained many of the 18- to 34-year-old male viewers it lost in 2010.
Fox averaged a 5.0 final Nielsen rating and 8.6 million viewers for its 13 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series telecasts this season, up 4.2 percent and 9.7 percent, respectively, from a 4.8 rating and 7.8 million viewers over 11 races last year.
Last year’s figures exclude the Martinsville and Texas races, which were rained out on their respective Sunday and run on the following Monday.
The ratings and viewership results returned NASCAR to the same level it enjoyed in 2009 but fell short of the 5.6 rating and 9.3 million viewers Fox drew for 12 races in 2007, the first year of its current eight-year, $1.76 billion rights agreement with NASCAR.
More importantly, the 18- to 34-year-old males who appeared to abandon the sport in 2010, resulting in a 29 percent rating decline, returned in droves this year. The demographic registered a 1.8 rating, up 20 percent from last season.
NASCAR officials credited the sport’s recapturing of young, male viewers to a “boys, have at it” strategy, which encouraged drivers to be more combative on the track, as well as going to double-file restarts in 2010, which helped tighten competition. It also attributed ratings increases to strong story lines including Trevor Bayne’s stunning Daytona 500 victory to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s position in the top five in the points, to Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch’s war of words.
“A lot of work is ahead of us in terms of consistency and building back to the levels we want to be at, but we’re very pleased so far,” said Steve Herbst, NASCAR’s new vice president of broadcasting and global media strategy. “Very pleased, but not satisfied.”
Good story lines weren’t the only thing benefiting NASCAR’s television performance on Fox this year. The sport avoided the head-to-head competition it faced during the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, and a $20 million repaving effort at Daytona International Speedway helped it avoid the pothole delays that plagued its biggest race in 2010.
Fox Sports Chairman David Hill attributed the return of some viewers to NASCAR’s decision to allow manufacturers to replicate the style of the cars they sell, such as Toyota’s Camry, Chevrolet’s Impala and Ford’s Fusion. He said Fox’s change in production philosophy and emphasis on drivers this year also helped.
“The thing we’re most thrilled about is the younger demo coming back,” Hill said. “That’s really important for us.”
Bill Wanger, Fox senior vice president of research and programming, added, “We got off to a better start with higher numbers in Daytona. … There’s a lot of work to be done, but it’s moving in the right direction.”
Turner on Sunday was scheduled to broadcast the first of six Sprint Cup races it will televise. ABC and ESPN will show the final 17 races of the season, three on ABC and the other 14 on ESPN.
In addition to gains on TV, attendance improved at the tracks during the first 13 races of the season. Average estimated attendance rose to 111,533 spectators a race compared with 102,592 in 2010.
Texas was the biggest driver of the increase. That April race saw attendance nearly double from 92,200 in 2010 to 168,400 this year. Talladega, Dover and Bristol all posted attendance declines. Bristol’s attendance dropped the most, sinking from 138,000 in 2010 to 120,000 this year.
“While we’ve seen nice attendance increases in places like Texas, Daytona and Phoenix, we remain cautiously optimistic overall as we understand the gas price challenges facing our millions of fans, many of whom travel hundreds of miles to attend a race,” said Steve Phelps, NASCAR senior vice president and chief marketing officer. “With that being said, we are confident that the value being received at track by our fans is at an all-time high, or close to it, given some of the new affordable ticket prices coupled with some of the greatest racing this sport has ever seen.”