SBJ/December 5-11, 2011/Leagues and Governing Bodies

NASCAR viewership jumps 8%, halts long slide

For the first time since NASCAR TV viewership peaked in 2005, the sport this year saw a year-over-year increase in viewers.

This year’s rise reversed a five-year slide in ratings that cost NASCAR nearly a quarter of its TV viewers, and it allowed the sport to return to the same level of viewership it enjoyed in 2009.

Over the course of 33 races across three networks — Fox, TNT and ESPN/ABC — NASCAR attracted an average of 6.5 million viewers, which equates to a 3.8 Nielsen rating. Those numbers are up from fewer than 6 million viewers (+8%) and an average 3.6 rating (+5.6%) for 34 races in 2010.

An exciting “race to the Chase” helped the fall Richmond ratings increase 19 percent.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
“It was great to step forward on the ratings front,” said Steve Herbst, NASCAR Media Group’s vice president of broadcasting. “We know we have work to do, but we’re really thrilled with where this season ended up. That combined with a terrific on-track product can only be good for the future of NASCAR.”

Coming after a year when NASCAR ratings seemed to bottom out, network executives weren’t ready to call the uptick a complete resurgence.

“We’re still cautious,” said Lenny Daniels, Turner Sports’ chief operating officer and executive vice president. “Numbers like these tend to be cyclical. NASCAR’s been on a slide for a while. It is slowly working [its] way back in the other direction.”

Perhaps most encouraging was the fact that young male viewers returned in 2011. The sport saw a 24 percent decline among those viewers in 2010, but the group came back strong in 2011, with a 17 percent increase among the male 18- to 34-year-old demographic.

The viewership increases come at a critical time for the sport. Its current TV rights agreements expire in 2014, giving it two more years to show networks that it can deliver the type of viewers that allowed it to command $4.48 billion in combined rights fees from Fox, TNT and ESPN in its current deal.

Herbst said NASCAR has not made any decisions about when it will go to market with those rights. It was in 2005 that it closed the eight-year agreement with Fox, TNT and ESPN that began in 2007. Network executives say they have not started renewal talks yet.

“We look forward to sitting down with our partners to talk about the future,” Herbst said. “We don’t have a date or timeline attached to that right now.”

Television network executives were quick to cite the season’s competitive races and compelling story lines as reasons for the ratings jump. Eric Shanks, co-president and co-COO of Fox Sports Media Group, said his network made a concerted effort to focus more on the sport’s personalities and less on the sport’s mechanics.

“We changed the tone of our coverage this year and started focusing more on the drivers and their stories,” Shanks said. “More man, less machine.”

Julie Sobieski, ESPN’s vice president of programming and acquisitions, also credited NASCAR’s personalities for driving ratings. She cited 17 drivers who traveled to Bristol, Conn., this season to appear on ESPN shows.

The sport’s executives believe many of the rule changes they made prior to 2011 finally started paying off in the form of new and returning viewers this season. The sport added double-file restarts in 2009 and in 2010 fostered a more competitive environment by adopting a “boys have at it” philosophy, which encouraged drivers to race more aggressively. This year it also adopted a wild-card system for its postseason, reserving two spots in the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup for drivers who won races in 2011.

The changes helped make the sport more competitive. NASCAR had 18 Sprint Cup race winners, one shy of the series record, and five first-time winners. It also had 14 drivers in contention for the final three spots in the Chase heading into the regular season’s last race at Richmond. That helped push up ratings for the race 19 percent from 2010.

The sport was able to sustain that late-season momentum even after the NFL season started largely because it shifted the start of its races from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. ET this year, therefore avoiding the finish of its races competing head-to-head with the conclusion of early NFL games. A year ago, when races began at 1 p.m., ratings would build over the course of the race and then fall around 4 p.m., when the 1 p.m. NFL games concluded every Sunday.

“We saw a lot of benefit from not going head-to-head with the 1 p.m. NFL window,” Sobieski said.

For example, the Sept. 25 Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire delivered a 3.1 Nielsen rating on ESPN, up 35 percent from 2010. Growth over the last hour of the race, when the 1 p.m. NFL game was over, increased 27 percent compared with an 18 percent increase in 2010.

Similarly, the Oct. 9 Hollywood Casino 400 from Kansas delivered a 3.1 rating on ESPN, up 15 percent from 2010, largely because the viewership increased 69 percent over the last hour of the race, up from a 25 percent increase in the last hour of the race in 2010.

Moving races also allowed ESPN to program its pre-race show, “NASCAR Now,” on ESPN immediately before the 2 p.m. race start time. When races were held at 1 p.m. in 2010, it showed “Sunday NFL Countdown” on ESPN and shifted “NASCAR Now” to ESPN2.

The foundation for NASCAR’s ratings increases were set at the Daytona 500 at the start of the season. The 2010 Daytona 500 was marred by a pothole problem that resulted in several delays and delivered a 24 percent decline in ratings. This year, significant promotion on Fox during the Super Bowl along with a repaved track and a surprise Daytona 500 winner, Trevor Bayne, combined to push ratings up 17 percent at the start of the year.

NASCAR built on that momentum two weeks later in Las Vegas. In 2010, the race went head-to-head with the Vancouver Olympics’ gold-medal hockey game featuring the U.S. and Canada. The weekend was devoid of competition this year, and ratings soared 34 percent from 2010.

In terms of young, male viewers returning, TV network executives attributed some of the gains to having more broadband product available. “It’s not all about the TV product,” Daniels said. “In any sport, if you don’t offer content across every platform, you just end up missing big, young audiences.”

The boom in online content was driven by a deal cut between Turner and ESPN that allowed both networks to stream races online. ESPN aired complete broadcasts of its races on its WatchESPN mobile app, and Turner offered in-camera video of select drivers on its “Race Buddy” platform at NASCAR.com.
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