SBJ/Nov. 25-Dec. 1, 2013/Media

NASCAR pleased with viewership consistency

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NASCAR appears to have found its sweet spot on TV.

Though viewership remains well below 2005 levels, NASCAR and network executives are happy with the sport’s performance this year and expressed confidence that its multiyear ratings decline has been stemmed.

SBJ Podcast:
John Ourand and Tripp Mickle analyze NASCAR's ratings performance and its prospects going into its final year with ESPN and Turner.

NASCAR averaged 5.8 million viewers per race this season on Fox, TNT, ABC and ESPN. This marks the third time in the last four years NASCAR has drawn right around 5.8 million viewers — a consistent performance that stands in contrast to the five seasons of declining numbers NASCAR posted between 2005 and 2010.

Coverage on Fox, TNT and ESPN averaged a 3.6 Nielsen rating and 5.8 million viewers for 35 out of 36 Sprint Cup races, equal to a year ago. (The race at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 15 isn’t counted in the ratings performance because of a five-hour rain delay.)

“From an overall number, it’s a good number and strong number,” said Steve Herbst, NASCAR vice president of broadcasting and production. “Consistency is something we’re looking for all the time and … as long as we can keep our consistency week to week and partner to partner, we’ll be pleased with where we are.”

Fox Sports executives say they compare the network’s NASCAR ratings with other television programs, rather than with a TV number from eight years ago. Within the coveted male 18-49 demographic, NASCAR was the fourth-highest-rated show on TV in the first and second quarters.

In 2005, when NASCAR posted record high ratings, its races ranked 12th with the 18-49 male demographic. And in 2001, it ranked 14th in that demo.

Execs plan ahead for shift in ‘15

NASCAR and its TV partners will face a challenge maintaining the audience that has been tuning in to the races when their new deals take effect in 2015.

Next season the sport will be back with ESPN, Fox and Turner. But in 2015, it will begin new media deals with Fox and NBC.

In 2015, a total of 16 Sprint Cup races will air on either Fox or NBC, which is the same number that aired this season across Fox and ABC. But NASCAR could see some audience erosion for the races that are going to cable. Seven races will air on Fox Sports 1, which is in nearly 9 million fewer homes than ESPN, and 13 races will air on NBC Sports Network, which is in nearly 20 million fewer homes than ESPN.

NASCAR and its broadcast partners will be challenged to keep fans as the sport moves to those new networks. They’re planning to work together to promote the changes next season.

“We anticipate the issues that come with changes like that,” said Steve Herbst, NASCAR vice president of broadcasting and production. “Whatever dip we get going forward, we’ll build back up again in short order. Any bumps along the road we see being smoothed out quickly.”

ESPN executives said they plan to keep its promotion and production values high next year, which will be its final season carrying NASCAR. Its ratings increased 3 percent this season, and even though it knew early on that it would not be keeping rights to the sport, it didn’t decrease promotion. Just last week, ESPN had Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson host “SportsCenter.”

“We have no intention of letting our foot off the gas,” said Dan Ochs, ESPN’s director of content strategy and acquisitions. “It is an interesting position to be in. But we’re going to have the same production values and the same team behind and in front of the camera.”

— John Ourand & Tripp Mickle

“The way we look at our properties is in how they compare to prime-time entertainment programming,” said Mike Mulvihill, senior vice president of programming and research for Fox Sports. “In the demos that we sell, we are a top-five show in the first and second quarters. That works for us.”

NASCAR started the 2013 season strong. Its first race, the Daytona 500 on Fox, drew national media attention after Danica Patrick won the pole, and it posted the biggest year-over-year ratings increase in the race’s history. It earned a 9.9 rating and averaged 16.6 million viewers. That race’s success created enough momentum for NASCAR to be ranked among the top two sports on TV during 11 out of 12 weekends it aired on Fox.

Another bright spot for NASCAR was the ratings performance of the Chase, which was up 6 percent over last year and averaged a 2.8 Nielsen rating and 4.6 million viewers. The Chase was preceded by a race-fixing scandal at Richmond International Raceway that caused NASCAR to bounce Michael Waltrip Racing driver Martin Truex Jr. from the Chase and insert Hendrick Motorsports driver Jeff Gordon. Talk of the controversy dominated NASCAR for several weeks and fueled interest in the Chase, which became a close contest between Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth.

ESPN finished with viewership increases for seven of its 10 Chase races, and it did so despite most of those races going head-to-head with the NFL on Sundays.

“We were pretty steady and pretty consistent,” said Dan Ochs, ESPN’s director of content strategy and acquisitions. “We thought we’d have a tighter points race at the end, but the numbers held up.”

Turner Sports was the only partner of NASCAR to see a significant decrease in its ratings and viewership. It posted the lowest ratings of its 25 years of broadcasting the sport when TNT, which shows six NASCAR races in June and July, averaged 4.7 million viewers, a 6 percent decrease from a year ago.

Herbst predicted that moving to two broadcast partners in 2015 and eliminating Turner’s six-race package will help improve ratings for those six races. “There’s an element of getting people accustomed to Turner,” Herbst said. “They come on the scene and you have to get accustomed to them being there, and by the time you are, you’re moving on [to ESPN].”

NASCAR launched an industrywide initiative two seasons ago to help it attract new fans, and it saw gains in two areas where it’s concentrating: Hispanics and young men. Viewership among Hispanics rose 40 percent and viewership among 18- to 34-year-old men rose 4 percent. The increase in male viewers wasn’t enough to offset the 25 percent dip it saw in that segment a year ago, but the sport’s executives were encouraged.

Viewership for the Nationwide Series was down slightly this year. Through 33 events, it averaged 1.7 million viewers per event, a 13 percent decrease from 2012. The decline was driven in part by the departure of Patrick, who raced in the Nationwide Series last year before switching to the Sprint Cup Series full time this season.

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