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Volume 22 No. 35
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NASCAR ad sales up for ESPN

The ratings rebound NASCAR is experiencing so far this season also has benefited ESPN’s ad sales, which are trending better than in recent years.

ESPN says ad sales around its coverage of NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series, which starts this Sunday in Indianapolis, are pacing ahead of last year as a result of spending across the telecommunications, autos, insurance and medicinal categories. The company saw increased interest from advertisers for its “NASCAR Nonstop” offering, which allows a company to present a split-screen commercial break during the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Observers anticipated that the NFL lockout would force advertisers to buy other sports programming to protect themselves in case football games were canceled, and that NASCAR would benefit from that. But ad buyers said the NFL lockout has had little to do with ESPN’s sales success in NASCAR.

“The bump in NASCAR is more of an effect of a very well-sold market than people moving their NFL dollars around,” said Tom McGovern, managing director of Optimum Sports.

Sam Sussman, senior vice president of program planning and strategy at Starcom Worldwide, added, “ESPN had a couple of things going for them. The threat of no NFL at the time of the upfront was a benefit, and the overall strength of the upfront helped buoy them after the declines of the past years.”

Buyers said ESPN also has been helped by an increase in ratings for NASCAR programming over the first half of the season. For the first time in three seasons, Fox’s NASCAR ratings saw an increase, averaging 8.6 million viewers for its 13 races, a 9.7 percent increase from 2010. TNT also saw its first increase in three years for its six-race schedule, averaging 5.125 million viewers for its six races this season, a 2.5 percent increase from 2010.

ESPN will look to extend that ratings momentum over the back half of the season and reverse the major ratings declines it saw in 2010. The media company moved eight races from ABC to ESPN, and viewership nosedived. The network drew 4.9 million viewers, a 14 percent decrease from 2009.

With the NFL season now expected to start on time, ESPN will have to improve those ratings while facing strong competition from football. Network executives hope to benefit from NASCAR’s decision to adjust race start times during the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Races were moved from 1 p.m., which put them head-to-head with NFL games, to 2 p.m., which means races will likely end at the same time that the NFL moves from its 1 p.m. games on Sunday to its 4 p.m. games.

Ad buyers have confidence that ESPN will see improved NASCAR ratings. But they also cautioned that the sport has room to grow.

“The sport itself is still seeing a lot more churn than the folks at NASCAR would like to see from a sponsorship perspective,” Sussman said. “National media still gives people a way to connect with NASCAR fans. Ratings have stabilized.”