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Volume 20 No. 42
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NASCAR: No panic over dip in 18-34 demo

NASCAR’s struggle to attract and maintain young male viewers for Sprint Cup Series broadcasts resurfaced during the first half of the season.

Ratings in the male 18- to 34-year-old demographic dipped 20 percent on Fox this season through the first 13 races of the season, virtually erasing a 20 percent gain the sport made in the area last year. The average Nielsen rating in that demographic fell to a 1.4 from a 1.8 in 2011.

But the loss of the young male viewer is not producing the same angst this year with Fox and NASCAR executives as it did in 2010, when ratings in that demographic dipped by 29 percent.

Weather-affected races and competition from other sports caused NASCAR to give up gains it made last year among young men.
“Two years ago, I looked at the men 18-to-34 trend, and I personally felt like it was a crisis. It represented a real threat to the ongoing health of the sport,” said Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports’ senior vice president of programming and research. “I think the 18-to-34 problem we had this year was mostly driven by competitive scenarios, which change every year. I don’t feel like it was reflective of a long-term problem with NASCAR itself.”

Young men came back last year, when stories like Trevor Bayne becoming the youngest Daytona 500 winner garnered national attention, and the demographic registered a 1.8 rating, up 20 percent from 2010. Last year, Fox also had the benefit of starting its NASCAR coverage after being able to promote the sport when the nation’s single-largest TV audience tuned in for its broadcast of Super Bowl XLV. But this year, a combination of weather-affected races and competition from other sports properties caused NASCAR to give up those gains.

“We’re dealing with a fickle demographic there,” said Steve Herbst, NASCAR’s vice president of broadcast and production. “We had a big jump up last year when we had some terrific story lines. This year, we know we still deliver a terrific number compared to other sports in the male demo, but it’s a constant fight in the fragmented content world to capture that audience.”

Overall, Fox saw a 4 percent decline in ratings and 8 percent decline in viewership for its schedule. The network averaged a 4.8 Nielsen rating and 7.9 million viewers for 13 Sprint Cup telecasts this season.

Turner will broadcast the first of its six races on Sunday, and ESPN and ABC have the final 17 of the season.

Weather affected the sport at the start of the season. The Daytona 500, NASCAR’s biggest and most highly rated race, was postponed until Monday night and beset by a long track delay after Juan Pablo Montoya’s car collided with a jet dryer. Ratings for the race decreased 8 percent from a year earlier.

NASCAR’s next two races were affected by strong competition. Ratings for its Phoenix race March 4, which went head to head with a New York Knicks game at the height of national interest in Jeremy Lin, declined 5 percent to a 5.6 rating, and ratings for its Las Vegas race, which went head to head in NASCAR-friendly markets like North Carolina and Ohio with ACC and Big Ten basketball championship games, declined 12 percent to a 5.2 rating. NASCAR historically had a bye weekend when NCAA conference basketball tournaments took place but that bye was eliminated this year when the Daytona 500 was pushed back by a week.

The race at California’s Auto Club Speedway, also early in the season, was off 17 percent after rain shortened the race by 71 laps.

Ratings stabilized in April and since then the average rating has been flat with 2011 at 4.0. The Kansas race April 22 delivered the sport’s only ratings increase of the season, posting a 4.3 rating, up from a 3.9 a year ago. Still, Fox executives said they were happy with a performance that would place its NASCAR telecasts as a top-20 show in the men 25-54 demo.

“The most important stories for us are the 18-to-49 story and the 25-to-54 one,” Mulvihill said. “Those stories are healthy in how they compare to prime time and other sports in the first and second quarter. Looking at 18-to-34 as a subset of the demos that are most important to us, we wish that it was trending the other way. But I still think that the possibility for us to get back in a positive direction next year is there.”

NASCAR’s overall ratings decline and decrease in young male viewership comes as the sanctioning body prepares to go to market with its TV rights. The sport’s $4.48 billion, eight-year agreements with Fox, ESPN and Turner run through 2014, and NASCAR has started preliminary negotiations for new broadcast deals this year. Incumbents ESPN, Fox and Turner expect to bid on new packages; and NBC is believed to be ready to bid on a package, as well.

NASCAR is in the process of rolling out a five-year plan designed to address several areas of its business, including waning interest among young men. The plan begins in full force in 2013, and NASCAR Chief Marketing Officer Steve Phelps said the sport’s television partners have been shown the plan and are supportive of the sanctioning body’s move to address recent declines among young men.

“That’s important for us,” Phelps said. “If we’re having this discussion in five years and we haven’t grown that 18 to 34, we’ll have another management change.”

Though the sport’s signature Sprint Cup Series has seen declines in viewership among that demographic, its secondary series, the Nationwide Series, has seen increases. ESPN, which televises the Nationwide Series along with ABC, saw a 25 percent increase among young male viewers over the first 11 races of the season. Overall, viewership was up for nine of 11 races, delivering an average 2.4 million viewers and a 1.7 Nielsen rating, a 7 percent and 6 percent increase from last year, respectively.

“The 18-to-34 demo … has responded positively to the pick-a-series change we implemented last year,” Herbst said, referring to NASCAR’s new rule stipulating that drivers can only compete for a championship in one of the sport’s three series. “New stars in the [Nationwide Series] have created great story lines and those have positively impacted [the series’] ratings.”

SportsBusiness Daily Assistant Editor Austin Karp contributed to this report.