NASCAR executives like to compare their sport’s TV ratings to a roller coaster. This year, the sport’s premier series took a downward ride, posting its smallest TV audience in five years and registering a 25 percent drop in the 18- to 34-year-old demographic.
NASCAR In A Nutshell
|Avg. Rating||% change||No. of viewers (000s)||% change|
|Chase for the Sprint Cup||2.6||-10.3%||4,139||-12.8%|
Note: Does not include the season-ending race at Homestead. Source: Austin Karp, SportsBusiness Daily
Coverage on Fox, TNT and ESPN averaged a 3.6 Nielsen rating and 5.8 million viewers through 35 of 36 races, down 5 percent and 10 percent respectively from last year, giving up all of the gains the sport made last year, which was its first annual ratings increase since 2005. (Three races weren’t counted because of rain delays that forced the races to be held on weekday mornings, and Sunday’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway took place after press time.)
Ratings among advertisers’ favorite demographic, 18- to 34-year-olds, fell further. NASCAR races earned a 0.9 rating in that demo, down 25 percent from last year’s 1.2.
NASCAR executives attributed the declines to uncontrollable forces, starting with the Daytona 500’s first postponement in 54 years, from Sunday afternoon to Monday evening. NASCAR executives also cited competition from the London Olympics and NCAA basketball conference championship games as reasons for the downturn.
“The ratings thing is a real cyclical deal,” said Steve Herbst, NASCAR’s vice president of broadcasting and production. “It’s up 10 percent, down 10 percent. … We hit some weather early on. It’s an Olympic year, and there was other competitive programming we were up against. It was kind of a roller-coaster year.”
|NASCAR officials said competition from the Olympics, NCAA basketball and other programming helped pull down viewership. |
Fox and ESPN executives insist that they are not concerned by this year’s ratings and tout the sport’s overall audience, which still is one of the biggest on TV.
“The rating story is as good now as 10 years ago,” said Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports’ senior vice president of programming and research. “The ratings are lower, but compared to the other sports out there, it’s still a clear No. 1 in the first and second quarter, and the audience is better than people give it credit for.”
Mulvihill said Fox has reconfigured its sales pitches on NASCAR for next season to highlight that audience. The network is trying to dispel the notion among ad buyers that NASCAR doesn’t deliver an audience with buying power. It’s doing so by comparing the average income of NASCAR viewers to the average income in their home market rather than the national average. For example, in the Tampa Bay market, NASCAR viewers have an average income of $52,000, significantly more than the designated market area (DMA) average of $42,000 a year.
“There is a lot of value there,” Mulvihill said. “The whole theme of our national positioning is that NASCAR lives on Main Street. We really want to stress the middle class drives the American economy and NASCAR lives in that middle-class demo. We’re really embracing that middle class, middle American identity.”
NASCAR’s viewership decreases come at a critical time for the sport. It signed a new TV rights agreement with Fox last month that will give it $2.4 billion for the first 13 races of the 2014 to 2022 seasons, a sizable increase from Fox’s current eight-year, $1.76 billion agreement.
But NASCAR still has to sell the rights to 23 other races, which TNT and ESPN currently pay $2.74 billion to televise.
Negotiations on those 23 races aren’t expected to begin until next summer when Turner’s and ESPN’s exclusive negotiating windows open. NASCAR has not made a decision whether it will sell those races to one or two broadcast partners. It is keeping all of its options open.
Norby Williamson, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming, said ESPN will be an aggressive bidder for those rights.
“We have every intention of extending our partnership,” he said. “There’s no doubt there’s some challenges, partly on the ad sales side … but NASCAR is an important property for us now.”
This year’s ratings declines were set in motion before the first green flag ever dropped for the 2012 season as the Daytona 500, NASCAR’s Super Bowl, suffered through several problems. Not only was the race postponed until Monday night because of rain, but it also was beset by a long track delay after Juan Pablo Montoya’s car collided with a jet dryer
It was not a surprise to see the race’s rating decrease 8 percent from a year earlier, when it was held on a Sunday. Fox, which broadcast the Daytona race and 12 other races at the start of the season, saw a 4 percent decline in ratings and 8 percent decline in viewership for its portion of the schedule.
NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship on ESPN didn’t fare much better. Ratings and viewership for this year’s Chase, which came down to Brad Keselowski and five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, were down or flat for every race and four of the nine races saw double-digit percentage decreases from the 2011 Chase, which pitted Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart as the top two drivers.
“Of course we want to see growth, but I’m not wringing my hands over these numbers,” Williamson said. “What other sport can do the numbers that NASCAR does against the NFL on Sunday afternoons?”
Turner, which airs six Sprint Cup races at the midpoint of the season, was the only broadcaster that did not see its ratings decline. Four of its six races on TNT were up from last year, and its average rating was flat. (Turner did not make an executive available to comment for this story.)
Williamson said ESPN is talking with NASCAR about making some tweaks that could increase viewership, but he didn’t offer specifics.
“They understand that they have some challenges,” Williamson said. “But ultimately, it’s their decision on how to oversee their sport.”
NASCAR executives believe that a number of tweaks planned for next year will help drive viewership, including a new digital strategy and Web presence, which it is taking over from Turner; new cars, which look more like showroom vehicles; and marketing initiatives, which are designed to boost youth and multicultural interest.
“We know our fan as well as we’ve ever known our fan and what they’re looking for,” Herbst said. “It’s no great mystery — competitive racing, bringing out the personality of the drivers.”
NASCAR’s Nationwide Series, which airs on ESPN and ABC, was averaging 1.99 million viewers through 32 races, up slightly from the 1.98 million viewers it averaged over the same period last year.
SportsBusiness Daily Assistant Managing Editor Austin Karp contributed to this story.
2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series TV ratings and viewership
|Track||Network||Avg. rating||% change||No. of viewers (000s)||% change|
Note: Does not include the season-ending race at Homestead. Percentages are based on comparableevents, not comparable weekends.
NA: Not applicable because of rainout
Source: Austin Karp, SportsBusiness Daily