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Volume 20 No. 42
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NASCAR on Fox ratings level off after strong Daytona start

NASCAR posted its biggest year-over-year ratings increase for the Daytona 500 on Fox, but the sport failed to convert that momentum into an increase in ratings for the early part of the Sprint Cup season.

Fox averaged a 4.8 Nielsen rating and 7.8 million viewers through the first 13 races of the season. Ratings were flat and viewership was down slightly from the 7.9 million viewers the sport averaged over the same period last year.

NASCAR on Fox ranked among the top two sports on TV during 11 out of 12 weekends. Fox’s NASCAR ratings wound up about 40 percent higher than the nine NBA playoff games on ABC this season and about 10 percent higher than the combined rating for the NBA conference finals across ABC, ESPN and TNT, according to Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports senior vice president of programming and research.

Steve Herbst, NASCAR’s vice president of broadcasting and production, said, “We got off to a great start and were thrilled about it, but over the course of a long 13-week season [for Fox], a lot of variables come into play. We got hurt by the weather in Talladega. We were up against some good, competitive sports weekends. So the overall number came down a bit, but the overall story is about the enormous audience that joins us every week.”

For the second consecutive year, ratings dropped in the male 18- to 34-year-old demographic. But the decrease, which was just 5 percent, was far less than the 20 percent decline that Fox saw in 2012, and the overall 18- to 34-year-old demographic decreased just 2 percent in part because female viewership among 25- to 34-year-olds rose 13 percent. Fox Sports executives attributed much of the increase in female viewership to Danica Patrick, who began racing full time in the Sprint Cup Series this year and won the pole position for the Daytona 500.

“Obviously, we’d like for that male 18-34 demo to be a little bit stronger,” Mulvihill said. “But even that notwithstanding, the story we have in the other sellable demos is really favorable.”

In particular, Mulvihill pointed to NASCAR’s performance compared to TV’s entertainment shows. From February to June, Fox’s NASCAR races attracted more men aged 18-49 than any prime-time entertainment show except for CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory.”

“When you’re looking at a scenario where this package would be the No. 2 show [in prime time] on men 18-49 live viewing and men 25-54 live viewing, I think that’s a pretty positive place to start,” Mulvihill said. “At some point, you recognize that the clients can’t buy last year. They can’t buy 2003. They can only buy what’s on TV right now. Compared to everything that’s out there, I think we have a really positive story.”

Fox and NASCAR last year finalized an eight-year, $2.4 billion extension of their TV rights agreement. NASCAR is expected to begin media rights negotiations with its other two rights holders, Turner Sports and ESPN, later this summer. Both networks have exclusive negotiating windows that end in August. Their current media rights deals run through the 2014 season.

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

NASCAR delivered its best Daytona 500 rating in years. The event got national news coverage after Patrick became the first female driver to earn the pole position for the race and a wreck at the Nationwide Series race that Saturday injured several spectators. Both events raised awareness of the race among casual fans and helped it average a 9.9 rating and 16.7 million viewers, a 24 percent ratings increase from 2012 and the best rating since it posted a 10.2 in 2008.

But two races following Daytona saw double-digit viewership declines, which eroded the momentum NASCAR had coming out of the season opener. The Kobalt Tools 400, which was held two weeks later in Las Vegas, earned a 4.7 rating and 7.5 million viewers. Ratings and viewership were down 10 percent and 12 percent, respectively, and NASCAR pointed to head-to-head competition from the WGC Cadillac Championships, which saw Tiger Woods win, as a possible culprit.

The Aaron’s 499, which was held May 5 at Talladega, suffered a three-hour rain delay. It earned a 4.6 rating and 7.3 million viewers, down 10 percent and 12 percent, respectively, from last year.

For eight of the 13 Sprint Cup races on Fox, NASCAR delivered ratings equal to or better than a year ago. The sport was encouraged by the increase it saw among Hispanic viewers for its English-language broadcasts on Fox. Viewership in that demographic increased 21 percent to an average of 211,000 viewers per race. Fox Deportes also began showing Sprint Cup races for the first time this year.

NASCAR’s secondary series, the Nationwide Series, didn’t fare as well on TV as the Sprint Cup Series. Through 10 events on ESPN and ABC, it is averaging 2.1 million viewers per event, down 15 percent versus 2012. (Final numbers from the June 1 race in Dover weren’t available at press time.)