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Volume 23 No. 29
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NASCAR, Fox stay upbeat

New FS1 races drive viewer numbers down

With the first half of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season in the books, it’s clear that fewer people are watching the races on TV. But Fox and NASCAR executives say they are neither surprised nor worried by the decline this year, which is the first of a 10-year media deal between the two.

It’s hard to make a straight ratings comparison with last year, given weather delays and a different race schedule. But the decision to move three races from Fox’s broadcast channel that reaches 116.4 million homes to Fox Sports 1, which is in 84.3 million, virtually guaranteed that viewership would drop.

Kansas was one of three Sprint Cup races that saw a big decline in viewership after moving from Fox broadcast to FS1.
“The decline in the overall average was not unexpected. It was entirely expected,” said Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports senior vice president of programming and research. “But that’s a hit that we’re willing to take in the longer-term interest of building the FS1 business.”

NASCAR executives agreed, and were quick to highlight growing digital and social numbers, which they say show a more engaged fan base than they’ve had in the past.

“If you look at [TV numbers] in conjunction with digital, which we continue to be soaring in, and social, which we continue to soar in, it’s a strong picture of fan engagement,” said Steve Phelps, NASCAR executive vice president and chief marketing officer. “So we’re very happy with the first half of the season.”

The biggest TV viewership declines came from the three races that moved from Fox broadcast to FS1 (Martinsville, Kansas and Dover). Kansas dropped 57 percent (from 5.76 million viewers to 2.48 million), Martinsville dropped 39 percent (from 6.7 million viewers to 4.06 million) and Dover was down 13 percent (from 4.5 million viewers to 3.9 million).

Fox started the season strong, registering viewer increases in its first four races. But the last three races on Fox’s broadcast channel saw declines — Richmond (down 7 percent), Talladega (down 9 percent) and Charlotte (down 8 percent).


Dates Network Track Avg. # of viewers (000s)
Feb. 22 Fox Daytona 13,363
March 1 Fox Atlanta 9,500*
March 8 Fox Las Vegas 7,739
March 15 Fox Phoenix 7,000
March 22 Fox Auto Club 7,300
March 29 FS1 Martinsville 4,061
April 11 Fox Texas 4,842
April 19 FS1 Bristol 2,589**
April 26 Fox Richmond 5,200^
May 3 Fox Talladega 6,312
May 9 FS1 Kansas 2,480
May 24 Fox Charlotte 6,408
May 31 FS1 Dover 3,940
June 7 FS1 Pocono 3,614
June 14 FS1 Michigan 3,519
June 28 FS1 Sonoma 3,723

* Started an hour late due to weather delay
** Ran on Fox from 2:31-2:43 p.m., getting 5.1 million viewers. Weather then delayed race until 6:30 p.m. Coverage finished on FS1 from 6:30-10:30 p.m.
^ Rained out on Saturday night and run on Sunday afternoon
Source: Austin Karp, SportsBusiness Daily

Still, Fox and NASCAR officials are especially upbeat about viewership for the nine races on Fox’s broadcast channel, which Mulvihill said showed a viewership increase over the races on Fox broadcast last year. Of course, much of the increase on Fox’s broadcast network is due to the performance of this year’s Daytona 500, which averaged nearly 13.4 million viewers. That figure is up significantly from the 2014 race, which suffered through a record six-hour rain delay and drew only 9.3 million viewers. Not counting 2014, Daytona 500 viewership was Fox’s lowest since 2010, which featured a two-hour delay to fix potholes in the track.

“It was a priority for us to get off to a strong start and hope that would ripple throughout our entire season,” Mulvihill said. “Our ability to get the season off to a big beginning was the most positive thing that I saw.”

Fox executives also touted the audiences NASCAR brought to FS1. Fox produced 250 hours of NASCAR programming on FS1 this year, and NASCAR races now account for four of the 10 most-watched shows in the channel’s short history, Mulvihill said.

“We were able to pump up the average viewership on the broadcast side moderately, and we were able to deliver some of the most-watched shows ever to the cable side,” Mulvihill said. “That’s the constant challenge for us: How do we make sure that we’re taking care of both sides of the business? I thought that worked out pretty well.”

FS1 averaged 3.568 million viewers for the six Sprint Cup races that were scheduled to air on the network, which included a Saturday night race from Kansas. FS1 televised a seventh race from Bristol, which started on Fox but ended on FS1 following a lengthy rain delay.

The three races FS1 took over from TNT averaged 3.626 million viewers — a number that is down 17 percent from last year’s three-race average of 4.471 million. Last year, TNT averaged 4.218 million viewers for its six-race schedule, which included a Saturday night race from Kentucky and a Sunday morning/early afternoon telecast from Daytona.

Fox also pointed to numbers from the Xfinity and Camping World Truck series as signs of success. Mulvihill said the Xfinity races on Fox’s broadcast channel compared favorably to races that were on ABC last year. Xfinity Series viewership on FS1 was down 4 percent from races on ESPN and ESPN2 — both of which are in more than 92 million homes. And the truck series was up 12 percent in ratings and 9 percent in viewers over the same number of events on FS1 last year, Mulvihill said.

“Because we’ve had such a bulk of NASCAR programming on FS1, I’ve had to start thinking of the partnership as a lot more than just Sprint Cup,” Mulvihill said. “We look at Cup and Xfinity and trucks and the studio programming.”

Thanks partly to its NASCAR programming, FS1 saw its second-quarter prime-time viewership increase by 75 percent this year, while FS2 was up 78 percent.

For NASCAR’s part, Phelps cited a 25 percent increase in page views on all digital platforms plus double-digit engagement and mention spikes on social media as further reasons why the sanctioning body is bullish on overall consumption.

“I think it’s very important, and our partners are looking at it all the time as well,” Phelps said. “So I think you have to look through that lens. It’s not just, ‘Hey, did they watch on television?’”