NASCAR saw lower admissions revenue and a steep drop in television ratings during the first half of 2018, signaling that the sport’s challenges continue.
The 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series campaign marked the first without Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport’s 15-time most popular driver, as he retired and became an analyst for NBC Sports. That makes the year a particularly important one as NASCAR tries to build a new crop of stars and interest.
Fox Sports’ viewership was down a sizable 19 percent from 2017 and 29 percent from 2016. Still, Fox insists that only focusing on the year-over-year comparison is not representative of the company’s big-picture view.
“NASCAR is still a powerful contributor to our overall growth … the sport remains a force in the first half of the year and is essential to our overall business,” Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports’ executive vice president of research, league operations and strategy, wrote in an email. “(But) we have to acknowledge the reality of this year’s declines. It’s been a challenging season, and I think we and NASCAR both have to look to the future with a wide-open mind and a willingness to listen to every new idea that might help us turn the trend around.”
For its half of the season, Fox averaged 3.983 million viewers, compared to 4.898 million in 2017. This follows years of other sizable downticks from the sport’s peak numbers. The series averaged 5.578 million viewers on Fox Sports channels in 2016.
Still, Cup Series events continue to draw strong numbers compared to other forms of programming, as they accounted for seven of the 10 most-watched sports event telecasts on FS1 this year.
Mulvihill pointed out that races on Fox’s broadcast network averaged nearly 5 million viewers, making Cup Series races the third-highest-rated show on Fox during the first and second quarter behind “911” and “Empire.” He said FS1 is up 4 percent year-over-year in ratings, setting it on track for its fifth straight year of growth, “and that would simply be impossible if we didn’t have NASCAR as a cornerstone of the channel.”
Digitally, NASCAR said it’s seen a 31 percent jump in video views on digital platforms plus a 135 percent increase in NASCAR Fantasy Live entrants. Fox Sports averaged 18,503 people streaming Cup races this season, up 33 percent from 13,908 last year.
“Heading into the season, we knew we’d have significant competition for ratings around the Olympics the first couple weeks, and that probably ended up being true,” said Steve Phelps, COO of NASCAR. “That said, the numbers are still massive: 35 million [overall] unique viewers across Fox and coming in at No. 1 or 2 [most-viewed sporting event of the week] for eight of those weeks.”
In terms of admissions revenue, International Speedway Corp. in its first quarter reported a scant 2 percent drop, as it earned a third consecutive sellout at the 101,500-seat Daytona International Speedway for the Daytona 500 in February. However, it suffered a 10 percent drop in the second quarter, as ISC President John Saunders said attendance was “a little softer than expected.” Rival track operator Speedway Motorsports Inc. saw a much more significant decline in admissions revenue, down 26 percent year-over-year in its first quarter. But SMI dealt with rain at almost all of its event weekends in the first quarter.
But among the positives for the series was a critical renewal with premier series title sponsor Monster Energy, the rollout of new esports competitions, the addition of several other new corporate sponsors throughout the sport, and a successful test run in the All-Star Race with a new aero package that some think has unlocked a formula to make races at 1.5-mile tracks more exciting.
Tyson Webber, president of GMR Marketing, which counts several partners in the sport as clients, said that while there are things his clients are hopeful of and excited by in the sport, such as a new NASCAR sponsorship model that could start in 2020, there continues to be questions about the overall value sponsors are getting given the declines. Webber acknowledged that there has been a pricing reset on the team sponsorship side, but added that it hasn’t been steep enough yet in many cases to appeal to brands wanting back into the sport.
“If the system in place is much better, there still has to be significant value for the partner — that’s the key,” Webber said. “The possibilities we’re talking about have not outweighed some of the deterrents and detractions that have happened (when GMR has gone to pitch companies about coming back into NASCAR).”
Dave Alpern, president of Joe Gibbs Racing, said that while he does have to field questions from partners about challenging storylines in the sport, JGR — which is known for its premium pricing and blue-chip partners — has brought in or renewed 13 companies in the last three years. Alpern said results-oriented companies are still finding value in the sport.
“This is all metric-driven now, so everybody is very aware of the state of all sports and any property you invest in, you’re going to be aware of,” Alpern said. “When you read some of the narratives, you’d think, ‘Man, there’s nobody watching this anymore,’ but the scale of NASCAR is massive — and that’s one thing I don’t think is focused on enough.”