NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Why TV Ratings Don’t Tell the Story of Today’s Nationwide Series

A look at the TV ratings for this past Saturday’s Nationwide Series event at Michigan International Speedway, and the casual observer would have to be forgiven for thinking all is well. Though broadcast this year in June instead of August, the single NNS event at Michigan drew ratings 25% than in 2010, part of a larger trend that sees the series viewer tallies up 20% over this point in the season a year ago.

If only TV ratings and the health of the series were so simple a correlation. NASCAR and its broadcast partners may want to sell that story for all its worth, but the argument that “ratings are solid, all is well” is a red herring. And now, on a week that’s seen a big-dollar team at the sport’s highest level reportedly ready to say goodbye after 2011, chances are its one that will be repeated ad nauseum as the powers that by attempt to paint a pretty picture of what can only be described a black week for the sport.


Empty grandstands have translated into more race fans tuning into Nationwide Series telecasts…but those numbers don’t tell the full story of the series.

Staying on point with NASCAR’s triple AAA division. So more people are watching Nationwide Series racing in 2011. Let’s consider what this means. It means that ESPN’s overwhelming focus on the frontrunners, on the top 10, on the big names, the series regulars and championship be damned, is working with viewers. It means that companies and teams that are opting to sacrifice driver development for a sure-fire winner have found a business model that’s going to generate TV exposure. It means that broadcasts that are on any given weekend ignoring 30-50% of the field actually in the race are working.

In short, the very things that are killing the Nationwide Series are proving to mean good things for the broadcasters of the series.

Want to get on TV? Need to run a car that’s either going to generate a ton of notice pre-race, or is a lock to run in the top 10 during the race itself. That’s the lesson that sponsors have learned, and that’s exactly why series regular teams such as those at Clements Racing and Key Motorsports have found themselves passed over for much of 2011 by the few sponsors actually entering the sport. Sure, the economy out there is tough right now as even the Roush Fenway Racing juggernaut can’t find dollars for cars winning races. But that accounts for a lack of sponsors coming in…not for a lack of exposure for the ones already here. Listening to small-time sponsors of cars running 25th and back speak of how they hope to get on TV while being lapped is more than disconcerting; how, even for a few thousand dollars to buy an extra set of tires, can the case be made to a sponsor to shell out for that?

Still, considering the increase in ratings ESPN has seen this year, even without the boom provided last season by Danica Patrick’s much-hyped debut in stock cars, it’s become much harder to make a compelling financial argument as to why they need to alter anything they’re doing. Right now, the network is able to make a Saturday show by re-visiting the connections they make on Sundays. They’re able to cover 15 cars of a 43 car field (well, more like 35 when the start-and-parks get out of the way), and still cover everything needed to illustrate how a Nationwide Series race unfolds, an indictment of the stratification between teams in the garage as much as a general lack of thoroughness in reporting and coverage. And they’re able, in doing that, to draw more viewers in even as those same race fans are staying away from the track.

Makes for an attractive business plan for the broadcast networks. Problem is, what’s good for ESPN is not good for NASCAR. There’s a conflict here between the long and short term that, for whatever reason, is seemingly going ignored by the bigwigs up top.

That is, ESPN is here to make money, just like NASCAR. Difference is, ESPN doesn’t have to be here for the long haul. They’re only here as long as they’re under contract, and given what’s been seen from the network’s behavior regarding their coverage of the series (broadcast network dates on ABC have been reduced in favor of more cable dates, while this season saw an NNS event farmed out to the Speed channel), that involvement doesn’t have long-term written all over it. The here and now is to generate ratings and make money.

It doesn’t matter to the networks that overwhelming coverage of the top 15 stifles the names and marketing partners of the middle-tier on back. It doesn’t matter to the networks if the story they tell Saturday is a knock-off version of what another network will do on Sunday. All that matters to the networks is making the contract they’re here for a profitable venture. The long-term health of the Nationwide Series, and of driver development in stock car racing, is not their concern.

Nor should it be. The responsibility to ensure the health of racing falls squarely on the sanctioning body. That the sport’s TV broadcast contracts came without any form of strings attached to ensure that the field, the series, the sport as a whole was in fact televised is a shortcoming that, much like any sense of responsibility for the longevity of stock car racing, has been completely abdicated by the sanctioning body. Lost in the decimal places of this latest billion dollar broadcast deal was any real concern for what was actually going to be televised.

Based on what’s been seen in 2011, that’s not working all that poorly for ESPN. Et tu, NASCAR?

“Contact Bryan Davis Keith”:

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