Eight weeks into the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup and amidst flip-flops in points and favorites, one thing has remained constant: TV ratings. And the numbers aren’t pretty. In seven of the last eight races, ratings have been down over 2011 by a significant margin.
To be fair, ratings fell in several races this year, but early on, the differences were by 100,000 viewers or so if they were lower. Now, the split is much wider, up to a million fewer people watching, and despite signing a fat contract with FOX, NASCAR should be worried-they haven’t re-upped with either TNT or ESPN for an extension, nor have they signed anything with a different network…and the more the numbers freefall, the more the value of a contract stagnates.
There are a couple of questions to ask here. First, why the drop now, in what should be the most exciting part of the sport’s season? And what can NASCAR do about it?
There are a few possible reasons for the plunge. The first, of course, is the Chase itself. NASCAR’s “playoff” format has never been popular among a great number of the sport’s fans. When NASCAR’s official website ran a poll asking whether fans liked the format, more than three-quarters responded in the negative. Fans never saw the need for a system that mimics stick and ball sports because NASCAR itself doesn’t resemble them. So it’s entirely possible that the system itself is to blame. But that’s not the only possibility.
Could it be, as some fans have suggested, that trying to compete with the powerhouse NFL is taking viewers away from the races? Perhaps. If people are disgruntled by the on-track product, it’s certainly possible that they would switch to the gridiron, where there is action on every play. It’s also possible that many casual fans simply prefer football and watch NASCAR as a diversion to fill the void between the Super Bowl and the season-opening kickoff. But if that were the main cause, it doesn’t explain the fall in ratings for the Saturday night race in Charlotte. While that race dropped less than some others and football could be playing a role, it’s unlikely to be the only cause.
There’s also the possibility that fans simply don’t like ESPN’s coverage of the races. What makes that alone difficult to believe is the fact that four of the five races leading up to the Chase, ratings were actually _up_ over last year for the network. It could be the Chase race broadcasts themselves. There have been complaints from fans that drivers not in the Chase don’t get any coverage during those races, even while running well, and that could certainly drive away the fans of those drivers not shown, resulting in the lower Chase numbers.
One more explanation could be that it’s not the Chase itself, but rather the principal players-a lot of fans are tired of Jimmie Johnson being the perennial winner after five straight titles. And now, after a one-year absence, Johnson is back on top of the points with two races remaining. But Johnson hasn’t had the points lead for the entire Chase nor does he have a comfortable lead now. Brad Keselowski is within striking distance, and is a very different off-track personality than Johnson, who is often considered too vanilla to be likeable. So it should stand to reason that fans would tune in in hopes that Keselowski could take Johnson down in his own game this time. Last year’s numbers, fueled by a Tony Stewart-Carl Edwards title fight, were up slightly over 2010. But 2011’s ratings were lower than 2009’s numbers during a Johnson championship.
It seems, then, that there isn’t a single cause to the problem. And if the cause should dictate the solution, it stands to reason that there should be multiple solutions. There isn’t much NASCAR can do about Johnson’s dominance except wait for it to reach its natural conclusion, which, like the dominance of Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, and Jeff Gordon before, it will. NASCAR can’t do much about the content of the television broadcasts either, but ESPN can, and it seems like with the floor dropping out, should. While the championship battle is important, it’s not the only thing to talk about for several hundred miles of racing. ESPN needs to diversify the content, covering whichever drivers and teams are having great runs both before and after the race whether they’re in the Chase or not. Otherwise, what is the incentive to watch if you aren’t a fan of Johnson or Keselowski and you aren’t going to see the drivers you are interested in?
But you would think that if the network was willing to make this type of change, it would have done so already. Why would they allow viewership—and the value of advertisers’ time—to drop if they thought this was a solution. Clearly, ESPN isn’t interested in stories that don’t involve the Chase and the drivers in it.
There’s no easy answer for the NFL problem either, except for one thing that NASCAR did in 2011 that they didn’t do before that and haven’t done consistently this year: move the start times back to shortly after 1PM Eastern. The races last year with that consistent, early time did do better with the fans. It’s also been suggested that all Chase races be run on Saturday nights at tracks with lights, but I’m against that as a solution. While it would eliminate the NFL overlap, it would also eliminate four unique tracks in the Chase: the flat mile at New Hampshire, Dover’s high-banked mile, Talladega Superspeeday, and the only short track in the Chase at Martinsville.
Making that change would mean at least one more 1.5 or 2-mile oval in the Chase. There are already five of those in the Chase and fans have been vocal about not liking that already. But to run all the races at night would necessitate it. The four tracks without lights have various reasons for not having them, like the noise ordinance in New Hampshire that precludes night racing. Martinsville and Bristol could possibly be interchangeable, at least in that both are short tracks. Richmond is unlikely to give up its status as the final race before the Chase even for a playoff date.
Even if Daytona would give up its traditional Fourth of July date for a swap with Talladega, poor attendance at Talladega on a July Sunday afternoon in sweltering summer heat is one reason that track’s race dates are in spring and fall. Darlington could possibly be swapped with Dover or New Hampshire, but if all three of those switches could happen, that still leaves one date that could only be replaced by a sixth cookie-cutter…a move that is unlikely to boost ratings in the long run.
Which brings the whole conversation back to the Chase itself. Is it the problem? It could be. Many fans have seen the format as nothing more than a cheap gimmick to make the sport more exciting than it is on its own, and worse, they feel that the champions it has produced are less worthy of that title, or would not have won, under the old format. Add to that they are seeing points races that are exciting and close in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series _without_ the Chase format, and feel that NASCAR is trying to pull the wool over their eyes.
The solution looks tantalizingly simple—remove the format and you remove the thing that is driving away the fans. But it isn’t an easy decision nor one that should be taken lightly. In order to drop the Chase format, NASCAR would have to convince title sponsor Sprint that the last nine years have been nothing but a terrible mistake. They would also have to admit that to themselves. And what if it didn’t work? What if the traditionalist fans who left the sport over it don’t come back? What if the casual fans prefer football no matter what NASCAR does now that the NASCAR fad is over? What if Jimmie Johnson wins a bunch of titles anyway? What if the ratings continue to fall? Then what? NASCAR is left with nine years of statistics that some people feel don’t count and an audience that is still not watching.
The final answer is two-fold and difficult. First, NASCAR has to find a way to give fans a compelling reason to watch every week, and that means improving the week-to-week product through changing the cars or reorganizing the schedule. It can be done, but it won’t be easy. Also, through doing the above plus celebrating the sport’s past, it needs to shift its thinking. Instead of attracting more casual fans, a market that may be tapped out, NASCAR should concentrate on making the fans who _are_ still watching transition from casual to passionate. The passionate fans are the ones who will bring their children into the sport, and attracting the next generation is critical to the sport’s long-term health.
But, in the end, that’s the long-term solution. Instead of a huge, casual fan base, NASCAR needs to concentrate on having a smaller but more passionate one. Whether that means schedule and car changes, dropping the Chase or all of that and more, it’s the key, in the end, to preserving the sport as we know it. Ratings are falling, and it’s time for more than a band-aid to stop the bleeding this time. NASCAR is in a pivotal time, one where it’s not too late to fix the problem, but where it could become terminal if not cured now. It’s no longer as simple as just cancelling the Chase or tweaking the schedule; it will take an all-out assault on identifying and changing several aspects of the sport. It can be fixed. But action must be taken soon.
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