One of the NASCAR stories that attracted a lot of attention in 2017, which seems kind of ironic, is NASCAR TV ratings and viewership numbers. In particular, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series declined sharply this season. Some races dropped by as much as 20 percent while just a handful of events posted an increase.
But those numbers don’t register with NASCAR CEO Brian France. France, at the Homestead finale offered a perspective that everything is fine with viewership. According to him, the numbers are on the rise and the sport has nothing to be concerned about.
That France tried to peddle a positive spin on TV ratings is a testament to what has become known over the past couple years as “fake news.” One might wonder where France is getting such a perspective. Just as importantly, when does everyone else get to see that report? The take he is offering is, well, suspicious if not an outright avoidance of the truth.
A writer at Bleacher Report touched upon this topic toward the end of the season by noticing the intersection between the ratings and the driver’s market.
NASCAR’s Declining Ratings and Attendance Now Affecting Drivers https://t.co/xbm38Bb86F
— JohnWallStreet (@HowieLongShort) November 22, 2017
The tweet links to an article pointing at how the 2017 numbers have again followed a downward trend. From the signing of the last major television deal, beginning in 2015 viewership has dropped 22 percent. The average actual NASCAR audience these days hovers under four million.
The championship race, won by the affable Martin Truex Jr., was the latest victim. Despite being Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s career finale, the climax to the much-hyped bracket-style playoff revamped by NASCAR hit a snag. Truex’s title win featured the lowest ratings for the finale since the Chase and then Playoffs were first implemented in 2004.
For the CEO to be spouting that everything’s fine, then is tantamount to putting a Neosporin on a broken bone: it’s not healing the divide. What the facts are, what fans perceive, and what NASCAR executives are touting all appear to be three separate pieces of the pie.
Now, this column isn’t to question what can be done to increase ratings. That is one that has been written a number of times. Ideas have come from a number of different people for years. They’re echoed by others either in comments sections, on Reddit, or any other number of forms of digital interaction. While many of the proposals that have been mentioned are similar, it doesn’t seem to matter. Those in charge in Daytona Beach aren’t listening.
But a number of questions can still be gleaned from this 2017 trend. Is there hope or reason to be optimistic? Are the numbers what they seem? Are the ratings as important as everyone wonders? Have you ever been in a Turkish prison? (Sorry, the last one is for you, Airplane fans.)
Let’s give it a closer look.
The downward spiral for NASCAR television ratings is nothing new. In fact, that’s been in place since before the new contract, in 2012. Hm, seems like there’s cause for concern there.
That returns us to the question of whether or not the numbers are completely what they seem. From an empirical sense, yes, they are, as much as the numbers can be trusted from the formula that devises them. Where the question exists regarding the numbers is whether people are catching the races via other formats, be it from the broadcast feeds on the web or through social media.
It’s clear keeping up with sports has gotten easier with the advent of technology. The once vaunted moneymaker for TV or live sports faces new challenges all the time. This columnist will neither confirm nor deny they may have seen the Floyd Mayweather – Conor McGregor fight through a link handed out on Twitter. Rest assured, someone out there did.
The same goes for NASCAR races. Also consider that MENCS events typically win their weekends when not pitted against football – and even then, they often beat out marquee college matchups. That is to argue ratings may be down but they are still good. Other sports or games would gladly take 3+ million viewers, meaning NASCAR still has value as a commodity.
Add in the social media mentions and the sport takes on a different feel. NASCAR continues to be one of the higher-trafficked social media stories, be it through Facebook or Twitter. The drivers are considered some of the most active in sports and the races themselves populate feeds with GIFs and hashtags like few sports can. These measures are still being determined as to how they can be used for capital gains but these interactions prove an interest in stock car racing.
The answer then is that, yes, there is reason to be optimistic and yes, the numbers are what they seem. That’s confusing but it’s also reality: both sides of the looking glass have an argument. Let’s also recognize that viewership for sports is down in total. While Formula 1, IndyCar, and Major League Soccer have shown modest gains over the past couple years, those numbers are petite compared to the larger number of viewers leaving sports altogether.
This trend is most likely tied to customers cutting the proverbial cord on cable. As services like YouTube TV, Sling, or other online streaming companies figure out how to sell TV, the model changes and with it the patterns of consumption. It’s no surprise then that ESPN just laid off another 150 employees this past week. (Happy Holiday timing from the Disney company!)
What ESPN and NASCAR are both facing, in their own ways, are regressions to the mean or market corrections. Both enjoyed amazing, unbridled success. But now, both are finding that perhaps they had extended themselves beyond their reach and are trying to find their place in the world. For each one, the awareness comes in the form of downsizing.
But while ESPN is a juggernaut that faces all kinds of issues, NASCAR can still look toward potential for growth. Everyone isn’t going to be switching over to watching iRacing next year, are they?
That leads us to the last question: are the numbers important? Somewhat. They’re crucial for the sponsors and perhaps the reason some older drivers are not finding the work they want. Companies may not see the same return on their investment as they once had; demographics and money may prevent them from backing a driver like Matt Kenseth. The ratings are also a main part of the way in which the television deals are brokered. Luckily, NASCAR is locked in for a few more years on its current deal; by the time 2024 expires, a transition to a different type of sports consumption may be well underway. (And a ratings uptick to go with it.)
The bigger realization is that Fox and NBC may be fine with the numbers because they continue to use NASCAR as a way to get people to pay attention to their secondary stations FOX Sports 1 and NBCSN. For those channels, NASCAR serves as a lure and a way to encourage/bully people into buying that product, so the low numbers come at a cost of developing/pushing those identities. Whether or not the executives are happy with total viewership may be one for debate down the road. But they can’t be unhappy considering these races consistently become the top 10 most watched events on their channel all-time. (NASCAR still beats Olympic Curling qualifiers on NBCSN.)
The truth is, the numbers slouch isn’t good but it’s not a sign of the apocalypse just yet. The trend may be a harbinger, like the four horsemen riding down the frontstretch at Daytona, signaling the end is nigh. But we’ve got a few more years before the hoof-falls sound off the track.